Block That Punt

Drop back 15 and boot it away on fourth down? It's not automatic anymore
December 21, 2009

With their long, artful kicks, punters can pin their foes more effectively than ever. Which makes the recent minitrend away from safe practices—say, punting on fourth-and-two from one's own 28 while up six points with 2:08 left, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick did not do on Nov. 15 against the Colts—all the more perplexing. This season NFL coaches have attempted 2.11 fourth-down conversions per game, the most since the league began tracking the figure in 1991. They are going for the first down even outside of scoring range. Conventional wisdom, it seems, isn't so conventional anymore.

The punt is being eschewed in all age groups. On Nov. 21 Yale coach Tom Williams faced fourth-and-22 from his own 26 with a 10--7 lead over Harvard. Only 2:25 remained, so a first down would all but salt the game away. Accordingly Williams opted for a trick run—and came up eight yards short. On the ensuing possession, the Crimson scored the winning touchdown. Coincidentally, on that same afternoon, coach Kevin Kelley of Little Rock's Pulaski Academy (SCORECARD, Sept. 21) had his team punt for just the second time all season. Kelley's never-say-boot attack eventually carried the Bruins to the Arkansas Class 5A semifinals, where they lost. A year earlier they'd won it all with the same approach.

"Sometimes you look like a bum; sometimes you look like a genius," NBC broadcaster Al Michaels observed a week later, after Ravens coach John Harbaugh disdained a late-game punt on fourth-and-five from his own 42 and called a short pass over the middle to running back Ray Rice, who scampered down to the Steelers' 10-yard line (a key play in Baltimore's 20--17 overtime win). Of course, it's much more fun talking about the bums. A recent Google search for "belichick + punt + stupid" yielded 994,000 hits.

Belichick defenders point out that when he chose not to use punter Chris Hanson he needed only short yardage and that his aim was to keep the ball out of the hands of Peyton Manning, who then drove the Colts to the winning score. And it's hard to ignore stats wizards who crank out risk-reward analyses prescribing fewer punts. To oversimplify, more downs equal more chances to move the chains. One study cited by Steven D. Levitt, coauthor of the best seller Freakonomics, noted 1,068 instances between 1998 and 2000 in which NFL teams facing fourth down had a better chance of making a first down than they did of turning the ball over; still, 959 times the team punted.

Michaels suggests that coaches are finally paying attention to those favorable odds. "They may not do exactly what the numbers say," he reports, "but those numbers account for small changes in tendency."

Andrew Siciliano has felt the winds shift on Sundays while narrating a mix of as many as 10 games on DirecTV's NFL RedZone channel. "We always used to cut to fourth-down attempts," he says, "but there isn't the urgency anymore. It's become a standard play in the fans' eyes. My heart used to skip a beat. Now it's almost like, Who cares?" Well, the punter, for one.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERGAMBLER Belichick (with Hanson on Dec. 6) played the odds by going for it on fourth down at Indy.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)