Varsity Numbers: Fourth-and-15
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
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.