One small step for a coach, one giant leap for football?

With my background in evolutionary biology and genetics, it should be no surprise that I’m an advocate of variation. As an athlete, I really love seeing unconventional approaches to sports, especially because most sports involve so many variable that “solving” an truly optimal way to play is unlikely.

Convention and tradition are often held up by commentators as “the best” way to play because they appear to have survived the test of time. This is very true in football.

The conventions of football have almost never been put to the test. They do not reflect proven strategies for victory. They reflect strategies that are least likely to get the coach fired by the team owner or athletic director. Thus, almost every team in the United States punts on fourth down. A notable exception is Kevin Kelley at Pulaski Academy in Arkansas (notably, he is his own athletic director), who has been successful while refusing to punt or kick (104-19 with 3 state championships).

There may be a new, if limited, addition to this counter-culture. According to reports, San Diego State’s coach, Rocky Long, is considering “going for it” on fourth downs on his opponent’s side of the field.

While not going all-in on the kickless strategy like Kelley, Long’s consideration is big news for football. The discussion around this issue is slowly legitimizing the approach at progressively higher levels of football. It is only a matter of time before more teams start experimenting with versions of this strategy.

If Urban Meyer started talking about this approach at Ohio State or the New England Patriots stopped punting, this would be the only thing ESPN was talking about. San Diego State’s football program doesn’t carry that kind of gravitas; but such experimentation could only occur at a school like San Diego State. Major football programs are too risk averse to tolerate a coach that bucks conventional wisdom to such a degree.

Of course, sports journalists are well-known statistical buffoons. So, the strategy will undoubtedly be declared a total success or failure (if even used) on the basis of individual plays, probably within the same game.

*Hat tip to Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.

Author: Josh Witten

2 thoughts on “One small step for a coach, one giant leap for football?”

  1. Actually, the New England Patriots do punt less on 4th down than most teams, and specifically because Belichick has studies the statistics and determined that going for it pays off more often than not. I’ll try to find the study to back this up – came out a few years ago.

    1. That is true. Unfortunately, he cultivates eccentricity & doesn’t explain his reasoning, creating the sense that his strategies are quirky wizardry rather than solid logic/math in a permissive environment. He does not create the sense that other coaches can do the same things and have them work. The Patriots started to do these things more once the coach was totally secure.

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