The End of the Punt?
You'd have to be living under a rock to have not heard at least a little bit about "Moneyball". While it became famous for how it's been applied in professional baseball, it's often highlighted in other arenas as a willingness to embrace the unconventional. The seemingly tried and true practices of a sport may not stand up to scrutiny. In particular, punting in football has been shown empirically to actually be less likely to produce a victory than going for it on fourth down. Nevertheless, teams will punt almost automatically on their own side of the field and even most of the time outside their opponent's forty yard-line. But that may be about to change.
As many great innovations in football have come about, this one starts at the high school level. A high school coach in Arkansas has stopped punting (just three times in the past five seasons) and also onsides kicks after every score. The result? His teams have gone 104-19 in the past nine years with three state championships. That hasn't gone unnoticed. San Diego State head coach Rocky Long is now toying with the same idea, at least when it comes to punting. No, he hasn't sworn to go for it every time, but it seems unlikely that you'll see his team punt on 4th and 1 at the 50-yard line.
If it seems less than obvious why coaches haven't embraced this strategy before now, there are a couple of reasons. First, the payoff isn't that big. Statistically, it's been said that it only improves your winning percentage by two percent. That means it might be worth one game every four years at the college level. The downside is that you'll be made to answer for every failed fourth down conversion, particular those that come in losses. There have certainly been some memorable failures, like a failed attempt by USC that would've iced the game against Texas in their epic national championship game. At the pro level, Patriots head coach Bill Belichek took a lot of grief when going for it on his end of the field when clinging to a lead against the Colts.
But you can come up with counterexamples. In Nebraska's 1994 national championship season they were in a surprisingly close game with unranked Wyoming in Memorial stadium. The Huskers scored a touchdown to take a 42-32 lead in the fourth quarter, but enough time remained that things weren't exactly comfortable for the fans in Memorial stadium. NU's defense stiffened enough to make the Cowboys face a fourth-down. Wyoming punted the ball, but I remember being shocked that they would. Yes, Wyoming was on their end of the field but they weren't inside their own ten and it wasn't like they were facing fourth and 26. Time didn't remain to get the ball back two more times. They needed points. A huge sense of relief came when they actually punted (versus faking), because it was like the Cowboys were conceding the game. No, they didn't have a great chance to win, but it seemed like their only chance. Of course, if they failed to score in that circumstance, Nebraska probably would have scored again and the moral victory of playing the Huskers close would be lost.
In 2008, the Huskers were playing surprisingly well against seventh-ranked Texas Tech in Lubbock. After falling behind 24-10, the Huskers had tied the score at 24-24 in the fourth quarter. The Blackshirts managed to put the Red Raiders in a fourth and five situation at their own 36. Enough time remained that the Red Raiders could get the ball back with enough time to score if they could just keep NU from moving the ball and eating too much clock. Ninety-nine percent of coaches would probably punt in that situation. Not Mike Leach. Texas Tech converted on a big play to Michael Crabtree and the Red Raiders finished the drive to take a touchdown lead. The Huskers would tie the game to send things to overtime, but would ultimately lose after a Joe Ganz interception. It seems entirely likely that the Huskers would have won that game if Leach had elected to punt. His unconventional approach was the difference that day.
Chances are we won't see anyone at the college or pro level give up the punt entirely any time soon. But if we see a good number of wins at San Diego State, especially with some pretty clear examples of where not punting paid off, we may see it catch on. Fourth and five at your own 36 might become a passing down for more than just Mike Leach. And the game might just get that much more exciting to watch.