How Well Does One High School’s Crazy Football Strategy Translate to the NFL?

Kevin Kelley's strategy: Don't punt, don't field punts, onside kicks only.

Kevin Kelley’s strategy: Don’t punt, don’t field punts, onside kicks only.

If you’re born with the last name Kelly, it seems your future is already mapped out for you. You’re destined to become a head coach in the sport of football, and your methods are going to be looked at as innovative by some, and completely crazy by many many more.

Take, for instance, Kevin Kelley (phonetically it works), the head football coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. Coach Kelley has removed the punt from his playbook, never has a man deep to field punts, and instructs his players to only kick onside kicks. Grantland recently put together a short feature and the coach’s philosophy, which once lead to a 29-0 lead for his team in the first quarter of a game—before their opponent ever touched the ball.

The idea is looked, like usual, as incredibly innovative and insanely crazy by football experts and analysts. Here comes a guy that wants to manage a football team like he’s sitting on a couch with a PlayStation controller in his hand, going for it on 4th and 35 from his own 7 yard line—he’s basically that jackass friend that we all have, who plays Madden so unconventionally that it’s infuriating, and while it should never work he always manages to find some ridiculously wide open receiver 70 yards down field and it makes you just want to put your damn fist through his face and the television screen and never play this stupid piece of shit game ever again for the rest of time. But the thing is, the facts and statistics that Kelley presents can’t be denied, and, more importantly, this style of play is working for them—the team is 124-22 since 2003 and has won three state titles under Kelley.

But how would all of this translate to the professional game?

To get a true sense for that, the philosophy needs to be broken in half. First by looking at the kickoff situation, and then by looking at his abandoning of the punt game.

With his onside-kick-only idea, Kelley figured that, based on the average starting position of an opponent based on a normal kickoff versus a failed onside kick attempt, his team was only giving up an average of about 14 yards of field position–somewhere between the 35 and midfield. His team converts on about 20 percent of their onside kick, which is right in Kelley’s target range of 15-25 percent, thus, making the onside kick worth the risk. NFL and college coaches, however, would be hard-pressed, and borderline insane, to go with this strategy. High schoolers are asked to kick off from their own 40 yardline, which makes the target line to gain for an onside-attempt the 50. That gets bumped back five yards when you move up to the next level, which means a failed attempt gives the opposing team the ball already on your side of the field. And as far as conversion rates, here’s what onside kick attempts look like over the last four and a half years in the NFL:

Year Attempts Recovered Percentage
2013 31 5 16.1
2012 60 7 11.7
2011 57 10 17.5
2010 55 9 16.4
2009 44 8 18.2
Totals 247 39 15.79

With the exception of 2009, which had a much smaller sample size than the other seasons, the conversion rate was at or below that target range that Kelley is looking for from his team. Guys at the professional ranks are bigger, faster, more athletic, and are quicker to recover an onside attempt than a bunch of high school kids. And, more often than not, when these attempts happen, you see flags thrown for the ball not crossing that ten-yard mark before the kicking team tries to recover it.

Also, as far as the starting field position is considered, The difference was only about 14 yards in Kelley’s case, but when you look at the professional level, if an attempt fails, let’s say the defending team recovers at the line-to-gain, so the 45 yard line in your territory, that’s a good 23 yards ahead of the 22 yardline on the other side of the field—the average starting position for teams, thanks to bumping the kickoff spot up, which resulted in a huge increase in the amount of touchbacks. Just doesn’t make sense to go this route in the pros.

But what about the lack of a punt team concept? I know I just got done talking about the importance of field position, but when you’re talking about the risk-reward when it comes to the kickoff, its not the same as the risk-reward when the ball is actually in your hand. Sounds convoluted, but bear with me.

To help explain, get yourself acquainted with Advanced NFL Stats, a great website if you like diving into numbers and the like. A large portion of the site’s analysis is predicated around the concept of Expected Points (EP) and Expected Points Added (EPA) based on a whole host of factors, including a teams field position and down-and-distance—something Grantland used when they completely blew apart the concept of the “Red Zone.” For this discussion, I’m going to focus on the EP based on 1st down field position.

advanced nfl stats ep

Based on what you see above, (seen here on teams ought to be going for it more often on 4th down, especially between the 40s. The difference between the expected score for a team that starts a drive on its own 40 yard line versus the opponents 40 is roughly 1 point (1.5 vs. 2.5). So, if you’re the team controlling the ball on 4th down—and a reasonable yardage remaining, not like the 35 I mention above—you’re risk-reward balance slants heavily in your favor. You either keep your drive going and greatly increase your own chances of walking away with points, or, if you turn it over own downs, you’re not really putting your team in that tough of a spot. Whereas, if you were to punt the ball away from your own 40, unless your Aussie-rules footballer can accurately pin your opponent inside the 5 yard line every time, you’re not doing much in terms of reducing your opponent’s EP each drive.

A more controversial approach to this strategy, going for it on 4th deep in your own territory, still has a certain amount of validity. Punting from your five, say your get it out to midfield, you may have saved your defense from giving up a TD/force the other team to settle for a field goal, but say they get the ball and drive it on your defense for the score—you essentially just allowed them to run extra time off the clock that you could’ve saved by either giving up a quick score, or holding them to 3 from inside the 5 yard line. You’re getting the ball back to your offense, one way or another, much quicker. An NFL coach that ran with that strategy probably wouldn’t last long in this league, but it’s worth considering.

One idea/phrase that gets thrown around a lot with teams that do go for it on 4th down frequently is that, by going for it a coach is telling his defense that he doesn’t have much faith in them stopping the opposing offense, so he feels the need to try and reach for points. I’d argue that, by playing this risk-reward game, the coach is putting more pressure on the defense and asking them to step up and hold teams on a short field. They’re showing more faith in the defense, if you ask me, by saying that they’re not afraid to go for it on 4th down from their own 35 because they know the defense will be able to hold its ground in case the attempt fails.

So if you ask me, I think about half of Kelley’s strategy could work at the professional level. Teams would get crushed if they went onside-kick-only, but might be able to live without their punters—that doesn’t mean that you’ll see teams start cutting punters anytime soon. There will always be a need for those flexible sons of bitches to kick the ball 60 yards out of the back of their own endzone, especially in a league filled with coaches that love preaching about the importance of field position.

One response to “How Well Does One High School’s Crazy Football Strategy Translate to the NFL?

  1. Pingback: The New York Times’ 4th Down Bot Says NFL Coaches Are Too Conservative | Rob Stott

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