Should football teams punt on fourth down?

You are the coach of a high school football team.  Your team has the ball on its own five-yard line, and it’s fourth and eight.  Do you punt?

Not if your name is Kevin Kelly, the head coach at Pulaski Academy in Arkansas.  His team won the 5A championship in 2008.  They didn’t punt a single time.  You can read his story here. To add to the drama, they also went for an onside kick 75% of the time!

His reasoning was as follows.  He figured that his team would convert on fourth down at least 50% of the time.  Statistics show that opposing teams that get the ball inside the opponent’s ten-yard line score 90% of the time.  By going for it on fourth down in that particular situation, he statistically gives up a touchdown 45% of the time.  If his team punts instead and the opponent starts on the 38 yard line (assuming an average punt with return), statistically the opposing team will score a touchdown 77% of the time.  Thus, he is better off to go for it on fourth down, even on his team’s side of the field.

Similar reasoning led him to the conclusion that if his team failed to recover the onside kick, on average they were only giving up 14 yards.  Pulaski ran seven different versions of on onside kick throughout the season.

If you read the article, you’ll notice that Pulaski based his strategy on the work of several mathematicians/economists, as well as taking into account the abilities of his current players.  Apparently, the application of mathematics to football decisions is becoming more commonplace. Remember, if you take care of the math, the math takes care of you!

What do you think?  Do you think you would trust the math, or stick with conventional wisdom?

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