Calculated Risks From the Coach Who Never Punts

My brother has been hounding me for while now to look into the high school football coach who never punts. I finally did a deep dive by reading a few articles and watching some videos on Kevin Kelley, the head football coach at Pulaski Academy.

Kelley says he read a report from a Harvard professor who analyzed 2,000 football games over a three year period. His conclusion was that field position wasn’t as important as most coaches believe. The huge takeaway for Kelley here was that you should never punt the ball. This is the kind of thing that I have only seen people do when they’re playing Madden so I had to see the numbers on this to be convinced.

Kelley lays out an example, with evidence. Let’s say his team is backed up on their own 5 yard line and it’s 4th down. If they go for it and don’t make it the other team gets the ball and they’re going to score a touchdown 92% of the time. If they instead punt the ball the other team gets the ball at around the 40 yard line. From there the number only drops to 77% of the time that they score. So it’s not a huge difference in terms of scoring odds.

But if you factor in the 4th down conversion rate it makes even more sense to go for it every time. Pulaski says his team converts 50% of their 4th downs to keep drives alive. Now going for it every time doesn’t sound so insane. They don’t even have a punter on the team.

They also onside kick every time. Kelley says you can tell who wins the game 75%-80% of the time just by looking at the turnover battle. He’s just trying to force turnovers through onside kicks. On an average kick-off the other team would get the ball at the 33 yard line. With the average onside kick (when they don’t recover it) the other team would get the ball, on average, at the 47 yard line. So they’re only giving up 14 yards when they don’t recover the onside kick. Their onside kick recovery rates average around 20%, so they get the ball back one out of five times. This can really change the complexion of the game.

There is also a stat that the team with the most big plays — 20 yards or more — wins 80% of the time. So he’s structured his offense to make more big plays by utilizing laterals and throwing the ball deep.

Here are some takeaways from this story:

  • Analytics aren’t perfect, but they’re necessary. There’s the old saying that not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts. But how can an individual or organization ever truly understand their performance if they’re not defining and measuring the impact of their decisions?
  • Measurement can improve performance. Performance measurement does you no good if you’re not going to implement your findings in some way. Kelley said once he discovered this data he felt he would have been providing a disservice a coach had he not utilized these techniques in his program.
  • Process over outcomes. This system isn’t foolproof. He’s looking for minor advantages and trying to improve his team’s chances for success. He estimates his game plan could improve their odds of success by 15% or so. That’s no guarantee. It’s a process over outcomes system that doesn’t work every time, but it works more often than not. That’s all you can ask for.
  • Make sure you’re being compensated for the risk you take. The coach knows going for it on fourth down, doing onside kicks and trying for big plays isn’t going to work out every time. There are times when these risks will back-fire. He had to factor in the failure rate when making the decision to take these calculated risks.
  • Going against conventional wisdom is not easy. Everyone else thinks this is crazy and gimmicky but Kelley thinks it’s just smart. He’s not trying to be a contrarian to try to stand out. He says, “There are those kinds of people that want to be different because they just want to be different. And there’s those kinds of people that want to be different because they’re looking for something to help them be more successful.”

So why don’t more coaches try Kelley’s methods? I’m shocked no small-time college programs have tried this yet. You would think it would help bring some attention and recruits to those programs that can’t keep up with the larger programs. There is of course the problem of career risk and the herd mentality. I’m reminded of the old Keynes quote where he said, “Worldly wisdom teaches us that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

Here’s a video from the now-defunct site Grantland:

And here’s another one from 538:
The High School Football Coach Who Never Punts

Also, if you’re interested in sports analytics, check out the old Michael Lewis book Moneyball if you’ve never read it, which covers a similar topic in Major League Baseball. One of the better value investing books there is.

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  • edinvestor1

    WHAT is their record using the style of play?

    • Ben

      check the videos

      • acm_acm

        You can lead a horse to water…

  • Matt Downing

    I’d be interested to know their record as well. This Kelley sounds like the other Kelley that was just fired by the Eagles. Chip didn’t go as far, obviously, but he liked to go for it on fourth down as opposed to kicking field goals and punting. maybe it would have worked better for him if he would have went all in. 13monthsecuador.blogspot.com

    • Ben

      watch the videos. impressive record and improved from the past

  • John

    Watch the video, it tells you their records.

  • Hurrow

    Would the strategies work better if he occasionally mixed things up, ie punted or more likely went for a deep kickoff? By never doing either he is predictable in his strategic approach and teams can therefore at least know not to worry about having to put in a punt returner for example allowing them to put more defenders on for a running/passing play.

    • sgriggl

      well, you have more unpredictability on the earlier downs b/c of this strategy, too. a 3rd and long is no longer an obvious passing down, b/c you know you have 4th down too, for example.

      he’s also said in an interview that it forces teams to practice onside kicks in practice, and gives them extra tape analysis to do, so they’re less prepared for other aspects of the game as well.

  • PostmanSays

    Some of these numbers are surprising. For example, that teams score touchdowns 77% of the time when they get the ball on the other team’s 40.

    And, even if this is accurate, I’d want to see a breakdown of that number. What percentage of the time that a team gets the ball on the other team’s 40 as the result of a punt, do they score a touchdown? (It might well be quite different than those possessions following a turnover.)

    I’m also cautious regarding cause and effect when it comes to data. Do teams win the game BECAUSE they win the turnover battle? Or do teams that are behind turn the ball over a lot because they are forced to take higher risks? And if, as I suspect, it’s some of both, how does one quantify that actual advantage of winning the turnover battle during the portion of the game that neither team is taking unnecessary risks? (There is the closely related idea that teams that accrue some level of rushing yards tend to win — but similarly, it is far from clear whether that is totally or mostly because teams that are ahead run the ball a lot more than teams that are behind.)

  • Mark Massey

    PA won another state championship this season. They went 14-0. I am in Little Rock so I read about this program regularly. I did not make it to a game this season but plan to do so next fall.
    PA is the smallest school by student population among the 30+ in its football classification, yet PA has dominated HS football since Kelley took over as head coach. That tells me his system is working. No one can beat them. PA’s first game this year was AT Highland Park in Dallas, TX. Highland Park had a home win streak that dated back to 1999. PA beat them 40-13.
    It is difficult to score and therefore difficult to win if you rarely get possession of the ball. The onside kicks really get to the opponent psychologically.

    • Ben

      Very cool. Based on the videos he looks like a fun coach to play for as well. I can’t believe a smaller college won’t take a look at him to try to spice things up a bit

      • Mark Massey

        Some program probably has made a run at Kelley but he has a pretty good thing going at PA here in Little Rock (salary, support, etc). Plus, his son is currently on the team. I think he was a senior this year. He has been at PA pretty long now. After his son graduates from PA, I wonder if he will move on to higher levels of competition. I have read more than once that “experts” believe his system will not work beyond high school level. I would like to see him try it at the college level. The “experts” said the spread offense would not work either.

        • Ben

          Must be some creative juices in the water in that state. Wasn’t Gus Malzohn from Arkansas as well?

          • Mark Massey

            Yes, Gus was head coach at tiny Hughes HS just west of West Memphis, AR then was head coach at Springdale HS in NW Ark. From there, he was OC under Houston Nutt at Arkansas. Nutt was jealous of Gus’s success and Gus quietly moved on and is now HC at Auburn and Nutt is persona non grata in the coaching profession.

  • Michael Milburn

    I guess my initial impression is all 4th downs aren’t created equally. 4th and 3? 4th and 6? 4th and 10? I’d think the situation would dictate certain situations where punting is the best option. Seems it would be additionally dependent upon the quality fo defense vs. quality of offense. There are some offenses in the NFL that are so terrible that it’s almost always the best move to kick to them with a lead because most often 3 plays later you know you’ll get the ball back, and the chances they can move into scoring position are tiny.