Fire the Punter! Keep the Offense on the Field

Todd FlemingAnalyst IMay 15, 2009

SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 17:  Scott Player #10 of the Arizona Cardinals punts against the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field on September 17, 2006 in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks won 21-10. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

In many years of playing EA Sports Madden football as well as the NCAA college football game, I have never once punted. Not once.  Nada.  I could be facing 4th and 18 on my own three yard line…doesn’t matter.

The punter stays parked on the bench. I’d rather air it out and suffer the consequences, which, thanks to the wretched cornerback play on football video games, isn’t all that often.

In returning to the real world of football, I’ve also noticed that whenever the opposing team is playing a team I’m rooting for and a 4th and short situation comes up, I’m always hoping they send the punter on the field. Why? Because it is usually in the best interests of my team.

It is very hard to stop a good offense on 4th and 3 regardless of where they are at on the field. While I’ve done no statistical analysis on it, my gut tells me that every team in the NFL and NCAA punts far more than they really should if the coaches were better at playing the odds, especially teams with subpar defenses.

What is more likely for a team like the Arizona Cardinals, converting a 4th and 3 or actually stopping the other team’s offense? They’d be better off playing the offensive odds, even if they are on their own 35 yard line.

Coaches who have decided they aren’t going to punt have the added luxury of an expanded playbook since they now have four downs to get a first down.

Getting ten yards with four downs should not be that great of a challenge in most cases. After all, the defense doesn’t know what play the offense has called.

A team should almost never send a punter onto the field once they’ve crossed mid-field, unless they end up in a fourth and a ton situation. Nothing in football is more frustrating than watching your team punt from the 40 yardline for a touchback on 4th and short.     

The NFL has evolved to the point where the offenses are, by and large, better than the defenses. The rules, largely governed by the NFL’s desire to market a high scoring product, favor the offenses.

So, why are coaches in such a hurry to send their offenses to the bench and put their frequently overmatched defenses on the field? For some teams, this makes a bit more sense. If a team has a ferocious defense but a less intimidating offense, like the Steelers and Ravens, punting is a more attractive option.

By all means, put that defense back on the field. Ed Reed has a better chance of scoring than most of the Ravens’ skill players.

But, for many of the league’s teams, the situation is the reverse. Why would the Denver Broncos ever punt? Their 2008 defense couldn’t stop anybody. They would be far better served in going for it in most fourth down situation with that defense. The situation was the same for the Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots and a host of other teams.

The most a team can hope for when punting is about a 40 yard shift in field position and that is the ideal. And a few things can go disastrously wrong. The punt can be blocked or the ball can go sailing over the punter’s head as happened in the Steelers-Giants game.

More likely, the punt return specialist may find a seam and run the ball back. How often do games turn on punt returns in today’s NFL and NCAA?

This should come down to a simple risk/reward calculation. If the coach assesses the risk is higher than the potential reward, punt. If not, go for it. I don’t think many coaches are good at making this calculation. Somebody needs to develop a chart to help better guide these decisions.  

So, why are there so many punts? Most coaches don’t want to take the heat if they go for it and don’t make it. If a coach goes for it on 4th and 3 from his own 35 yard line and doesn’t make it, he’ll get eaten alive by the “experts.”

But, if he punts and the other team subsequently scores (which in the case of some teams is a near certainty), nobody will say a word about the decision.

If an aggressive coach eschews punting and wins five games because of it while losing one, media attention will focus on the one that was lost. So, coaches punt out of a sense of self preservation. 

Plus, most coaches just don’t have that killer instinct. They are comfortable keeping a game close, figuring they can win it in the end, instead of putting it away by being more aggressive with the ball. This doesn’t just apply to the NFL. College coaches are even worse when it comes to punting too often.

If you are a small conference school playing an NCAA offensive juggernaut like Oklahoma or Florida, why punt the ball to them? Chances are that they will say, “Thank you very much,” and march right down the field and score. Take your chances with all your offensive downs.

As an Air Force football fan, I’d much rather see them go down swinging when they are playing a top-notch team than put an overmatched defense back on the field to try to work a miracle.

Their offense is tough to stop even for the better defensive teams while their their student-athletes on defense will struggle to matchup against an elite offensive squad from an NFL football farmclub.

At some point, a coach is going to come along who is a math wizard. And he is going to keep his punter parked squarely on the bench on most occasions.

People will scratch their heads and try to figure out what he is thinking. And then they will notice that the coach just keeps on winning. And teams are going to finally wake up to the reality that it is okay to go for it on 4th down on a more regular basis.