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26 Dec 2008

Varsity Numbers: Bring Back the Quick Kick

by Bill Connelly

Since it's a travel week, and keyboard time is at a premium, today we'll let numbers do most of the talking. Let's take a look at a lot of interesting down-and-distance combinations and see what tendencies exist in college football.

Some of the inspiration behind looking at these situational stats is the wild Rivals article that made the rounds this week, about an Arkansas high school team that won a state championship while refusing to punt. Here's a sample:

Kelley supports this rationale with numbers analysis.

If Pulaski has a fourth-and-8 at its own 5-yard line, Kelley said his explosive offense likely will convert a first down at least 50 percent of the time. If it fails to convert, statistical data from the college level shows that an opponent acquiring the ball inside the 10-yard line scores a touchdown 90 percent of the time. If Pulaski punts away (i.e., a 40-yard punt with a 10-yard return) the other team will start with the ball on the 38-yard line and score a touchdown 77 percent of the time. The difference is only 13 percent.

Obviously this would be far from feasible at the college or pro level, but it would be interesting to look at certain situations in which punting is an option.

Might As Well Go For It

We will start with some basic fourth-and-short statistics. These data do not include fake punts or fake field goals.

2008 College Situational Stats
Scenario Run/Pass Success Rate PPP S&P Run %
Fourth-and-1 Run 73.8% 0.34 1.080 83.6%
Pass 51.0% 0.41 0.920
Total 70.1% 0.35 1.053
Fourth-and-2 Run 68.3% 0.46 1.146 49.4%
Pass 44.1% 0.40 0.843
Total 56.0% 0.43 0.993
Fourth-and-3 Run 55.8% 0.55 1.107 32.1%
Pass 51.7% 0.41 0.932
Total 53.0% 0.46 0.988

On fourth-and-3 or less, teams have more than a 50 percent chance of succeeding. Success rates for other fourth downs are as follows:

  • Fourth-and-4: 47.5 percent success rate.
  • Fourth-and-5: 43.2 percent.
  • Fourth-and-6: 36.0 percent.
  • Fourth-and-7: 29.0 percent.
  • Fourth-and-8: 38.6 percent (outlier).
  • Fourth-and-9: 27.9 percent.
  • Fourth-and-10: 17.7 percent.

Clearly you cannot always play the odds -- sometimes the risk of going for it on fourth down far outweighs the reward -- but the odds are in your favor on fourth-and-three or less, especially on fourth-and-two or less, and chances are teams would likely benefit from taking more chances in those situations.

One other thought: On average, punts (as calculated through the method in the "Six Missing Points" VN column) are worth about 1.35 EqPts. When a team goes for it on fourth-and-three or less, they average a gain of about 0.36 EqPts. So on average, if you go for it on fourth-and-three or less and don't make it, you are giving up one EqPt. Things start to get skewed if you are going for it deep in your own territory, where the EqPt slope is much higher for the opponent, but the risk is not tremendously high once a team has gotten past its own 35 or 40.

Let's look at some other scenarios, and then open the floor for requests!

One Yard from Paydirt

Is it ever worth kicking a field goal from the opponent's 1? Not really (particularly if you keep it on the ground).

2008 College Situational Stats
Scenario Run/Pass Success Rate Run %
Fourth-and-1, opponent's 1 Run 69.5% 81.9%
Pass 46.2%
Total 65.3%

So on average, a 65.3 percent rate of success on fourth-and-goal from the 1 results in an average of 4.56 (allowing for the slight possibility of a missed PAT). Even if 18-yard field goals were a 100 percent guarantee, going for it on fourth down would be a 50 percent smarter idea.

Pinned Deep

You've just been pinned deep by a punt or timely turnover. First-and-10 from the 1: Do you try to get some space for yourself by plunging ahead for a yard, or do you try to throw it out of your end zone?

2008 College Situational Stats
Scenario Run/Pass Success Rate PPP S&P Run %
First-and-10, 1-yard line Run 6.2% 0.06 0.119 75.7%
Pass 46.2% 0.18 0.637
Total 15.9% 0.09 0.245

The desire to buy yourself some room and plunge forward for a yard or two is somewhat understandable, but unnecessary. Considering the sack rate on non-passing downs (which clearly include first-and-10) is less than 5 percent, the odds of a sack and safety just are not very high. And the difference between being forced to punt from the 1 instead of the 2 or the 3 just isn't stark. The safest and most efficient play is a pass. The odds of a turnover deep in your own territory are higher when you put it in the air, but even taking that into account, the throw is the way to go.

(Easy for me to say -- I am not going to catch heat for allowing a pick six.)

Bring Back the Quick Kick

Every few games, you will see a team face a fourth-and-10 from the opponent's 35 or so. They are not quite in field goal range, and they will go ahead and go for it. Why not, right?

2008 College Situational Stats
Scenario Run/Pass Success Rate PPP S&P Run %
Fourth-and-7 or more, opponent's 30- to 40-yard line Run 0.0% 0.09 0.088 8.2%
Pass 24.7% 0.41 0.657
Total 22.7% 0.38 0.610

You've got basically a two-in-nine chance of continuing a drive when you are facing fourth-and-7 or more between your opponent's 30 and 40. That territory is worth between 1.45 and 1.75 EqPts to your opponent. However, the opponent's 5-yard line is worth only 0.84 EqPts. The opponent's 10: 0.91 EqPts. The opponent's 1: 0.74 EqPts. With such low odds of success, a good, old-fashioned quick kick might be what the doctor ordered.

Anyway, the floor is now open for suggestions and scenarios. Present a down, distance and yard line scenario in the comments section below, and we will take a look at the data. Happy holidays.


Now as (almost) always, let's make a couple of quick responses to comments from last week's column.

The other correlations appear more informative about the statistic being correlated with wins than they do about individual teams, making them useful (and arguably interesting) only to those with an inherent interest in the statistics rather than being something the average fan could use or would want to use. This is not in itself bad, but could explain why commentary has been low.

I agree that the WinCorr is more telling on a national level than for an individual team (it makes sense when you think about the sample sizes involved for each), but I still like the team-based idea just for the extra ounce of information it can tell about a team. It doesn't work very well for a Florida, or any other team that failed very little during the course of the season, but it can tell quite a bit about those teams in the 4-8 to 8-4 range -- teams that both succeeded and failed quite a bit.

That 3rd-level PPP has a weaker correlation than regular (1st-level?) PPP seems concerning. Why would taking down and distance into account make the correlation weaker? Does doing so punish teams that are winning and running out the clock at the end of games by running conservative plays that do not necessarily help them get to the end zone but may help them win the game? Or are there not enough games in a college football season to get an effective sample size?

I somewhat expected the WinCorr to be higher for (1st-level) PPP than 3rd-level PPP for one basic reason: Back in my initial VN column, I mentioned that 1st-level EqPts and PPP were most directly tied to actual points than 2nd- or 3rd-level EqPts and PPP. That, and overall PPP is going to apply most often -- if you are averaging big gains on all downs, and you're winning by a healthy margin, then how you do on 3rd downs, or on 2nd-and-long, does not matter as much.

I would be wary of drawing any conclusions from win correlation data. If it is meaningful, it probably should correlate year-to-year.

In the end, even the year-to-year differences still resulted in pretty strong correlations. Other than S&P, most measures shifted just within five-hundredths to one-tenth, and while that is indeed a shift, it's not one that makes me feel the measure is less useful.

Posted by: Bill Connelly on 26 Dec 2008

17 comments, Last at 29 Sep 2009, 4:54pm by Jeff


by zlionsfan :: Fri, 12/26/2008 - 2:08pm

Do you maybe mean pooch punt? I thought a quick kick was done before fourth down (the old Randall Cunningham punt).

by Eddie (not verified) :: Fri, 12/26/2008 - 2:26pm

For what it's worth, I know Indiana punted with Kellen Lewis a few times. I'd love to see something that looks at punts inside the opponent's 50. How often do those turn into touchbacks, and how much does punting and setting the opponent up on the 20 really help? What is the value of a special teams unit that can pin the opponent?

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Fri, 12/26/2008 - 4:08pm

I would like to know, if any of the numbers are at hand, how often FB-handoffs/HB-handoffs/sneaks/keeps/draws succeeds on fourth-and-1?

Sneaks might be triggy, though - because not all 4th-and-1s are equally long, no?

by Bill Connelly :: Fri, 12/26/2008 - 6:50pm

The database doesn't really know the difference between HB handoffs and FB handoffs, but it knows when somebody other than the QB sneaks it. I'll look into this one.

by Wildcats Unite (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 4:18pm

What about running left, right or into the line? Once a team decides to run, it has to decide what kind of running play to select. Does your data including indications about runs to the left or right at all and then what about 3rd or 4th and short?

by Bill Connelly :: Wed, 12/31/2008 - 12:46pm

...about one-third or one-fourth of the play-by-plays include "Run left by ____" or "Sideline pass to ____", but that's not enough to maintain data for it. If I were to maintain that data, I'd be hostage to the few schools that go into that much detail, and if those teams are especially good or bad offensively, it would obviously skew things considerably...that's a disappointment, as I thought that would be very interesting data to collect.

by Joseph :: Fri, 12/26/2008 - 5:30pm

Regarding the pooch punt:

1. Most coaches would probably opt for the punt team, as it is used to protection/kicking/downing the ball/etc.
2. If your QB can punt a little bit, I like the idea, even on 4th and long (unless you're losing and need to go to tie/go ahead late in the game.
3. Here's why I like it: Your QB probably won't boom one out of the end zone; if you're on the 35 or further back, his punt probably wouldn't reach the end zone without a roll. (Remember, he's not 15 yds back with a two step start) Also, the defense doesn't have a returner back there, just the free safety. If you're lining up 4 WR (2 per side), at least 2 will get off without a jam. Not only that, if the CB's are playing man, they think that they can't impede that WR after 5 yds without the illegal contact/auto 1st down flag. So the chance of one of the 4 WR's getting down there to down the ball is higher than your two gunners, who will definitely be impeded as much as possible. There will be less rushers, who will also be conscious of staying in their "lanes" so as not to allow a QB scramble.
All in all, it keeps the other team guessing just a little bit more; one more thing to study/practice which means they're not able to spend as much time going over the basics--advantage for you.

by davepyne :: Fri, 12/26/2008 - 5:54pm

"a good, old-fashioned quick kick might be what the doctor ordered"

What does this mean? Are you talking about a pooch punt here from the 35 Yd line? That wouldn't be a "quick kick" I don't think. I thought what made it "quick" was that you do it at least one down early (like on third down). I know in the old days in college ball there were guidelines for certain down-and-distance on certain yard lines where you would punt away on 3rd down, 2nd down, or even on 1st down. Those were in the days before a punter was a specialized role.

by FullMoonOverTulsa (not verified) :: Fri, 12/26/2008 - 6:10pm

I think it means set up as if going for it (offense, not punt team on the field), and have the QB kick, as would be done with a quick kick.

I assume you need to run it out of the shotgun.

by Bill Connelly :: Fri, 12/26/2008 - 6:48pm

Maybe saying "old-fashioned" quick kick wasn't quite correct, but yes...I was talking about the "offense lines up as if going for it, QB backs into shotgun and pooches it about 25-30 yards" ploy. A pooch punt would work just fine, but the quick kick is more enjoyable.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sun, 12/28/2008 - 7:44pm

Ok so it's NFL BUT it came to my attention that there was a quick kick in the NFL on week 17. Would it surprise anyone to find out it was by New England?

Leading 13-0 with about 6 mins to go on a *very* windy day in Buffalo; New England faced 3rd & 8 on its own 42 yd line, Patriots QB Matt Cassell took a shotgun snap and quick-kicked. The ball bounced on the Bills 25, rolled to about the 15 on its own momentum then the wind kept blowing it until the Patriots downed it on the Bills 2. Matt Cassell 1 punt for 57 yards!

by Anonyman (not verified) :: Mon, 12/29/2008 - 2:56pm

The Steelers had Big Ben do this in two different games a few years ago. Seemed kinda pointless then. According to the stats he had one touchback and one downed inside the 20.

by Wait, what? (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 3:01pm

In an odd coincidence, I was just looking at Roethlisberger's stats, and was curious about his two listed punts in 2005- right before I started reading this article. Weird. He averaged 36 yards on those two punts, which I guess is pretty good for that sort of thing.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 3:18pm

A little research (and a google search for "Roethlisgerger punts") reveals that he had a 33-yd punt downed on the Baltimore 1-yd line (excellent) and a 39-yard punt on 4th & 4 that went into the endzone for a touchback (against the Patriots).

The first is tremendous, the second I wonder if Ben was momentarily injured, as I can't see much point in getting him to kick otherwise.

by Kibbles :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 3:20am

There's another big advantage to the strategy of always going for it on 4th down that often gets overlooked; if you know you're going for it on 4th down anyway, you don't have to coach 3rd down as if it's "do or die". Yes, going for it on 4th and 8 when backed up deep seems silly... but if you're armed with the foreknowledge that you're going for it anyway, you don't have to let it come to that. Instead, when faced with 3rd and 8, you no longer are compelled to make the sticks or punt. Instead of calling a low-percentage out on 3rd and 8, you can feel free to call something like a draw which is unlikely to get the first down, but which then leaves you in a far more manageable 4th and 2 scenario.

I think the whole "damn the punt, we're going for it regardless of situation!" camp is irrational- I think the punt is a very valuable strategic tool, and ruling a valuable tool out entirely ahead of time is silly. On the other hand, I think the whole "I'm punting no matter what" camp is wrong, too- the numbers show that the 4th down conversion is being underutilized. If I were a head coach, I'd strike a happy medium. My motto would be "coach every 3rd down like I'm in 4 down territory, but reserve the right to change my mind if 4th down looks hopeless". If I'm facing 3rd and 8 while backed up deep, I'd be happy to call a draw. If it got sniffed out and stuffed, however, I wouldn't go for it on 4th on principle. I'd cut my losses and punt. If the draw left me in 4th and 2, though... all bets are off.

Personally, I think that would make my offense far more difficult to defend- VN research shows that passing situations favor the defense, but coaching like I'm in 4-down territory dramatically decreases what qualifies as "passing situations" (2nd and 8 would be a running situation, since a trio of 3-yard gains still converts. Ditto that for 3rd and 5).

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sun, 01/04/2009 - 10:12am

Essentially TMQ-Easterbrook came to similar conclusions about not ALWAYS "not punting" ...


There's a bit more fluff in the article (e.g. don't follow the rules if you have the 2006 Baltimore (rubbish) offense, (great) defense) but this is what he concluded:

"Here they are, and sorry there was no way to simplify:
• Inside your own 20, punt.

• From your 21 to 35, go for it on fourth-and-2 or less.

• From your 36 to midfield, go for it on fourth-and-3 or less.

• From the opposition 49 to opposition 30, go for it on fourth-and-4 or less.

• From the opposition 29 to opposition 3, go for it on fourth-and-3 or less.

• From the opposition 2 or 1, go for it.

• Exception: inside the opponent's 25, attempt a field goal if it's the fourth quarter and a field goal causes a tie or gives you the lead.

by Jeff (not verified) :: Tue, 09/29/2009 - 4:54pm

Do you have your numbers somewhere for what each yard line is worth in points to the offense?