You might not know Kevin Kelley’s name, but you know who Kevin Kelley is. You’ve read about him in Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, the New York Times, and on ESPN. If Grantland had existed in 2005 — when Kelley first implemented his bold new strategy at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas — we undoubtedly would have toasted his budding cult celebrity status in our “Who’s That Guy?” annals.
Kelley is the coach who never punts and almost always onside kicks. And while he hasn’t converted his high school success into a college gig like fellow prep sensations Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze, Kelley has managed something arguably more revolutionary: He’s caused us to question the way the game is played.
The numbers support Kelley’s football philosophy, but even if you’re not a stathead, you’ll probably watch our Grantland Channel video and think, Why isn’t my team doing that? The numbers Kelley cites are that eye-popping. And he isn’t cooking the books: Cal professor David Romer concluded that teams should not punt when facing fourth-and-4 or less; NFL stats analyst Brian Burke has detailed the need to rethink fourth-down decision-making; Football Outsiders has conflated punts with turnovers. You’ve even read about it on this site. Most fans and analysts who are willing to accept that change is a fundamental part of life have embraced the idea that automatically punting on fourth down doesn’t make sense.
So why do teams at all levels remain so rote? Chris Kluwe may have turned the Internet into his personal pulpit, but he can’t be that persuasive. Romer got it right way back in 2005: Coaches are afraid. No one wants to be the guy who gets fired because he stopped punting. And the same fans and analysts who clamor for innovation are actually fueling that fear. The mob nearly tarred and feathered Falcons coach Mike Smith when he went for it on fourth-and-inches in overtime against the Saints in 2011. Bill Belichick almost lost his hoodie-wearing privileges after going for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28 against the Colts in 2009. San Diego State coach Rocky Long announced before the 2012 season that he might stop punting, then had to field so many questions about it on a weekly basis that he began refusing to discuss his fourth-down plays with the media.
Kelley has turned his approach into state-championship winning success because he understands that never punting and almost always onside kicking works best in high school when a team never punts and almost always onside kicks. It’s not a sometime strategy. The percentages would dictate more nuanced tactics at the higher levels, but the larger point holds: We can’t expect college and NFL coaches to adopt this approach consistently if they’re lambasted whenever they give it a go.
Think about this: No. 5 Baylor is averaging 8.6 yards per play. The Bears are undefeated and in the thick of the national championship race. They don’t need to stop punting, but can you imagine if they did? Conversely, can you imagine if Art Briles had been 0-for-3 on his fourth-down attempts against no. 10 Oklahoma last week instead of 2-for-3? The results dictate the level of admiration or outrage.
Statisticians say teams shouldn’t automatically punt. Fans say they want to see a more exciting game. Recruits would surely love to play for a school pitching endless high-pressure offensive and defensive situations.
But maybe we’re not ready for what we think we want.