Ban punting in football? It's not as crazy an idea as it sounds
Punting would happen less if NFL coaches weren't such wimps
A lot of times, conventional wisdom in football is flat-out wrong
Let common sense rule when inside your 30; beyond that, let 'er rip
OK, maybe not ban it. A punting ban would provoke coronaries around the NFL. Coaches would be wandering zombie-like between film sessions, mumbling about "field position'' and "establishing the running game.'' They wouldn't know what to do. Conventional wisdom -- which is the only kind NFL coaches believe in -- would be history. Goodness knows what would happen next. Innovation, maybe.
So let's temper it some. Let's say no punting in the other team's territory. Let's parcel out punts: Three a game, use them wisely. Let's say if your team's record is 2-7 and it trails by two touchdowns in the 3rd quarter, it's not allowed to punt. At all. Every possession is four downs.
Is this crazy? Is it?
What is a punt? It's a give-up call, a white-flag exercise whose prime virtue is to provide an acceptable excuse for a coach looking to justify his timidity. Punting would happen less if NFL coaches weren't such wimps.
You're punting from there? Fourth-and-3, from the other guy's 37-yard line? Why don't you just put on a dress and take a knee?
"That's where teams are stupid,'' said Kerry Byrne. Don't ask me about punting. Ask Byrne, who does a weekly, stats-related column for SI.com and runs a stats-intensive website, coldhardfootballfacts.com.
"The conventional wisdom ingrained in coaches needs to be addressed,'' Byrne said. "A lot of times, conventional wisdom in football is flat-out wrong.''
There are other things the NFL could do. Radical things that, because they are radical, will never get done. (Until, of course, some college team does them and succeeds, at which point the NFL will confiscate them and claim them for its own.)
Onside kicks, for example. To defend an onside kick, a receiving team will put 10 players 10 yards from the kick, and one player at about his 20-yard line. That leaves at least 30 yards between the Front 10 and the Back 1. That's not a hole; it's a canyon. Why don't kicking teams ever pooch the kick between the wall and the loner?
You pop the ball in the air. You run like hell.
You don't have to turn around and run. You're already running forward. By the time the Front 10 figure out what's up, you're on top of them. From there, it's a sprint. The ball takes funny bounces.
The best kickers will figure a way to kick the ball high enough to get it over the Wall, but low enough to keep the Loner from calling a fair catch. The worst outcome is, the receivers get the ball at least 20 yards deeper in their end than they would have with a conventional onside kick.
Who's with me?
Do we need extra points? They're so easy (at least, when defensive tackles aren't trying them). Why not adopt a sliding scale for points-after? No kicks. If you're successful from the 2, it's worth two points. Add a point for every five yards you move away from the end zone. Failing that, can we at least move the extra-point snap back 10 yards? Fifteen?
If you are on offense, why not throw deep three plays in a row? Why not do it with six different receivers? Why not try it with what the Cincinnati Bengals used to call their "sugar'' huddle, i.e. short and sweet. It allowed the Bengals to substitute quickly, while hopefully keeping the defense from doing the same.
What happens on third down when, ideally, the defensive team's secondary is gassed? Couldn't one of the two fresh wideouts in the third wave blow past a corner whose tongue is touching his cleats? If the defense switches to a deep zone, crease it with a short throw over the middle.
Is that crazy?
Back to not punting, which is neither nuts nor implausible. I've run this theory past coaches for years. Why punt? Their reactions have ranged from patronizing -- "that's why you're not a football coach'' -- to anger. "Get the hell out of my office with that!'' a pro special teams man once said to me, after I said punting was, well, stupid. That was almost 20 years ago.
But hey, I'm just a geek with a laptop. Kerry Byrne knows what he knows. So does Brian Burke. Burke runs a website called advancednflstats.com. In an interview with the New York Times last year, Burke said this:
"There should be more aggressive play in terms of high risk/reward plays like deep passes, and in terms of 4th down strategy. Before the modern passing attack, going for it on 4th down and 5 seemed like suicide. These days it makes sense in most cases, but the conventional wisdom is very slow to catch up.''
Who goes for it now, on 4th and 5?
Burke says teams that go for it on 4th and 2 make it 60 percent of the time. His numbers show that, between 2000 and 2008, teams that went for it on 4th and 3 from the opponent's 37 were successful 56 percent of the time. A field goal from there -- 53 yards, or 54 -- was good 45 percent of the time. The average punt, Burke's numbers show, traveled 23 yards.
As for the field position argument. . .
Byrne said he studied the opponents of the 2007 New England Patriots, who went undefeated in the regular season while averaging 37 points a game. Byrne's conclusion? "If the Pats' opponents had never punted, they would have been much better off. The Pats would drive 40 yards or 80. It didn't matter.''
That's an extreme example, sure. But who hasn't seen an NFL coach whose team was down 21 in the 4th quarter punt the ball? Who hasn't witnessed a coach call for a punt on 4th and 1 from the other guy's 40-yard line?
That is crazy.
Do you want to blow a defensive coordinator's mind? This is a guy who lives on tendencies, who watches video until his corneas ask his retinas for mercy. He does this to spot tendencies: What do these guys run on 3rd-and-5?
What if 3rd-and-5 suddenly became the new 2nd-and-5?
If you see every possession as a four-down matter, you have no tendencies. At least none that would be recognizable for weeks. Ponder the possibilities for an offensive coordinator who knows he has four plays to work with. Ponder the cluster migraines those options would cause a defense.
"(Defenses) want you to punt on 4th and 1, 4th and 2,'' Byrne says. "So basically, you're just doing what the other team hopes you'll do.''
If you have four plays, you need to average only 2.5 yards a play. Chris Johnson does that falling forward. Can you see Peyton Manning, with four plays? Practically illegal. As Byrne said, "You have an extra down. Why give it up?''
As with all great inventions, the no-punt option should be handled with care. We don't perform a quadruple bypass on a guy with a hernia. If your team is way ahead, punt. If you're stuck inside your 30, punt. If your punter's name is Ray Guy, punt. Common sense is common sense.
Beyond that, let 'er rip.
It'll never happen, of course. As Byrne said, "Football is a sport dominated by conventional wisdom, even if a lot of conventional wisdom isn't supported by the stats. Football is conservative and old school. It's been ingrained in these (coaches) since they were kids. You punt on fourth down.''
Coaches coach to keep their jobs, even at the expense of trying to win more games. If they follow convention and lose, it's the players' fault. If they don't follow convention and lose, it's their fault. To quote a line from an old Eagles' tune, After The Thrill Is Gone: "You don't care about winning, but you don't want to lose.''
And so, they will punt. Coaches can't be helped. Too bad.
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