Is the NFL over punting?
By Mike Tanier
As a tactic for winning football games, punting makes little sense. Basketball teams don’t stop rebounding and offer the ball to the opponent if they miss a few jumpers. Baseball teams don’t reach an 0-2 count with two outs and declare: “Oh well, the odds are against us. You’re up!” Yet football coaches, those self-styled battle-hardened generals, have been meekly surrendering on fourth downs for decades.
The punt, a holdover from football’s rugby-related roots, has been part of the NFL’s calcified conventional wisdom for generations. But the tactic has fallen on hard times in recent years. The events of this year’s playoffs could push the punt to the verge of extinction. When Chiefs coach Andy Reid made the bold fourth-quarter decision in Kansas City’s divisional-round playoff victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, he may have launched the meteor.
Reid’s Chiefs appeared to be trying to lure the Browns’ defense offsides before an evitable punt on fourth-and-inches while protecting a narrow 22-17 lead. Instead, the Chiefs snapped the ball and surprised the defense with a short pass that allowed them to run out the clock instead of giving the Browns a chance to attempt a desperate final touchdown drive.
Reid’s daring decision was the latest development in what has become a postseason referendum on punting. Moments earlier, the Browns had punted despite trailing in the fourth quarter, hoping their defense could stop a Chiefs offense missing injured superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It could not.
In the previous week’s wild-card round, both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans punted in late-game, short-yardage situations while trailing, only to allow the Browns and the Baltimore Ravens to score on the next possession and ultimately win both games.
Punting has become far less prevalent in recent years. NFL teams punted an average of 3.7 times per game during the 2020 regular season, the lowest figure in recorded pro football history. Teams averaged 4.8 punts per game as recently as 2017, a rate that had held more or less steady since the mid-1980s but has declined in each of the last four seasons.
The sudden decrease in punting comes over a decade after the football analytics community began decrying the punt as a counterproductive strategy, particularly in short-yardage situations near midfield or when trailing late in a close game. It doesn’t take much number-crunching to realize that if the average offense gains 5.6 yards per play (the 2020 rate), not only should a team be able to pick up a yard or 2 on fourth down, but it should also be wary of gifting the ball to an offense capable of marching right back down the field 5.6 yards at a time.
Fans have become increasingly aware of the analytics of punting, but it takes a long time for anything scientific to gain acceptance in a league where coaches have been passing down both sacred tactical oral wisdom and tough-guy rhetoric since the days of George Halas.
In the primordial NFL of the 1920s, it was common for a superstar like Jim Thorpe to punt on first down if his team was pinned near its own goal line. The early-down punt disappeared about the same time as the leather helmet, but punting on fourth down in most circumstances (when not in field-goal range) became the unquestioned norm at all levels of play. That made sense at the time. In the early 1950s, NFL teams averaged less than 5 yards per play and committed well over three turnovers per game (the 2020 turnover rate was just 1.3 per game), so there was a decent chance that the punting team would quickly get the ball back.
Offenses have grown steadily more efficient since the late 1970s. Yet most coaches remained convinced that even a fourth-and-inches conversion attempt was as nearly as risky as betting the deed to the farm on the hope of a royal flush.
Conversion attempts gradually increased as mavericks like New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick (who has an economics degree) and then-Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera (whose nickname is Riverboat Ron) enjoyed success with fourth-and-short “gambles.” Doug Pederson, the former Philadelphia Eagles head coach, bucked conventional wisdom in the Super Bowl with several high-risk fourth-down conversions, including the Philly Special (a goal-line trick play for a touchdown run in a typical field-goal situation) and a fourth-and-1 pass while protecting a fourth-quarter lead.
A few high-profile anecdotes carry more weight in the NFL than a mountain of statistical research, so it’s no surprise that punt rates began dropping precipitously after that Super Bowl. The last two weeks of playoff results will likely further sour coaches on punting.
There will always be a place for the punt on fourth-and-15 from the shadow of a team’s own goal posts. And in a league full of traditionalists who still chant mantras like “establish the run” and “defense wins championships,” no strategy is likely to disappear overnight. But gradually, coaches will begin to wonder why they are replacing their multimillion-dollar quarterbacks in high-leverage situations with the player most likely to walk through a parking lot tailgate unrecognized, and why they preach aggressiveness all week during practice, only to timidly give the ball to their opponents with the game on the line.
As soon as the tough guys and mathematicians finally agree about punting, they can start debating in earnest about settling for field goals.