Varsity Numbers: Fourth-and-15

Varsity Numbers: Fourth-and-15
Varsity Numbers: Fourth-and-15
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bill Connelly

Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano made waves last week when, in light of the paralysis suffered by Rutgers defender Eric LeGrand on a kickoff (not to mention the countless number of concussions that have taken place), he proposed getting rid of the kickoff altogether.

We've reached the point in the game's evolution where something must change. Players have grown too big, too strong and too fast to play by rules conceived decades ago for smaller, weaker, slower players. The kickoff, Schiano reasoned, is the most obvious place to adjust. Take away the kicker and two men who hang back in case of a jailbreak, and eight players get a 30-to-50-yard head of steam before they hit anyone. If they dip their heads as LeGrand did, they might never walk again.

It certainly makes sense. You cannot remove the violence from football, of course, nor should you necessarily want to. It is a part of the game and a part of the draw, both for fans and players themselves. But if you can institute a rule that removes one of the most violent aspects of the game without actually changing the spirit of the game (it's not like anybody is proposing a two-hand touch rule), you should seriously consider it. While everybody is outraged by booster payments and free tattoos, the long-term injury problem is the biggest issue that needs solving.

Schiano proposes, basically, replacing the kickoff with a fourth-and-15 opportunity at the 30-yard line. In other words, he proposes replacing kickoffs with punts and onside kicks with long fourth-down conversion attempts.

Schiano despises the onside kick, and he said he's not alone among coaches. That particular play has grown so violent that it is a paralyzing injury waiting to happen. ... [A] play that can determine a win or loss -- aside from being dangerous -- is almost as dependent on luck as it is on skill. What does that prove?

Again, if you can remove a particularly violent aspect of the game without changing the spirit or skill of the game itself, there should be a serious debate about it. Unfortunately, the odds of said debate happening are not strong. The Schiano proposal was discussed on ESPN's College Football Live last week. Both former Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie and the usually thoughtful Rod Gilmore gave lip service to the thought of injuries as a serious issue and paid what they felt was a due amount of sympathy to LeGrand, Schiano and other victims of injuries. But then they vetoed the idea with no further thought. Davie said it would be unfair to the walk-ons who only ever see time on the kickoff team. Gilmore said, to paraphrase, "It's easier to convert a fourth-and-15 than recover an onside kick. And besides, Charlie Weis goes for it all the time already."

Gilmore is typically one of the more thoughtful national analysts, so it made me sad to hear this. You only come up with logic of this level when you reflexively dismiss an idea, then attempt to come up with justification after the fact. "I agree we should have a serious discussion about this issue, but [plugging fingers in ears] no, no, no, hell no." You cannot say something deserves discussion, then dismiss it without any attempt at thought or discussion. Because then this issue of injuries becomes like any of countless political arguments that never reach a positive solution.

Schiano is the first to admit that his idea may need some tweaks. He isn't a statistician. He isn't sure fourth-and-15 is the best distance. Ideally, the rules committee would find a distance where the percentage of first-down plays equals the success rate on onside kicks. The beauty of the Schiano Plan? That success rate would go up or down based on the skill of the offense, not the bounce of the ball.

Naturally, this is the area that piqued my curiosity. So I ran some numbers. Below is a chart showing two things: (1) In red, the success rate on attempted fourth-down conversions (pass attempts, rush attempts, fake attempts, but no botched snaps) between the 21 and 40 yard line, by yards-to-go, from 2005-10. (2) In green, the 25 percent baseline that represents the approximate success rate for onside kicks in the college game. For standard onside kicks, the success rate is around 18 percent; for surprise onside kicks, it is around 42 percent. Since we are including fake punts and field goals in the fourth-down conversion data, we will incorporate both types of onside kicks into one number as well.

And in data table form, so you can see that the fourth-and-18 and -19 bump is due primarily to tiny sample size:

Yds To Go
Succ Rt N
1 73.1% 424
2 71.4% 84
3 69.0% 71
4 61.0% 77
5 62.5% 72
6 45.5% 66
7 35.4% 48
8 29.5% 44
9 36.1% 36
10 37.4% 91
11 33.3% 24
12 33.3% 21
13 21.1% 19
14 16.7% 12
15 12.5% 24
16 20.0% 10
17 0.0% 13
18 33.3% 6
19 40.0% 5
20 13.3% 15
21+ 6.3% 32

If we were looking to replace an onside kick with something similarly successful, we would actually need to look more in the fourth-and-12 or fourth-and-13 range. Fourth-and-15 might feel like it's easier to convert than an onside kick is to recover, Rod, but it is not. It is quite a bit more difficult. And if Charlie Weis, or any other coach, wanted constantly to try to play make-it-take-it with the rule change, power to them. They would probably be looking for another job soon, but they can try.

Typically, Step One in having a "Serious Debate" on a topic, one that would constitute a major systemic (but, again, not spiritual) change, results in the old guard and opinion-makers saying something resembling "We need to have a serious debate about this topic (though I'm not even remotely willing to actually consider any changes)." Step Two is to have the serious debate. Clearly the Schiano proposal has reached Step One. Hopefully makes it to Step Two; it deserves consideration.


29 comments, Last at 20 Jun 2011, 7:26am

#1 by Lance // Jun 13, 2011 - 1:27pm

I'm confused about this proposal. In the article, the author writes:

"Schiano proposes, basically, replacing the kickoff with a fourth-and-15 opportunity at the 30-yard line. In other words, he proposes replacing kickoffs with punts and onside kicks with long fourth-down conversion attempts."

What does that mean? Like, I have the ball, at my own 45. I fail to convert on 3rd and 4 when my run gets stuffed. So it's 4th and 4 at my own 45. So... instead of punting, what am I doing?

Points: 0

#3 by Eee (not verified) // Jun 13, 2011 - 1:39pm

After I score I get the ball on the 30 yard line with a 4th down and 15 yards to go for a first. I can punt or go for it.

This does nothing to change regular 4th downs during a game.

Points: 0

#9 by Lance // Jun 13, 2011 - 3:10pm

Ah, I see. So it's just the KO after scores. So are punts demonstratively safer than kick-offs?

Points: 0

#10 by Bill Connelly // Jun 13, 2011 - 3:16pm

That's certainly what someone would need to figure out. If punts are indeed safer, I'm all for it.

Points: 0

#13 by Lance // Jun 13, 2011 - 5:00pm

Really? I've been thinking about it and I feel like it fundamentally changes the game and I'm not sure I like it. Under the current situation, a kickoff typically gives the opponent the ball at ca. their 25 (+/-) yard line. Occasionally, that team will bust a long run giving excellent field position, or even a TD. And occasionally, there's a fumble and the other team gets the ball back.

Under this new system... well, there are going to be some significant chance that teams will "go for it" more, and get the 15 yards and keep the ball. That's something akin to a lost fumble on a kick-off return. On those opportunities where the team "goes for it" but fails, the other team gets the ball in excellent field position-- something like busting a long return.

I feel like both of those events are going to happen far more frequently than we currently see fumbles and long returns.

And if a team punts, then what? The average punt (off the top of my head) is ca. 45 yards from the line of scrimmage, so the team gets the ball on average on their own 25, plus the punt return (ca. 8 yards on average?).

In all, I feel like it changes the aspect of the game in a way that I'm not a fan of.

Points: 0

#15 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Jun 13, 2011 - 5:13pm

What I'm not crazy about is the effect on penalties.

Under current rules, if the receiving team commits a penalty, but gets the ball/ball goes out of bounds, it's just a re-kick. If you commit pass-interference (even a spot foul), it's an auto first down. I think that's a huge change.

Points: 0

#17 by Bill Connelly // Jun 13, 2011 - 7:23pm

You're absolutely right about this one. That would be something for the 'cons' list.

Points: 0

#20 by BaronFoobarstein // Jun 13, 2011 - 7:35pm

Were first down conversions on fourth down by way of penalty included in your figures? If so, then no big deal where the yards come from, the conclusions are still correct. If not rerun with them included and your conclusions will still be correct.

Points: 0

#19 by BaronFoobarstein // Jun 13, 2011 - 7:34pm

If punts are demonstrably safer than kicks but demonstratively more dangerous than normal play, I'd suggest that the 4-and-15 be optional. A team in a position for which it would currently kick off can choose either A) some low probability "go for it" option like the 4-and-15 choice or B) Let the other team have it somewhere reasonable, like the 25-30 yard line. Adjust the numbers to whatever values make sense and for certain special situations (kickoff after safety, kickoff after penalty, etc.).

Even if punts aren't demonstrably more dangerous than normal play I think I'd prefer this.

Points: 0

#21 by Theo // Jun 14, 2011 - 2:04am

I don't see many coaches punt in that situation, punts don't fly that far and you risk a big return. I don't know the average net punt in college football (the avg punt is abuot 40 yards), but is that worth the other option: keeping the ball or giving them the ball on the 30. If they score, you get the same good field position.
Every coach would let the QB heave the ball deep, hoping for a 20 yard gain, a pass interference or rushing the passer penalty.
Why not a 4th and 25 on the 40. Then the punter can pin the ball deeper (on their 20).
I'd say; there's only one way to find out if it works.

Points: 0

#25 by Bill Connelly // Jun 14, 2011 - 9:19am

If coaches were truly this ballsy, they'd be attempting far more surprise onside kicks than they actually do. Those have a much higher probability of success than fourth-and-15 conversions. NOBODY will consistently go for it on fourth-and-15 because it's fourth-and-15. It's not fourth-and-five.

The median for net punting is typically in the 36-37 yard range, I believe, so punting from your 30 would result in expected starting field position around your own 33-34. Kickoffs result in a median starting field position of somewhere around the 27-28. That is a difference, and it could result in more offense ... but it doesn't completely change the game. And the penalties on 4th-and-15 might not either -- there really aren't as many pass interference calls as we think there are.

Points: 0

#5 by Yep (not verified) // Jun 13, 2011 - 1:51pm

In your example you would still be punting.

What you are missing is that to begin a half or after a touchdown the "kicking" team would be given then ball at their 30 yard line with a down and distance of 4th and 15. Most sane coaches will opt to punt in this situation, effectively replacing the kickoff with a punt and hence less injuries. However, late in games when teams used to attempt onside kicks, they will now simply try to convert their 4th and 15. If they fail, the other team takes over on "loss of downs".

Points: 0

#2 by Salur (not verified) // Jun 13, 2011 - 1:28pm

You know, I hadn't even thought about this until it was mentioned in the 6th paragraph, but: what would this change do to surprise onside kicks? If the offense came out for a 4th and 15 to start the game, they'd be showing their hand. Is there any way to replicate the suddenness of a surprise onside kick with this proposal, or would it be effectively lost?

Points: 0

#4 by JonFrum // Jun 13, 2011 - 1:42pm

Before I start talking about fourth and 15, I'd need to see the numbers on injuries during kick-offs. Who gets hurt, under what conditions?

Personally, I'd rather just get rid of the kicking game. Kicking has become so specialized in the game that it's a cliche to say that kickers aren't football players. OK, so how about having football played by football players? There's certainly no rational justification for a point after play. Field goals? I reward for failure. And a punter doesn't even kick to score. Replacing the punter with the QB throwing a give-away forward pass. It's a win-win - you get better placement of the ball, and you dump the salary of a guy who only gets on the field a few times a game.

Needless to say - none of this will ever happen. But if I were starting a league with rational rules, that's how I'd ride.

Points: 0

#7 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Jun 13, 2011 - 2:33pm

The TD has never been the only way to score in football. Indeed, it was decades before it became the primary goal.

As to player specialization -- Linemen are now twice as large as WRs/DBs. All players are specialized.

Points: 0

#12 by Thomas_beardown // Jun 13, 2011 - 3:41pm

As to player specialization -- Linemen are now twice as large as WRs/DBs. All players are specialized.

Was going to write almost the exact same thing.

Most quarterbacks are basically only good for throwing the ball. So what makes them different from kickers, other than the fact they use their skill more often?

Points: 0

#18 by BaronFoobarstein // Jun 13, 2011 - 7:29pm

I disagree with the cliche about kickers not being football players. I mean clearly they are playing football since they participate in football games. But when talking about the argument for removing the kicking aspect from football, I don't think the frequency of use should be dismissed. It's a factor. People see offense vs. defense as "normal" football. And the kicking aspects of the game are "special." Another major difference is the other people playing with the player in question. A kicker is out there with a special team whose role is the kicking game (many of the individuals have other roles on the team, but for the purposes of the play whether your gunner is a linebacker, corner, or backup long snapper is irrelevant). A quarterback plays with other members of that "normal" group of players, the offense.

Points: 0

#11 by Aaron Schatz // Jun 13, 2011 - 3:39pm

Note that the information on the success rate of onside kicks in college is now slightly updated above. It turns out if you separate surprise and standard onside kicks, the percentages are in fact much closer to the NFL rates.

Points: 0

#14 by sswoods (not verified) // Jun 13, 2011 - 5:05pm

This would be an interesting debate, if taken seriously. What other ideas do folks have in replacing kickoffs?

On the issue of field goals, I've long felt that they are basically mulligans. Can't achieve the goal (crossing the goalline)? Well, here, try this for half credit! I have no animosity towards kickers, but I do think fg's are too prevalent in the game.

Points: 0

#16 by Eric G (not verified) // Jun 13, 2011 - 7:05pm

How about letting the opposing team get the ball at their own 30-yard line? (In overtime, the ball should be at the 15-yard line.) I don't really care for the onside kick aspect of the game.

Ex-Bills Kevin Everett almost died on a kickoff; an Arena football player did die on a kickoff. I'm not aware of any serious punting injuries. I suppose punting could be safer by giving the punt returner five yards to handle the ball as in the Canadian Football League.

Extra points are a bigger problem than field goals. Why not put the ball at the one-yard line? With more 2-pt conversions, there would be a greater emphasis on touchdowns than field goals.

Points: 0

#22 by Theo // Jun 14, 2011 - 2:11am

Aren't game winning fieldgoals good? I like them, you have only 1 min left, you hurry down the field and kick it. Adds a lot of strategy.
But it is how me and my friends play madden. Field goals and punts are not allowed. 4 down football.

Points: 0

#23 by Podge (not verified) // Jun 14, 2011 - 7:41am

Do kickoffs and punts give roughly the same gain in field position for the kicking team? As far as I can work it, the top kickoff kickers by average distance gain about 42-44 yards from the kickoff spot (average kickoff distance minus average return), not counting touchbacks. The top punters have a net of around 40 yards. I'm going to just assume that every kickoff on average gets an start of 45 yards (adding a couple of yards to the average to include touchbacks) and every punt is an average of 40 yards.

I can't remember where we start for kickoffs now. Is it the 35, or the 30? Assuming its the 30, that means the average start position would be the oppositions 30 yard line, assuming you have a good punter and good coverage teams, more likely ahead of that. Is a 25% chance of getting the ball worth a 40 yard risk in field position?

Another thing - how valuable would this make a QB who can reliably kick the ball? Line him up in shotgun on every "kickoff". A punt with no one back to return it could be killer.

Also, how much more valuable would this make ROBOPUNTER?

Points: 0

#24 by Podge (not verified) // Jun 14, 2011 - 7:43am

I would look forward to seeing who could be the first person to block a kickoff...

Points: 0

#26 by Blah (not verified) // Jun 14, 2011 - 10:04am

Fourth-and-15 might feel like it's easier to convert than an onside kick is to recover, Rod, but it is not. It is quite a bit more difficult.

Considering teams went 6-for-34 (.176) with 16-19 yards to gain, I doubt this is actually true.

Points: 0

#27 by samgoody (not verified) // Jun 14, 2011 - 1:03pm

well, being as how football, the game itself, is a relatively very YOUNG sport, and has ever been evolving over the last 100 years to accomadate MANY new safety aspects to protect the players, making a new adjustment to the game now, in lieu of players being ever bigger, stronger, and faster on average then ever before, is alot more "traditional" actually (for the traditionalists) then the idea of keeping it as is... in a game that's constantly been changing, with many major new changes even as recently as the 70's, with many other minor ones still since, new change is the most traditional approach, rather then keeping it as is...

if we'd kept the game as is, since it's inception;
we'd have no helmets or pads,
a totally different looking field,
TD's = 5 pts, FG's = 5 pts, xp's = 2 pts
no forward passes, no below the waist tackles, no roughing the passer rules, no WR contact rules, and clipping, horse collars, head2head hits, and chop blocks would ALL still be legal...

i'm all for it, but at 4th and 20 from the 35... you wanna try to go for it, you need a big play (by skilled players) = more exciting then onside attempts... if you get it, you got great field position, if not, they get great field position, and in the most likely and common scenario of a punt, punt returns still afford an almost equal scenario as kick returns, with average field position, occasional touchbacks, and still a chance for an exciting return... but with a punt, blocking at the line of scrimmage holds most players up before getting to full speed, and the option for a reciever to fair catch, and slower coverage teams who were in fact blocked earlier, it simply minimizes the risk to the players, w/o completely eliminating the violence of the sport we've grown to love...

4th and 20 situations to replace kickoffs, IMHO, is a much more exciting scenario then a simple kick, with many more options that could potentially playout and excite the fans, while still retaining all the "core-fundamental" aspects of the game itself including the basics of a return game, while also greatly "minizing" the overall risk, but not overly cupcaking the game either... it's a win/win i think... and kudos to schiano for thinking outside the box...

Points: 0

#28 by Adam H (not verified) // Jun 15, 2011 - 10:52am

A few thoughts...

1) 4th and 15 is "truer" to the sport than kickoffs are. Where did kickoffs come from? They are a random element of an otherwise cohesive game IMO.

2) How awesome would it be to eliminate place kicks all together - you'd have to drop-kick field goals and extra points. I think that would be AWESOME. Then you'd only need one kicker (or at least just one kicking motion) for everything - kickoffs, punts, fieldgoals, extra points. I agree that extra points and field goals are over-done (because of the rules) - who DOESN'T want the posts to be at least closer together?

3) No coach goes for it on 4th and 15 from his own 15 yard line unless he would have gone for an onside kick. You're being stupid if you think coaches are going to run up the score on an overwhelmed opponent by going for it after every score.

Points: 0

#29 by Jamesm (not verified) // Jun 20, 2011 - 7:26am

I always thought kickoffs were a hangover from the origins of the game as both rugby and soccer start with a kickoff and in the case of rugby it looks reasonably close to a Football kickoff as the ball must travel 10 yards before the kicking team can touch it (although in rugby the team that conceded the score kicks off).

Does anyone have stats on what type of plays cause injusries how much more dangerous are kickoffs compared with punts or fg attempts of normal run plays or pass plays or goalline stands etc. I think we need to see the data to determine if it is a big problem that needs a fix.

That said I think the 4th and 15 from the 30 is a great idea. Ideally you would use an expected points approach to determine the ideal yards to go and position of the "kickoff" so that the average result of the punt would be similar to the present expected points of a normal kickoff and the expected points of successfully and unsuccessfully going for it on 4th is similar to that of an onside kick.

I have no problem with kickers per se but I do find onside kicks to look like totally random scrambles so i would favour the 4th and 15 option. In fact why not give the team the option of 4th and 15 form the 30 or a kickoff.

If you do go down the 4th and 15 routes punters will become more important which might not be what you want to see.

Points: 0

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