Kevin Kelley is a football coach who doesn’t merely eschew conventional strategy. The architect of a now-legendary Pulaski Academy high school program in Little Rock, Ark., mocks convention, puts a clothesline forearm to its neck, then stomps on it.
I learned about Kelley and his defiant disregard for kicking off to opponents (he’s a proponent of the onside kick, regardless of the score or the time on the clock) and punting (Pulaski Academy doesn’t even have a punter on its roster) when he was a guest on Mitch Levy’s KJR-AM morning radio show last year.
As somebody who has never understood why coaches are willing to exchange possession for minimal improvements in field position, I figured Kelley’s theories were at least worth a listen. The more I listened, the more I was convinced I’d seen – well, heard – the future of football.
I assumed Kelley would be irreverent – a high-stakes gambler boasting about the riverboat-casino killings he’s made to a Seattle radio audience – but he explained himself in a tone that was downright professorial. He had read a 2005 book written by University of California-Berkeley economist David Romer, who established a connection between flawed business decisions and NFL fourth-down plays.
The avoidance of punting, Kelley said, wasn’t steeped in a desire to turn football into a circus act. He was just playing the percentages. If you’ve got the ball inside your 5-yard line, and your fourth-down attempt is short, the opposition will score a touchdown 92 percent of the time. On the other hand, a 40-yard punt, with a 10-yard return, puts the ball on your own 38. From there, the opposition will score a touchdown 77 percent of the time.
Exercising caution, in other words, provides only a 15 percent benefit.
Onside kicks make similar sense: If the opposition recovers, the ball is usually spotted at its 47-yard line. A regular kickoff is typically returned to the opponent’s 33.
The downside of a failed onside kick is 14 yards of field position. The upside? You get to keep the ball.
Last season, in a road game against traditional Arkansas state power Cabot – a school with five times the enrollment of Pulaski Academy – Kelley’s team enjoyed a 29-0 first-quarter lead before Cabot ran a play.
Despite Kelley’s 104-19 record at Pulaski, with three state titles, his ideas still are considered too quirky for mainstream football coaches. These guys are wired to believe that in any 50-50 proposition, what can go wrong carries 70 times the weight of what could go right.
Still, Kelley has one peer in the profession – San Diego State coach Rocky Long – who admits that he’s intrigued by the notion of renouncing punts in traditional punting situations. This could have some consequences for the Washington Huskies, who’ll face the Aztecs at CenturyLink Field in the Sept. 1 season opener.
Long is tinkering with the possibility of turning any 2012 possession in opponent’s territory into a four-down possession.
“It’s a day-to-day theory,” Long told the San Diego Union-Tribune last week. “I haven’t decided because we’re still getting a feel for it out here.
“I just read about this guy,” Long continued, referring to Kelley, “and I don’t know if I can do that because everybody in the world is going to say this is not Football 101, right? But there’s a reason he’s winning all those games. Maybe he just has better players than everybody else, or maybe it’s their team gets used to playing like that and the other teams don’t get used to playing like that. It’s fourth-and-7 – most defenses run off the field, and now they’re going to stay out there. ‘What? How come the punt team isn’t running out?’ ”
Deflating the morale of a defense surprised at not seeing the punt team running onto the field for fourth down is one advantage of Kelley’s system. Another advantage is confounding defensive players – and their coaches –weaned on the sanctity of the three-and-out stop.
Four-and-out? What’s that about?
It’s about this: If the offense is committed to four downs, a third-and-4 poses schematic problems for the defense because it’s essentially a second-and-four. Run or pass? It’s anybody’s guess.
Or take a third-and-2. If there’s a power back in the equation, that’s probably a running play. But in a no-punt sequence, it’s a second-and-2, and an opportunity for a huge gain on a play-action pass.
A prep school coach in Arkansas analyzed data and took it upon himself to reinvent football thinking. The opportunity for Kevin Kelley’s team to achieve a first down on any possession has been increased by a whopping 25 percent.
The rest of football has been sluggish to emulate the Kelley blueprint because, as Long put it, it’s the flip side of Football 101. But as Major League Baseball executives have come to accept once-ridiculed statistics about on-base percentage, slugging percentage and defensive range – the “Moneyball” principles – football will catch on.
Maybe not this season, maybe not next season, but it’s only a matter of time before the midfield punt will be seen as archaic as a drop-kick.
“Just because something always been done that way,” Kelley once said, “doesn’t mean it should continue to be done that way.”
The man from Little Rock might have trouble in his Football 101 class, but I’ve got a feeling he’d ace his American History email@example.com