Anyone watch HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel? I'm a big fan myself and thanks to TiVo, I never miss an episode. One of the four stories from the most recent installment, which first aired about a couple of weeks ago, I found particularly interesting.
It was a profile of high school football coach Kevin Kelley and his Pulaski Academy football team from Little Rock, Arkansas. If you didn't see the episode, perhaps you've heard of them anyway. Sports Illustrated wrote an article about them a little over two years ago. So what's so special about them?
They never punt.
That's right. Every single time their offense faces fourth down, the Bruins go for it, even in fourth and long situations. This probably sounds completely insane to a lot of football fans but to Kelley, it would be insane not to go for it.
I don't believe in punting and really can't ever see doing it again...
...It's like someone said, '[Punting] is what you do on fourth down,' and everyone did it without asking why.
Not only do they never punt, but each time they kick off it's almost always an onside kick. The team has an entire package of onside kick types and specific kickers to execute each one.
It's simple math really. Statistically, it makes more sense and is more valuable to hold onto the ball and go for that first down, which the Bruins pick up about half the time, than give their opponent back the ball. Here's a slightly more detailed example:
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.
And that's just the extreme scenario. The statistical advantage of going for it is even greater when a team is between the 40-yard lines. Similar statistics support the decision to always onside kick as well.
But these are just numbers. The real question is whether or not this theory actually works on the field in real life football situations. Unfortunately, Pulaski Academy is the only barometer we have to measure because they're the only team bold enough to actually execute it. Since Kelley took over in 2003, though, he's led his team to a record of 104-19 and won three state championships. I'd say that's a ringing endorsement.
So why hasn't this caught on and why does every other coach, particularly those in the NFL, choose to spit in the face of probability, regularly defying the odds? In short: they're yellow-bellied cowards.
Despite cold hard facts that prove otherwise, NFL coaches allow their emotions to get in the way and cloud their on-field football decisions.
Subject as they are to scrutiny, coaches have incentive to err on the side of conservatism. No coach gets fired or ripped on talk radio for punting on fourth-and-four. Most do when they go for it and fail.
That's where Real Sports and Sports Illustrated leave the story, however, and where I pick it up. Because I think it's about damn time at least one NFL coach stop using his heart and start using his head. While I absolutely understand how tough it is to buck the trend with a career and a family to think about, the numbers just don't lie. So who is going to be the pioneer?
The truth is, it's going to take a coach with huge cojones to eventually attempt this unthinkable strategy at the sport's highest level and make my dreams come true. A coach who already has enough moxie to try something like, say, an onside kick to start the second half of his life's biggest game. You guessed it, I'm talking about Sean Payton.
Which is why I don't think it's a coincidence that the one NFL coach featured in Real Sports' piece about Pulaski Academy was none other than our very own Saints coach. Because let's face it, if there is a current coach in the NFL right now who might actually try something like this, it's our Payton. Reporter Jon Frankel with Real Sports must have been thinking along the same lines...
Jon Frankel: How tempting is it go for it on fourth down?
Payton: Well, I think it's extremely tempting.
So let's see it, coach! We know you've looked at the numbers and you want to. If there's any team well built to execute this no-punting philosophy at the NFL level it's most likely the Saints, with their dynamic and powerful offense that would assuredly benefit from the extra down. Otherwise, somebody, somewhere will eventually take the risk and become the NFL's guinea pig, most likely with great success. It might as well be the Saints.
What do you guys think? You scared, too? Or are you ready to see the Saints completely change the way everyone looks at football?