Readers who have patiently stayed with this forum through the years know that MoneyLaw loves sports metaphors. And why ever not? How many people do you know who not only can decipher the market participant exception to the dormant commerce clause but also can explain why the play action pass is the mirror image of the draw play?
In law as in football, punting is the most cowardly play. Gregg Easterbrook, who numbers among those colossal figures who stride both law and football (albeit by proxy through his judicially renowned brother), has long derided preposterous punts. Yet coaches call punts all the time. Unless the ball is inside the opponents' 30 or the game situation absolutely compels a different play, punting is football's default fourth down option.
We know why. Punting happens precisely because leaders coaches are cowards. They would rather lose meekly than boldly give their teams a chance to win. It's an obvious manifestation of prospect theory. Losing hurts worse than winning feels good. This is especially true when everyone blames the coach for a botched quick-out on fourth-and-6, but no one credits the coach if the play opens the door to an epic comeback. But they should. It takes real guts to call a hook-and-ladder, a halfback pass, and a Statute of Liberty on consecutive fail-and-lose plays.
To the rescue comes this item in America's newspaper of record. As a season of new academic beginnings and renewed gridiron combat looms before us, I commend it to MoneyLaw's readership. Enjoy.
From Adam Himmelsbach, Punting Less Can Be Rewarding, but Coaches Aren’t Risking Jobs on It, New York Times, August 19, 2012:
Although some statistics show there are often better options on fourth down, teams continue to punt, punt and then punt some more. But what if they did not? What if the punt was punted?
Last week, San Diego State Coach Rocky Long said he might consider going for first downs when his team faced fourth downs past midfield this year. His intentions rekindled a debate about the value of the punt, a play some think is a product of coaches’ conservatism and resistance to change.
“Coaches tend to be risk averse,” said Dr. Ben Alamar, a professor of sports management at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., who has studied N.F.L. statistics. “People are typically uncomfortable moving away from the norms.”
David Romer, a professor of political economy at the University of California, Berkeley, published a paper in 2005 on the statistics of punting that has become the gospel for the antipunting faction. Romer, who analyzed data from N.F.L. games from 1998 to 2004, determined, among other things, that teams should not punt when facing fourth-and-4 yards or less, regardless of field position.
“Of course, there are times when punting is a good idea, . . . just not nearly as many as football coaches seem to think.”
Brian Burke, the publisher of advancednflstats.com, said teams should go for a first down when they faced fourth-and-1, or when it was fourth down from the opponent’s 35 to 40. Burke also said that he believed that teams should try to score a touchdown when facing fourth-and-goal from the 6 or closer, assuming a last-second field goal is not called for.
“If everyone agrees out of fear or ignorance to sort of play ultraconservative, nobody really has an advantage,” Burke said. “There’s no development, no evolution. Coaches have strategies that are generations behind where the sport really is. It’s going to take someone to stick their neck out.”
Coaches are hesitant to take the plunge because a string of failed fourth-down attempts could leave them vulnerable to criticism and affect their job security more than a conservative menu of punts ever could.
“From different eras, there was a mind-set that playing the field-possession game is a good thing, because it turned the ball to the other team 40 yards away and allows them to make a mistake,” the former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. “Coaches, by nature, are a little bit defensive in their thinking.”
According to Dr. Curt Lox, a professor of kinesiology and sports psychology at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, the candidates best in position to experiment with a punt-free strategy are those who are so established and successful that they are almost immune to criticism of their strategy, or those who are unknown underdogs with nothing to lose.
Kevin Kelley, the head coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark., fit the second description when he was hired in 2003. That year, he came across a grainy VHS tape of a professor espousing the potential virtues of a punt-free lifestyle. Kelley was intrigued and has since become perhaps the most unorthodox coach in the nation.
His high school team does onside kicks after almost every score. It does not use a punt returner, because Kelley believes fumbles and penalties occur more often than strong returns. And it does not punt. Last season, the Bruins went 14-0 and won the Class 4A state title.
“It was easy to convince the players, because they grow up playing PlayStation and Madden and they don’t punt in those games, so they don’t want to punt in real games,” Kelley said. “The fans were a different story.”
When Kelley unveiled his aggressive offense, his tactics were questioned by Pulaski administrators and school board members. Once, when Pulaski defied its own logic and punted, it received a standing ovation from the home crowd.
“I remember turning around and saying, ‘You’re the only people in the history of football that stand and cheer for a punt,’ ” Kelley said. . . .
Kelley’s offense thrives because the possibilities are endless. Third-and-7 is not necessarily a passing down, and third-and-inches is not necessarily a running down.
“And God help the defense on first-and-10,” Kelley said, “because we can literally do anything.”
In recent years, Kelley has consulted with college and N.F.L. teams. He said one offensive coordinator for a team in the Big 12 Conference was enthralled by the idea of never punting, but the head coach was spooked by the risks. Then the offensive coordinator became a head coach, and he got cold feet, too.
Kelley has shared his philosophy with two A.F.C. coaches whose hesitancy outweighed their curiosity.
“These coaches are making millions of dollars, and if they lose close games doing it the traditional way, they’ll probably keep their jobs,” Kelley said.