The news that the Buffalo Bills recently released their longest-tenured player, punter Brian Moorman, came as a bit of a shock but not a surprise. With an injury rate of 100 percent, the average NFL career stretches only about three-and-a-half years; Moorman, though, has played in every game since he put on a Bills uniform in 2001. Over the course of his dozen seasons, the two-time Pro Bowler performed some amazing feats. He kicked an astonishing 84-yard punt against Green Bay in 2002, and since then has maintained an average of nearly 44-yards per punt. His stats started to slip this year, alas, and at 36, this venerable figure, a stabilizing influence in a young special-teams squad, and an admirable man—the founder of the P.U.N.T Foundation active in the fight against pediatric cancer—is moving on.
Moorman’s departure has me thinking about punting itself, a basic feature of the gridiron game. On fourth down, with short yardage to go, the offensive team might opt to run or pass. If they’re successful, they’ll have another four downs to try to move the ball another ten yards. If they fail to gain those yards, they will turn over the ball to the defense. The offensive team will often punt on fourth down if they’ve failed to gain the required ten yards. By punting, the kicking team surely turns over the ball, but they hope to leave the receiving team holding the ball as deep in their own end and as disadvantaged as possible. Such is the strategic rationale for punting.
Punting is one of the most dramatic moments in a game of American or Canadian football, partly because of the number of things that can go wrong with a punt. The punter might fumble the direct snap. Whichever team recovers, a fumble is nearly always bad news for the offense. Or a punter might flub a punt, sending it sideways and gaining only a few yards. Sometimes the pressured punter kicks the ball too low, which reduces the hang time that gives tacklers a chance to catch up with the receiver. Furthermore, a lucky defensive player might block a punt and send it skittering backward. And finally, woe be unto the unlucky kicking team that significantly interferes with a “fair catch”—the infraction will draw a dire 15-yard penalty. Football fans hate turning the ball over. So they’ll often shout for the fraidy-cat offensive coach to “go for it” rather than kick.
Teams rarely go for it. And in recent years a loud “what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong faction” has gathered to denounce the “preposterous” punt. Their advice sounds like heresy at first, but when you listen to them carefully, they make a surprisingly good statistical case for abandoning the punt entirely.
David Roemer, a professor of political economy at the University of California at Berkeley, studied six years worth of punt data. He concluded that a team should never punt when they have fewer than four yards to go for a first down. Likely, they’ll make the play. He asserts this claim not only when the offense has the ball in the opponent’s territory, he insists that the principal applies wherever the field position. Opponents might eventually score if a fourth down run fails to achieve a first down, Roemer concedes. But he notes that it’s more often the case that sustained drives result in a touchdown for the team that holds onto the ball. In 2008, one statistically-minded college football fan put the theory to the test and found that offensive teams facing fourth and two succeed in gaining a first down 68 percent of the time. ESPN’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” feature reckoned that renouncing punting would yield teams an average of one point per game which translates into a five percent better chance of winning.
One winning high school coach who Sports Illustrated described as “relentlessly rational”—Kevin Kelley of Little Rock’s powerhouse Pulaski Bruins—has forsaken punting, calculating that penalties and fumbles make the punt, on balance, a net loss. Incidentally these Pulaski Bruins decline to return punts, too. Under Kelley’s even more counterintuitive direction, they exclusively deploy onside kicks, counting on the devastating psychological impact of a recovered kickoff. That’s how a school of only 350 students manages to consistently place third in the state.
Will teams give the punt the boot? It’s unlikely. Coaches and quarterbacks will continue to ignore the clamoring crowd for their own reasons. They prefer to kick because, however persuasive the statistics, field generals look particularly feeble if a gamble to go for it fails to pay off. If the punt goes bad, on the other hand, there’s only the poor punter to blame. (Here we’d do well to think of Brian Moorman’s poise over those dozen years.) I’d miss the punt, however ill-advised and probabilities aside, for a different reason: to wait out those edgy moments as the football hangs in space is to dare a calculated game to admit more surprise.