By now you've certainly heard of Kevin Kelly, head coach of Pulaski Academy in Arkansas. Better known as the Coach Who Never Punts. Grantland.com and HBO Real Sports have recently done pieces on Coach Kelly, in addition to the story in the Washington Post.
Kelly's philosophy is simple. So long as the game is competitive, he doesn't punt and onside kicks on every kickoff. The reasoning extends beyond thumbing his nose at the Arkansas high school football establishment. According to Kelly, these decisions put the odds in his favor and improve his team's chances to win the football game, even assuming that his team will fail a decent number of times on these attempts.
Kelly isn't alone. David Romer of UC Berkley published an examination of 4th down decision making in the NFL and found support for Kelly's antics. When teams kick on 4th down, they routinely decrease their team's chance of winning. As these decisions compound over the course of a game, or even a season, the detriment to the team's success is substantial.
And this is where each piece on Coach Kelly ends, posing the same questions: Could Madden-ball work in the NFL? What about major college football? Why are big time coaches so afraid to experiment with counter culture decision making when in fact these choices put the odds in their favor?
"This is FOOTball not MATHball. That economist never put his hand in the dirt! Math can't tell you about momentum! Coaches need to have a feel for the game and know their team!"
This Georgia Southern-fan type visceral response is understandable, expected, but mostly nonsense. I have a hard time coming up with a "hand in the dirt" experience that would justify coaching against one's own team's chances for victory. Momentum? Sure momentum is real, right up until the next dropped ball or holding penalty, especially when dealing with 18-22 year olds.
What is truly preventing head coaches from imploring a more aggressive approach is the excess risk of failure that Romer cannot account for in his model.
When Bill Belichick went for it on a 4th & 2 from his own half with the lead late in the 4th quarter, taking into account the unstoppable Colts offense on the opposite sideline, he was annihilated by the press. That game was in 2009, but anyone watching still remembers those details and the outrage that followed because the move was so controversial.
In fact, I'd venture that his decision, had it been made by 80% of the other head coaches, would have cost the coach his job. This element of risk is not singular to the NFL. With so much money invested in college football, with the CFB media force growing by the minute, and with the relationship between perception and recruiting so important, a coach cannot risk looking like a buffoon at any point.
In order for a Division 1 head coach to take a serious look at throwing out tradition and playing Madden-ball (which, mind you, is the right thing to do), a certain set of conditions must be met to alleviate this unaccounted for risk of looking like a buffoon in times of failure.
Condition 1: Coach must have absolute job security. Because that cuts a good chunk of the nation's coaches off the list, what we're left with are coaches on two very different ends of the spectrum, the winning end and the losing end. Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and Jimbo Fisher have absolute job security because of their successes. Alternatively, we have the coaches who have been tasked with rebuilding a program from the bottom up. This includes the Mike Leaches of the world.
Condition 2: You cannot be good. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Saban, Meyer, and Fisher have no interest in throwing traditional play out the window when they have such a strong track record of success doing things the traditional way. Alabama will not be going for it on 4th and 8 from their own 35 in the 1st quarter anytime soon.
But the bad teams? Heck, they have nothing to lose. When even bowl eligibility is a pipe dream, at what point does banging one's head into the wall of tradition become too much to handle? It may be time to rethink the status quo.
Condition 3: Low expectations. This is where it gets a little tricky. If an athletic department expects their coach, to whom they've given full job security, to turn the program around in a specific amount of time playing a specific way, the risk factor still exists. The expectations at Penn State are such that James Franklin needs to be competing with Ohio State and Michigan State real soon. The long term payoff of changing the way Penn State plays may not be enough to satisfy the angry mob sure to follow.
What we need are coaches with job security, poor performance, and low expectations.
So who does that leave? That's right, your Sun Belt leading Georgia State Panthers. Atlanta's lovable underdog. A program with no expectations, no history of success, and no reason to not give coach Trent Miles all the rope he needs to potentially hang himself.
The Panthers play routinely in 4 wide sets. They are no stranger to 3rd and long. The GSU defense has little hope of slowing any well-oiled Sun Belt offense to the point they might be held to a stalemate. These are the conditions for Madden-ball.
Giving Nick Arbuckle the freedom to play with an extra down will do wonders for the offense. At this point, the Panthers truly have nothing to lose and everything to gain. And remember, this isn't some crazy strategy with no hope of success. Quite the opposite. Playing football by the numbers will actually improve GSU's chances of winning.
Coach Miles, please. Georgia State should never punt again.