Lateral the damn ball.

This is pretty awesome – the Arkansas high school coach who’s already gained notoriety for his strategy eschewing punts and embracing onside kicks has come up with a new wrinkle.  Allow him to explain:

Kelley used an ESPN database to study college football history. He found that historically, there was no bigger indicator of victory than winning the turnover margin – teams that forced more turnovers than they committed won 80 percent of the time. But last season, Kelley said, a new trend emerged for the first time: Teams that recorded more plays of at least 20 yards won about 81 percent of the time.

It made sense to Kelley – bigger chunks of yardage meant scoring quicker and less opportunity to commit turnovers and drive-killing penalties. He became obsessed with finding a system designed for big plays. He found that on plays when two players touched the ball – a typical handoff or pass – teams gained 20 yards about 10 percent of the time. But when at least three players touched the ball – a trick play with a lateral involved – the percentage for gaining 20 yards rose to around 20 percent.

“That got me thinking,” Kelley said. “How could we develop a system for more than two people to touch the ball?”

One day, watching television, Kelley stumbled across a rugby game. That was it. Rugby teams built designed plays despite constant movement, an intricate series of laterals. Teammates didn’t block for the ball carrier; they rushed to the right spot to receive a pitch.

And so Kelley instituted a new system. When he calls out “Rugby!” before an offensive series, his wide receivers change their assignment. Rather than blocking downfield, they rush toward the receiver who catches the ball. If they’re open, they yell the receiver’s name and which side they’re on. He tells his players only to pitch the ball when they’re sure it’s safe.

Essentially, Kelley’s offense will run the option – after a completed pass down the field.

As the saying goes, that’s just crazy enough, it might work.  But even so,

Even if Kelley’s offense works this fall, it’s not going to change much outside of the Arkansas 5A-Central Conference. Despite his success derived from not punting, no copycats have sprung up at higher levels. Football coaches are too wedded to convention, scared by the knowledge that losing traditionally is safer than trying to win radically. Kelley is just fine with that.

“I don’t want anybody else doing this,” Kelley said. “With not punting and the onside kicks, I know I have a stat advantage. If this works, I want everybody thinking this is stupid, too.”

Sounds about right.


Filed under Strategery And Mechanics

44 responses to “Lateral the damn ball.

  1. SouthernYank

    It is stupid.


  2. DawgPhan

    Good for him. Hope he does well.


  3. Rick

    Ah, going for it on 4th, so stupid that the only people that endorse it are coaches who win football games because of it and MIT economists:

    Guaranteed to win more games and increase your odds of winning championships. But no one does it, because the first time it doesn’t work in a big moment, it will go down in the annals of your team’s history as ‘fourth and dumb’ and you will get shit-canned (unless you already have a few Super Bowl titles under your belt like Belichek, although they will still call it ‘fourth and dumb).

    Football fans are their own worst enemies.


    • Exhibit A for why I loathe the NFL. It’s coaches are bred to be so risk-averse that they avoid doing things that make too much damned sense for fear of being seen as different or not going with the establishment. Coaches like Pete Carroll, Chip Kelly, and Bill Belichick are nice refreshers from the lukewarm blandness that is your average NFL head coach.


    • SC_IL

      As long as we’re going Econ, that coach is working with a non-representative sample when he says “the percentage of plays gaining big yards increases to 20% when at least three players touch the ball.” Those are mainly surprise and trick plays in particular situations.

      My guess is that the 20% number drops when we get data on these rugby plays. The rugby plays may not be as successful as the instances of surprise flea-flickers when the offensive coach saw something he could exploit.

      His thinking is also some partial equilibrium hooey. Defenses adjust, especially with a week to prep.

      And from the common sense camp, having receivers hold the loaf of bread trying to hear “Jason, Right!” and then executing a pitch… That sounds like a delicious recipe for fumble stew.


      • Rick

        I should say I’m not defending the lateral stuff, and don’t disagree with your skepticism. Won’t be super surprised if he is right, but won’t be surprised if he is wrong either. It’s too difficult to analyze to really know until we see the results (even then, it’s just high school). Fourth down is another matter – we have tons of data.

        I do like his chutzpah, though.


      • Defenses adjust, especially with a week to prep.* The Fish Fry O is predicated on defenses not be familiar with this style and not be adequately prepared. And probably why Tech stumbles so much in bowls.


    • Hunkering Hank

      Rick is exactly right.

      Also, I coach youth travel football in Georgia and we only punt 3-4 times a season – and the reasons for it are hardly ever that it’s fourth and forever. You’d be amazed what gets converted, especially at the youth level.


      • SC_IL

        I would agree with Rick and HH, but keep in mind that Kelly’s basing his judgements on college football data and not youth or HS data. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in youth or HS football, the probability of a big gain play is not as dependent on how many people touch the ball. So his starting premise may not even hold up in youth/HS ball.

        Definitely chutzpah though. And I definitely like people with the stones to innovate. Heck, I even have to give Fredi Gonzales props when he puts his closer in before the 9th inning.


    • Cosmic Dawg

      Good post and all the posts that followed it, too. Would love to see CMR embrace even a little bit more of this stuff.


  4. Ben

    Hey, y’all remember when Pollack got called for a forward lateral back in the 2002 cocktail party? I do. That sucked.


    • Man, I remember the exact chair I was sitting in at Manuel’s Tavern when that happened. Holy shit that sucked. That was the game where Terrance Edwards dropped that wide open pass too? I think it was.


    • Bulldog Joe

      A handoff. It was a lateral in only Penn Wagers’ mind.


      • sUGArdaddy

        Correct, Joe, it was not a lateral, and you should be able to hand it forward. You know how I know that’s legal? You can’t forward pass twice, right? Well, read option hand-off (forward, in front of shotgun QB), then the RB pitches back to a receiver on a reverse and he throws a pass. Is the pass called back because there were double forward passes? No. The ref in Jacksonville blew the call that probably would have won David Pollack the Heisman Trophy.

        He had literally made every thinkable play you could think of that season for a DE. Palmer wont it for a 2-loss USC team. We win that game on that play, Pollack was the hero in at least 3 HUGE SEC games (South Carolina, UT — had a million sacks, and UF). But I’m over it…:)


        • Brandon

          Not to mention we finish that season 12-0 SEC Champs and still whould have played FSU in the Sugar Bowl ala Auburn 04


      • It was Wager’s. I really don’t like that man. I am glad he is gone.


  5. I Wanna Red Cup

    Buy that video on his onsides kicks was great. They got 4 in a row to start the game to go up 29-0 on a team that beat them by 1 point the year before. I’m sold. He should be our special teams coach.


  6. etdawg

    My Intramural flag football college days had this same offensive concept. Won some campus championships. Only worked marginally well in regional competition. I dont see this concept working at any level where linemen are huge. The advantage of flag/rugby is that all players are eligible receivers.


  7. jtdawg

    I like that he’s thinking outside the box, but it seems to me he is also setting up a number of his kids to get earholed.

    The player running to his pitch position I assume will have his hands up and eyes on the man with the ball, not looking in front or behind him for the defender with a 10 yard free run instructed to take out anyone around the ball carrier out as well because this team likes to pitch it back every play.

    Would take great timing and precision to make it worthwhile, just like any other option offense


  8. I’d never send my FG kicker out there to choke away games, either.


  9. 3rdandGrantham

    I love this guy, and his contrarian thinking not just to simply be, well, contrarian, but being contrarian based on stats/predicted models that firmly back you up. With that said, one obvious flaw in his thinking regarding 3 players touching the ball yields a 100% greater chance of a 20 yard play, is that such plays (3 touches) are rare and unexpected, hence the occasional large gain from it. But if opposing D’s expect such plays and prepare as such for them in advance (given its now your O’s philosophy), I strongly suspect that 20% figure will pretty much drop back down an/near the more typical 10% baseline.

    If I recall, either Harvard or MIT did a study a few years ago that essentially proved that football coaches should go for it on 4th down far more often than they currently do, depending on the situation. 4th and 12 from your own 15? Of course you should punt. But 4th and 3 from your own 47, you damn well should go for it. Bill Bellichick, one of the very best football coaches ever, paid close attention to this study and thus often goes for it on 4th down while his contemporaries send in the punting unit.


  10. Russ

    Coming soon to Auburn, once the Gus Bus loses steam.


  11. Chuck

    “losing traditionally is safer than trying to win radically”

    Or, it might be that the other coaches egos are filled with the knowledge that they have prepared their players for what is ahead as opposed to present glory.


  12. RugbyDawg79

    one of these days-someone will discover a rolling maul-using big offensive lineman in a big ball rolling (upright) taking tight handoff after handoff-once the defense is totally sucked in-have a back take it and go. Man that will wear a defense down.


  13. Connor

    I’m glad he’s trying this. I was reading some stories about the early days of college football and it was striking how fundamentally different the game was. Will Muschamp was probably born about a hundred years too late, his strategy would have fit right in to 1914. As this coach points out, lots of people used to make fun of the pass, and that argument has been put to rest. I don’t know if this particular strategy will work, but in 25 years the game will look different. Plenty of room for improvement.


    • 3rdandGrantham

      Exactly. Heck, just take something as simple as a huddle…hardly anyone huddles anymore, and when I watch old games on SECN or ESPNC, I basically laugh at the fact that teams used to huddle before each and every play. It just looks so, well, rudimentary.


  14. Bulldog Joe

    I see the Falcons sent their assistant GM to talk to Coach Kelley.

    Perhaps they can spice up an otherwise dreary season with a few of these plays?


  15. I like his style but I’d still punt most of the time. I just wouldn’t have a FG kicker. 4th down from about the 40 in and I’m going for it. Our questionable FG kicking the last couple years has played a major role in nearly all of our losses.

    Have I mentioned that I don’t like FG kickers? Dude has but 1 job and he turns into a head case, flipping momentum…all over 3 points. Hey, I never said I’d make a championship coach.


  16. 69Dawg

    Well finally somebody has looked at Rugby and gotten a clue. Rugby is the original “Spread Formation” football. I’ll admit that I have always thought that a rugby coach would be great for kickoffs. Most rugby plays would increase KO returns. Just remember that in Rugby everybody is eligible. Put your 11 fastest players on the kickoff return team. After the ball is kicked they all fall back and start playing rugby. No one blocks any one just be sure you are behind the ball carrier. If nothing else the defenders would have to honor the spread and that would keep them from ganging upon the ball carrier. I like Chubbs odds of breaking a few arm tackles.


  17. shane#1

    Anybody remember Doug Dickey? Fourth and dumb can get you fired. D1 coaches make too much money today to even take a shot. Too much money leads to SUCK. I love laterals and love to watch rugby. Can’t Richt find even one punter off that club rugby team at UGA?


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