The no punt offense

This isn't a new topic, but I've been catching up on old old reading over the first day of my holiday break, and the Kevin Kelley's no-punt offense is a football strategy that rhymes with David Arseneault's basketball strategy The System which I wrote about recently.

Ask any stats geek about any sport and they'll tell you no team plays the optimal strategy as dictated by the numbers. In the NBA, teams don't take enough three pointers (though they are coming around on that one). In MLB, teams call for too many sacrifice bunts and often save their best relief pitcher, their closer, for the 9th inning when they could be used to greater leverage earlier in the game. In the NFL, teams don't go for it on 4th down often enough. Even the most innovative or bold of NFL teams, the Patriots, usually punt on 4th down.

But one football team, albeit a high school one, takes the numbers to heart. The Pulaski Academy Bruins, coached by Kevin Kelley, not only never punt on 4th down but also try for an onside kick on every kickoff (okay, they have punted four times in the past three seasons, I'm not sure what overcame him those four times).

Pulaski fans are accustomed to such play. Most enjoy the show, shake their heads and refer to the coach, Kevin Kelley, as a "mad scientist." But really, the coach isn't mad at all; his decisions are rooted not in whimsy or eccentricity but in cold, rational numbers. Ask him to defend his methods, and he revs up his Dell laptop and refers to his statistics.

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."

Here's a video of Kelley talking about his no punt philosophy, and here's another over at Grantland with some video of their crazy onside kick formations. The results bear out the math. This season the Bruins won their conference again, outscoring the next highest scoring team in their conference by over 15 points per game.

As of yet, no college or NFL team has had the guts to try a similar strategy, though San Diego State made some noise about possibly going in this direction last season. The statistics for the NFL, while they might not support the exact same strategy as in high school or college football, still suggest more teams should go for it on 4th down and that more teams should try surprise onside kicks (the success rate of onside kicks in the NFL is 60% when the other team isn't expecting one). In so many situations in the NFL, the average punt only nets you 10 to 20 yards of field position, I would love to see some of the NFL's truly bad teams who are going to be underdogs in most games try a bolder strategy to increase the variance of their outcomes, just as any good underdog should.

NFL teams have dabbled with some of Kevin Kelley's tactics, but as with whether to hit on a 12 vs a 13 in blackjack, one should really just pick a strategy and commit to it. If your team knows it's going to go for it on 4th down, it can alter its play calls on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down to ensure if it ends up in a short yardage situation when it does end up in 4th down. It also won't feel like such a tense situation when it does occur because it will be part of the team's regular strategy.