Once again this weekend the NFL landscape was littered with Preposterous Punts. Trailing 24-3, San Francisco punted on fourth-and-1 on the Philadelphia 40. Even the great Bill Belichick ordered a punt from the Broncos' 35. As this column repeats ad infinitum (Latin for "by using AutoText"), NFL coaches punt in opposition territory, or on short yardage, in order to avoid blame -- if a team goes for it and fails the coach is blamed, whereas if a coach does the safe thing and kicks and then loses, the players are blamed. But skip the psycho-dynamics and ask: Should a football team ever punt?
A year ago at the Hall of Fame reception in Canton, Ohio I found myself sitting between Bill Walsh and Don Shula. I posed this question: In a day when the Bears line up five-wide and Texas Tech passes 60 times a game, are there any fundamental innovations that have not been tried? Walsh supposed someone might try using trick formations for an entire game. Shula twinkled his eyes and said: "Someday there will be a coach who doesn't punt."
Think about all those punts on fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2, fourth-and-3. The average NFL offensive play gains about five yards. Yet game in, game out, coaches boom the punt away on short yardage, handing the most precious article in football -- possession of the ball -- to the other side. Nearly three-quarters of fourth-and-1 attempts succeed, while around one-third of possessions result in scores. Think about those fractions. Go for it four times on fourth-and-1 -- odds are you will keep the ball three times, and three kept possessions each with a one-third chance of a score results in your team scoring once more than it otherwise would have. Punt the ball on all four fourth-and-1s, and you've given the opponents three additional possessions. (It would have gotten one possession anyway when you missed one of your fourth-and-1s.) Those three extra possessions, divided by the one-third chance to score, give the opponent an extra score.
Bottom line? If you face fourth-and-1 four times and punt all four times, your opponent will score once more than it otherwise would have. If you go for it all four times, you will score once more than you otherwise would have. (These are simplified probabilities that do not take into account that the one-score-in-three figure assumes most teams voluntarily end drives by punting on short yardage; subtract those punts, and a possession becomes more valuable because a score is more likely to result.) Few teams face fourth-and-1 four times in a game, but the numbers for fourth-and-2 and fourth-and-3 work out about the same, and most teams do face fourth-and-short several times per game. Probabilities suggest a team that rarely punts will increase its scoring while decreasing its opponents' point totals.