As the sun fell behind the hills on the west side of Little Rock last Thursday evening, the Pulaski Academy Bruins and the visiting Central Arkansas Christian Mustangs scattered around the field and stretched before their high school football game. Apple-cheeked cheerleaders alternated between practicing their routines and checking their backlog of texts as the P.A. blasted the predictable medley of psych-up songs. Conventional stuff, in other words.
Then the game started.
On the first possession Pulaski marched steadily downfield until it faced fourth-and-four at the Mustangs' 14-yard line. The Bruins went for it and converted. A few plays later, thanks to a penalty, they faced fourth-and-goal from the 23. Again they went for it, this time unsuccessfully. By the end of the first quarter, Pulaski hadn't punted or attempted a field goal on any of its four fourth downs—unsurprising when you consider that its roster lists neither a punter nor a kicker.
After all but one of their five touchdowns, the Bruins either attempted a fluttering onside kick or purposely booted the ball out-of-bounds. When the Mustangs punted, Pulaski didn't even attempt a return. Instead, they let the kick simply die on the turf. The Bruins threw on the majority of downs, and effectively deployed shuffle passes, end arounds, reverses and a double pass, often showing greater resemblance to a rugby team than to a football team.
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."
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.
Which is to say that most football coaches aren't simply averse to risk—no shock, there—but that they make choices at odds with statistical probability, akin to blackjack players standing on 11. The explanation: 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.