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  • Writer's pictureChuck Cusumano

Don't Punt!

By Jillian Broaddus and Chuck Cusumano

Any football fan knows the excitement of watching their team on a game-winning drive – throwing Hail Mary’s, scoring first downs faster than the “chain gang” can keep up, and driving down the field with a seemingly unstoppable momentum. Whether they clinch the win or not, the sentiment from the peanut gallery is often the same: “If we could’ve just played like that the entire game, it wouldn’t have even been close!”

In fact, game-winning drives have become somewhat of “the norm” in the 2021 NFL season. As the Washington Post writes, “When they need points at the end of a game, teams are scoring with unprecedented frequency. The improbable has turned into the expected. Over the past two decades, NFL teams scored a little more than 13 percent of the time when they got the ball with less than two minutes left in a one-score game. This season, in those circumstances, offenses have scored on almost 30 percent of drives, the first success rate above 18 percent in at least 20 years.” Plus, this success in the face of urgency shows itself in the first half, too. One 2015 analysis found that in the last two minutes of the first half alone – just 3% of the overall game – a disproportionately high number of scores take place: 13% of field goals and 7.5% of touchdowns, to be exact!

However, what fans often fail to realize about the two-minute drill successes is that the momentum comes from an entirely different mentality. Suddenly, the players know that they have four downs instead of only three. They know that the end zone is the destination, and anything less isn’t an option. The defense is inevitably thrown off against an offense who will do anything – trick plays, uncountable laterals, and fourth-and-twenty attempts – to win.

Although entirely unconventional, the choice to go for it on fourth down usually (and statistically) makes sense – even outside of the two-minute drill. In fact, Bleacher Report analyzed fourth-down data from the NFL and determined that not only is a fourth-and-goal team in the red zone better off – on average – attempting a touchdown, but a team at midfield is better off going for it if the first down is within five yards and a team on its own 10-yard-line – 90 yards from the end zone! – is still better off, statistically, going for it if the first down is within three yards. However, most coaches will avoid going for it in such situations from a deep-seated history of risk aversion, and the retaliation from the fan base if things don’t go well. Most find it safer to forego the potential risk, even if that means foregoing the potential points.

Most, that is – but not Kevin Kelley, who decided to make this mentality a permanent reality. Kevin Kelley is known as the coach who “never” punts, opts for onside kicks on every kick-off, and builds laterals into many passing plays. Kelley’s strategy helped him win more than 200 games and nine state championships in 18 seasons as the coach of the Pulaski Academy Bruins, a private Arkansas high school, before being named as the new Coach of Presbyterian College in May of 2021.

As Andy Staples wrote in Sports Illustrated, it’s not the plays themselves that account for Kelley’s – or any such strategy’s – success: “The Bruins don’t win because they don’t punt or because they attempt onside kicks every time or because their receivers routinely lateral on plays that aren’t the last one of the game. They win because of the attitude Kelley’s approach instills on Pulaski Academy’s sideline and the mindset it instills on the other sideline. The Bruins always play as if they’re down 10 with 90 seconds to go. Think about all the points you’ve seen scored in that type of situation. The offense plays as if it has nothing to lose. The defense tightens, playing to protect the lead rather than to advance the cause. That’s every minute of every Pulaski Academy game.”

While you may not be leading a team of 300-pound linemen, the lessons from Kelley’s success translate nonetheless. What could you accomplish if you had the courage to ignore the traditional playbook, if you always played for the extraordinary outcome, and if you pursued the bold and creative route that throws caution to the wind? Wouldn’t you want to be part of a team that looks at everything from its own perspective, that lives with a sense of passion and purpose, and that chooses curiosity over conventionality?

As writer Eric Johnson put it best, “It seems counterintuitive, but it might be easier for you to achieve a crazy, scary dream than to achieve the safe, sanitized middle class American dream… Don’t punt. Go for it!”

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