The Cost to Punting

Brian Burke (admin  of Advanced NFL Stats) posted a very insightful piece on Deadspin (and also Slate) regarding the slow evolution in the punt/go-for-it decision on 4th down.  Readers might recall the outcry two season back across media-dom from Bill Simmons, Teddy Bruschi and others when the Patriots shunned punting from their own 30 late in a game against the Colts. (Belichick Understands Probability).  Sacrilege.  Insulting to the defense, *&%^& statheads, yada, yada, yada.  Burke offers a very persuasive thought experiment:

There are many doubters when it comes to four-down football. If you’re in that camp, indulge me in a quick thought experiment. Let’s imagine a football world where the punt and field goal had never been invented. (Sorry, Ray Guy and Jan Stenerud.) In this universe, there would be no second-guessing: Teams would go for it on every fourth down. Then one day, some smart guy invents the punt and approaches a head coach with his new idea. “Hey coach,” he’d say, “instead of trying for a first down every time, let’s voluntarily give the ball to the other team.” Our coach would be incredulous at this suggestion. “You want me to give up 25 percent of our precious downs for just 35 yards of field position? Do you have any idea how difficult it would be for us to score?” And the coach would be right.

His experiment amplifies the critical cost of punting — voluntarily giving up valuable possession of the ball.   Yes, going-for-it on 4th down and failing hurts, but so does handing over the football to a high-powered offense.  The story is couched so that the typically explicit and implicit costs switch places, thereby highlighting the silliness of coaches who treat the 35 yard change of in expected field position as the only real cost while discounting the implicit cost of the lost possession.  Moreover, this discounting of the implicit cost of possession seems closely tied to what is generally accepted practice that made more sense in an era of defensive dominance and low scoring.  The 1974 Steelers gaining 35 yards in field position for their defense against almost anybody is much different than a than handing over possession to Brady, Manning, Brees, or Rodgers with time on the clock where they have already racked up 400 yards of offense or more.

5 thoughts on “The Cost to Punting”

  1. Punting the ball is similar to putting on a sacrifice bunt in baseball. There are a few situations it makes sense but mostly it is giving up one of your precious three outs in a inning. Punting is giving up all of your outs in an inning and putting your hopes on your pitcher.

    Gregg Easterbrook has mentioned Pulaski Academy in Arkansas that never punts. And on kickoffs they attempt an on-side kick or deliberately kicks the ball out of bounds to prevent a return. Jon Wertheim wrote about them a couple years ago in SI.

    I remember when Texas Tech with Mike Leach coaching came to Mizzou in 2007 with Crabtree and Amendola. Mizzou won easily but it was nerve racking when Leach would go for it on 4th down with that offense. NFL coaches are getting better at deciding when to go for it but a lot of them have a long way to go.

  2. While I agree that blindly punting is often wrong, Burke’s methodology is also suspect. His use of league averages completely fails to recognize that there are vast differences in probabilities of success depending on the relative ability of the respective defenses and offenses.

  3. If you want to get a headache read about Pulaski Academy football. They are a high school team in Arkansas that never punts. The coach believes the probability of failure to convert doesn’t support punting it on 4th down, from anywhere on the field. Somehow they keep winning state titles.

  4. Stan:

    Easterbrook also makes the same mistake when he talks about a team’s play call on a particular down. He will argue that since a team is averaging 4 yards a run during the game they should have rushed it on 3rd and 2 instead of attempting a pass which fell incomplete. Or he will argue that a team should not blitz on 3rd and 6 since the average play in the NFL only goes for 5 yards.

    But no play is average and to base a decision on what the previous plays have averaged is insane. Prior success or failure may have been the result of things that were different earlier in the game such as injuries.

  5. While I do agree that all football head coaches punt too much, we must look at a key ingredient in the success of teams…momentum. When you punt, its like your accepting a happy medium in momentum. The upside of momentum would be going for it on fourth down and converting, the downside, obviously failing on fourth down.
    Momentum is too big of a factor in NFL games to toss it to the wind. When you punt, yes, you’re giving up possession, but that happens several times in a game regardless. However, when you fail on a fourth down, that is a crushing blow to your team. Not only does your defense have to rush back onto the field, but they are deflated by awful field position.

    If I was an NFL coach, these would be my two punting rules
    I would NEVER go for it on fourth down inside my own 40 regardless of distance
    I would ALWAYS go for it on fourth down outside of FG range past my own 40

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