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The football coach who never punts (not Bill Belichick)

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New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is being roundly roasted for going for it (unsuccessfully) on fourth-down-and-two from his own 28-yard-line, allowing the Indianapolis Colts a short touchdown drive to come back for a 35-34 win Nov. 15. (CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco called the decision “fourth and jackass.”)

One high school coach might understand Belichick’s decision not to punt: Kevin Kelley, head coach of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark.

In September, Kelley was profiled in Sports Illustrated for his unorthodox decision never to punt, nor kick a field goal or extra point. About 75 percent of his team’s kickoffs are onside kicks. Why does he do this?

Pulaski hasn’t punted since 2007 (when it did so as a gesture of sportsmanship in a lopsided game), and here’s why: “The average punt in high school nets you 30 yards, but we convert around half our fourth downs, so it doesn’t make sense to give up the ball,” Kelley says. “Besides, if your offense knows it has four downs instead of three, it totally changes the game. I don’t believe in punting and really can’t ever see doing it again.”

He means ever. Consider the most extreme scenario, say, fourth-and-long near your own end zone. According to Kelley’s data (much of which came from a documentary he saw), when a team punts from that deep, the opponents will take possession inside the 40-yard line and will then score a touchdown 77% of the time. If they recover on downs inside the 10, they’ll score a touchdown 92% of the time. “So [forsaking] a punt, you give your offense a chance to stay on the field. And if you miss, the odds of the other team scoring only increase 15 percent. It’s like someone said, ‘[Punting] is what you do on fourth down,’ and everyone did it without asking why.”

The onside kicks? According to Kelley’s figures, after a kickoff the receiving team, on average, takes over at its own 33-yard line. After a failed onside kick the team assumes possession at its 48. Through the years Pulaski has recovered about a quarter of its onside kicks. “So you’re giving up 15 yards for a one-in-four chance to get the ball back,” says Kelley. “I’ll take that every time!” Why not attempt to return punts? “Especially in high school, where the punts don’t go so far,” he says, “it’s not worth the risk of fumbling or a penalty.”

Much of Kelley’s analysis has support among number crunchers. In 2005 David Romer, a prominent Cal economist, published a study that argued that over the course of the three NFL seasons he studied there had been 1,068 fourth-down situations in which teams, mathematically, would have been better off going for it. In all but 109 cases the teams either kicked or punted.

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Kevin Kelley, not talking about punting.

It’s hard to argue with Kelley’s success. Since he took over Pulaski’s program in 1997, he’s 76-26-1, with Class 5A (largest school) championships in 2003 and 2008. His team, 8-3 this season, plays Greenwood Nov. 20 in the Arkansas state playoff quarterfinals.

And David Romer isn’t the only one making the case that pro teams should go for it more often. In the New York Times’ Fifth Down blog, statistical analysis hobbyist Brian Burke outlined why Belichick’s decision, though it didn’t work, was best:

With 2:08 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful 4th-and-2 conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A conversion on 4th-and-2 would be successful 60 percent of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53 percent of the time from that field position. The total win probability for the 4th-down conversion attempt would therefore be:

(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP (WP stands for win probability)

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their 34. Teams historically get the TD 30 percent of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You’d have to expect the Colts had a better than 30 percent chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats’ 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it’s pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that makes punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash.

So what’s the controversy about Belichick’s decision then, other than stick-in-the-mud, stat-nerd-hating types who are better at second-guessing than coaching? It has a lot to do with how you would adjust that statistics in a specific situation.

First, let’s look at Kelley. One of the most obvious reasons to go with no-punting-and-kicking in high school is because kickers in that age group are for the most part, shall we say, unreliable, as Kelley points out. The chances of a shanked punt, dropped ball, bad snap or block are much higher because the skill level isn’t so great. That’s the reason why you see most youth football games without punts and kicks, except kickoffs. (Also, a lot of youth leagues march the ball off, say, 30 yards for a “punt” rather than have teams kick.)

Also, Kelley coaches at a private school, meaning he’s not beholden to whatever the local parents breed. I’m not intimating he recruits illegally. But Pulaski has the opportunity to attract kids from all over the Little Rock area. The school has a long tradition of football excellence, so certainly there are top players who do what they can to get in. No disrespect to Kelley’s coaching ability, but he has a steadily high level of talent compared with most of his competition. If you’re a small school with undersized players that regularly get stomped on, eschewing punting and kicking is probably not going to make much of a difference. For Kelley, going for it, by his reckoning, means his team scores 84 percent of the time it has to convert a fourth down, according to a Nov. 4 profile by The Associated Press.

If Kelley were to criticize Belichick, it would be for punting too much. When Belichick decided to go for it late against Indianapolis, he had to burn his team’s final timeout to figure out a play with quarterback Tom Brady, as well as stop the confusion that saw his punt team heading onto the field while his offense was not leaving it. That last timeout became crucial because without it, Belichick couldn’t challenge the spot of the ball on the fourth-down pass to Kevin Faulk, the one marked (correctly) for a one-yard gain when he needed two.

Of course, there’s a reason NFL coaches punt and kick. Unlike in high school, punters and kickers tend to be consistently reliable. Also, you have to weigh not only where you are on the field, but who is going to get the ball if you fail. Perhaps Belichick’s call, going for it on fourth-and-short with his team up six points, is more defensible if he’s in Indianapolis territory. But it’s also a lot more defensible if the quarterback is, say, Cleveland’s Derek Anderson, the worst-rated in the NFL, rather than Peyton Manning, a contender for best quarterback of all-time.

The heat that Belichick is getting for not punting will guarantee that coaches at all levels not go in the same direction as Kelley did. I’m having a hard time finding coaches, at any level, who are as anti-punt as Kelley. Then again, Belichick has the job security, thanks to three Super Bowl rings, to get away with making that call. Kelley, thanks his success as his inability to get fired by his boss (Kelley is also athletic director) also has the security of trying whatever wild-ass thing comes into his head without the world coming down on him.

Whatever you think of Belichick’s call — and as a Colts fan, I whole-heartedly supported it — and Kelley’s stance, you might agree that it’s unfortunate that too many coaches don’t have the leeway to try something different once in a while, just to see if the conventional wisdom isn’t so wise after all.

ADDENDUM: I saw over at Sportsjournalists.com that Belichick wasn’t the only coach to make this gamble over the weekend. From the Detroit Free Press:

Holt’s 20-3 lead over defending Division 1 champ Rockford was down to 20-13, and Holt had the ball on its 29 in a fourth-and-less-than-1 situation with less than 2 minutes left, and the scenario was playing out in Holt coach Al Slamer’s head.

“You know how you sense the momentum has changed?” Slamer asked. “If we punt, we give them the ball on the 30- or 40-yard line, they go down and score and win the game.”

Instead, Slamer decides to go for it — ON HIS OWN 29! Did his assistant coaches try to call for a competency hearing?

“Absolutely,” Slamer said. “The testosterone was making the decision. Doggone it, it was just time to get half a yard.”

But what if Holt didn’t make the first down and hands Rockford the ball on the 29? “It’s one of those that if it works out, it’s great,” Slamer said. “If it doesn’t work out, you commit hari-kari at the 50-yard line.”

Put away the knife, Coach.

Holt made the first down, and on the next play, Jake Gallimore rumbled 70 yards for the clinching touchdown in Holt’s 27-13 victory.

And it all boiled down to Slamer’s gutsy/suicidal call. “What the heck. If you can’t get half a yard, you don’t deserve to be in the semis,” he said.

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