Thursday, January 1, 2009

GO 4 IT!

I love sports people who go against the grain, so I was delighted to see a story in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about a football coach whose teams never punt.

That’s never, as in not ever. Fourth and 15 from his own 10-yard line? This guy says “Go for it!” How can you not love that?

Not surprisingly, the guy—his name is Kevin Kelley—coaches at the high-school level. He probably always will. Our sporting establishment is one of the most risk-averse of any occupational group and there’s zero likelihood of that changing. Coaches would rather lose going by the “book” than win breaking some fraternity rule. That mindset has to do with the possibility of looking foolish, which any jock avoids like a pulled hamstring. Jocks grow up to be coaches and take their highly developed sense of vanity with them. Hey, some girl might be watching.

The Times’ article was short so I went online to seek further intelligence on the remarkable Mr. Kelley. It turns out that his iconoclasm doesn’t end with his eschewal of the punt. After his team scores it almost always tries an onside kick. Why not? he reasons-- there’s about a 20% chance of the maneuver succeeding, and he thinks that more than makes up for the 20 or so yards of gridiron position his team would surrender with a conventional kickoff and return.

Kelley’s teams at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark., have been winners—otherwise he wouldn’t still be employed even there. In his six seasons as head coach they’ve compiled a 68-13-1 record and have captured two state divisional championships, the last coming in the just-completed season.

In online interviews the coach acknowledges that more than his own brilliance has accounted for his teams’ success. He says he’s had some good players at Pulaski--always a nice thing-- and notes that any new wrinkle can discombobulate foes who will face it only once a season.

But he insists that breaking his sport’s three-downs-and-punt orthodoxy is solidly founded, and that its rewards exceed its risks. Obviously, a team has a better chance of keeping the ball—and eventually scoring—if it always gives itself four tries at a first down instead of three. But he says that more important is his sense that attacking relentlessly changes the psychology of the game in his team’s favor on both sides of the scrimmage line.

“Our offense goes out there with one aim—to move the ball—whether we’re at our own 10-yard line or our opponent’s 2. Yeah, there’s disappointment in going four and out, but converting a fourth down is almost like creating a turnover: it pumps up your kids while deflating the opponent,” he says. “Our defense knows it must stop the other team no matter where it is on the field. Period. Viewed like that, football is a simple game, and simple is good.”

I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I’d take Kelley’s approach a couple of steps further. I’d remove the foot from football altogether and let the boys slug it out between the goal lines

You could call the sport “battleball,” thus eliminating its present international confusion with real football, which we Yanks oddly call “soccer.” There would be no kickoffs, punts, kicked extra points or field goals. You’d start the game by putting the ball on the 50-yard line, lining up a player on each of the 40s and letting them dash and claw for possession. The winner’s team would possess the spheroid until it goes four-and-out or scores a touchdown. Then the other guys would give it a go, and so forth until the clock expired, with the usual quarter- and half-time breaks.

For extra points teams would run a regular play from the 2- or 3-yard line, just like they do now for two points. Kicked PATs have become so automatic at all levels of the game they should be dispensed with on lesser grounds than my proposed revolution. Ditto for field goals, which are copouts and dull to boot (they’re either good or not). No punting would heighten the importance of every play, not just fourth downs. It’d be a better game all around.

If you agree with me—and I’m sure you will—forward this column to Roger Goodell at the NFL. If he adopts my idea I’ll let him keep his job. I’d expect a 10% royalty on all future revenues, of course.

1 comment:

Mike Klein said...

This would be awesome to try at the small-college level; get some real world data, and perhaps jazz up some small college conference's attendance.