Just go for it! A case against punting
Virtually every time the Pulaski Academy Bruins face fourth down, the prep school team from Little Rock, Ark., goes for it. No matter the distance.
And here’s the thing – the strategy works.
Coach Kevin Kelley and his Bruins won the state championship in Arkansas’ third-largest classification last season and did not punt. This year, they are 7-2 with one punt – the other team was so surprised the ball went 51 yards with no return.
“I’m really a contrarian thinker. When everybody thinks something is going to happen it often times doesn’t,” Kelley said in a recent phone interview with the AP. “It’s the same in football. When everybody thinks you should do something, maybe there’s a better way.”
The vast majority of college coaches wouldn’t think for a second about bagging the kicking game (Pulaski has pretty much stopped trying field goals, too) and playing offense with all four downs, all the time.
“I’d get run out of Dodge,” said Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who has been second-guessed for more than one fourth-down call.
Yet at least a couple of coaches were intrigued by the idea when they were told about the way Kelley coaches and the data behind his decision.
Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who pretty much lives his life outside the box, said Kelley might be on to something.
“It’s an interesting idea,” Leach said. “Statistically, there’s definitely some validity to it.”
The NCAA has only been keeping statistics for fourth-down conversions since 2005 and the numbers don’t reflect a significant change of philosophy by coaches on fourth-down during those seasons. Fourth down generally means kick, whether that’s a field goal or punt.
But in this decade when offenses are better than ever – with yards and points piling up at record-breaking levels – coaches might want to rethink the same ol’ way of playing.
Kelley said the inspiration for his unorthodox, though he will tell you totally sound, strategy was from a documentary he stumbled across on television a few years back.
Between the data he jotted down from the show and what he has collected from his own team’s games over the years, he determined going for it on fourth down every time isn’t risky at all. In fact, according to his numbers, he is playing the percentages – even in the most extreme circumstances.
Let’s take an example.
According to his data, a team that takes over the ball at its opponent’s 10 or closer has a 92 percent chance of scoring a touchdown. A team that gains possession between its opponent’s 40-yard line and its 31 has a 77 percent chance of scoring a touchdown.
So, Kelley figures, even if the Bruins fail to convert, he is only increasing his opponents’ chances of scoring a TD by 15 percentage points more than if his team got off a decent punt. So why not go for it on fourth-and-8 from your own 6?
And, it should be noted, the Bruins convert about 50 percent of the time.
While Kelley’s approach is extreme, he is not the only one with statistics that suggest there’s too much kicking going on in football.
A study by University of California-Berkeley economist David Romer that came out in 2005 determined NFL coaches should go for it on fourth down far more often than they do.
For most coaches, the decision on whether to go for it on fourth down has more to do with feel for the game – and job security – than stats.
“Often, it’s simply a gut decision,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Is the timing right and do you have the confidence in your offense to execute the play against the defense that’s called?”
Score. Field position. Time on the clock. How well the defense is playing. How well the offense is playing. The weather. All of these get factored in when coaches decide whether to go or kick.
“To me, it’s a statistic, a position, a feel that gives a coach the, ‘This is the right time to do this,”‘ LSU coach Les Miles said.
Miles earned a reputation as a swashbuckling gambler after his Tigers converted five fourth downs in a come-from-behind victory against Florida during their national championship season of 2007.
The perception was not backed by stats. While LSU led the nation in fourth-down conversion rate in ’07 (81.3 percent), the Tigers’ went on fourth down 16 times – which ranked in the lower third among 119 major college teams.
Miles also said he’d be interested in learning more about Kelley’s research.
He also might be interested to find out that Kelley believes abandoning the kicking game has given his team a strategic and psychological advantage.
Because Pulaski Academy’s offense is always playing with four downs, it drastically alters play calling for him – third-and-9 is not automatically a passing down – and his opponent – third-and-9 does not automatically mean sending in an extra defensive back.
And while a crucial fourth-down play can raise the heart rates of most players, for Kelley’s guys it’s just another play.
“There’s no difference to them because they are used to it,” he said. “The other team does get more excited.”
And more deflated when the Bruins, whose game Friday night against Little Rock Christian will be televised by ESPNU, do convert.
Kelley said that on drives during which his team converts a fourth down, the Bruins score 84 percent of the time.
“I need to go talk to that guy because he’s definitely on to something,” Leach said. “There are plenty of statistical things whereas coaches, myself included, we’re caught up in the good ol’ days to the point that there’s some changes and things that can be made to just be better and improve. Even if you don’t go for what he’s doing 100 percent, there’s definitely something I’m sure that I can learn from him.”
Associated Press writers Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas, Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind., Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La., and Tim Martin in East Lansing, Mich., Eric Olson in Lincoln, Neb., contributed to this report.