Punting “Strategy” in the NFL is Terribly Misplaced

10-6 Carolina Panthers lead the Indianapolis Colts, week 8, 2015 NFL season, Monday Night Football. Steady rain.

After an incomplete pass the Panthers have the ball just inside the Colts 44 yard line, and need to get to the Colts 42 for a first down. 11:20 remains, third quarter.

It’s fourth down.

If the Panthers get stopped the Colts get possession; probably right around the Colts own 43 or 44 yard line.

If the Panthers punt the Colts also get possession, just better field position – probably starting from about their own 10 or 12 on average, but barring a fluke, anywhere between the 1 and 20 yard line.

It does make sense therefore to give up a two yard chance at keeping the ball, getting a first down, and getting that ball just about an average first down (10-15 yards) from the Panthers scoring range.

Because extra possessions in football don’t matter that much. And extra possessions in football that also start in fantastic field position – here on your opponent’s side of the, their 42 yard line or better – matter even less.

But possibly giving your opponent field position that won’t be nearly as good for your team (relative to a punt), and, versus the “election” to punt here, represents a possession that your opponent was going to get anyway?

Now that is really bad.

So the Panthers can’t take such a chance at such a terrible thing happening, even though making 2 yards (here just under 2 yards) for a first down “isn’t exactly” a probability long shot.

All the points of the last three paragraphs are true. In fantasy land.

If by their own strategic decisions the Panthers want to actually increase their chances of winning the game, and not instead increase their opponent’s chances, then the points of the last three paragraphs are close to absurd: Which, strategically, is what this nevertheless, ho hum, barely questioned, and rather routine decision to punt here, in fact is.

The odd thing is that on some level, many players probably know this – or at least do to some extent. They may not consciously argue it: But go ahead and bring the Panthers out to try that 4th and 2, and measure the Colts heart rates. Then measure their heart rates when the Panthers suddenly switch and change their minds, and bring out the punting unit.

Whew, there will be big signs of relief. The Colts will be starting out with the ball fairly deep on their side, of course (or at least most likely), but at least they will be getting the ball they were just in serious fear of losing.

And not only that, but as if not more importantly, if they didn’t get the ball, their opponents would have it, and their opponents would have a 1st down, and their opponents would have a 1st down scrap yardage from long field goal range (iffy in the heavy rain), and an average 1st down (10+ yards) and scrap yardage from good field goal range, and a few short throws to the end zone.

Whew.

So good thing those Panthers punted.

For the Colts. As the decision by a team to punt under such circumstances helps their opponents chances of winning the game, and hurts their own, and is normally made out of an almost ridiculously misguided fear driven strategic misassessment.

And fear of what. That it would be “bad” to be stopped?

The only reason that things that happen that are “bad” – and hence to be afraid of – are in fact even “bad” in the first place in in terms of play outcome (injury aside), in a football game, is that they decrease your chances of winning. (For instance; If throwing interceptions helped your team’s chances of winning, then throwing interceptions would be a good thing, not a bad thing.)

So fearing something that increases your chances of winning, because it “could” work out poorly (just like the game itself, or to some extent, almost any play in football), is not only meaningless, but irrational.

But it’s happening, right now, in the NFL, and has been, for years and years and still is, even with “analytics” creeping into the game.

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2 thoughts on “Punting “Strategy” in the NFL is Terribly Misplaced

  1. Re: “probably starting from about their own 10 or 12 on average”

    It’s actually worse; punting from the +44 actually gives the ball to the other team at the 18, on average.

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    • I think the average from around midfield is around the 12 or 14 yard line or so the last several years and is getting better (and also drops very slightly as the punting line of scrimmage moves to the opponents end zone).

      Trailing data from the last few years alone I think would show from around the opponents 47/46/45/44/43/42 the average is probably inside the 12 yard line. (Tho obv some teams are going to be better at it than otherss, but not a high eno sample size to really know what is variance, where league wise can get an idea of overall average.) Couldnt find the stats but have seen them. Always interested in seeing more.

      BL line though, thre is no doubt (but obv not a lot of pple are convinced of it), either way most teams are making pretty serious strategy mistakes with good field position relatively short/reasonable yardage 4th down situations.

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