Andy Staples watches Kevin Kelley’s team – you know, the one that (almost) never punts – go to Highland Park (Texas) High to win a game convincingly against an opponent that hadn’t lost at home since 1998 and can’t help but wonder about something.
• The Bruins don’t win because they don’t punt or because they attempt onside kicks every time or because their receivers routinely lateral on plays that aren’t the last one of the game. They win because of the attitude Kelley’s approach instills on Pulaski Academy’s sideline and the mindset it instills on the other sideline. The Bruins always play as if they’re down 10 with 90 seconds to go. Think about all the points you’ve seen scored in that type of situation. The offense plays as if it has nothing to lose. The defense tightens, playing to protect the lead rather than to advance the cause. That’s every minute of every Pulaski Academy game.
• Why hasn’t some college coach whose team is perpetually doomed by history and circumstances tried this? Instead of playing conventionally, losing and getting fired every three-to-five years, why wouldn’t David Beaty at Kansas or Darrell Hazell at Purdue try something dramatic in an attempt to close the talent gap between their teams and their opponents? Nearly every great football innovation has come out of an attempt to close a talent gap. Turning the psychological tables the way Pulaski has might be the next great innovation.
The crazy part about Kelley’s system is it isn’t crazy at all. It’s based entirely on math. Each yard line has an expected point value. Each down-and-distance has an expected rate of success. Punting average is easily calculated, as is punt return average. Years of football data have created these numbers, and while they differ between high school, college and the NFL, they do not differ as much as you might think. It’s fairly easy to use these numbers to create a do-I-go-for-it-on-fourth-down formula similar to the do-I-hit probability combinations in blackjack…
… So, why are college coaches—especially the ones whose teams are likely to lose most of their Power Five-versus-Power Five games anyway—so reluctant to try something the math suggests could work?
It’s not because math is hard, especially in this day and age of iPads and support staffers. It’s because most coaches have an incentive to be cautious. The pay is good and there’s always the next job around the corner if the current one doesn’t work out. You don’t want a reputation of being that guy, the one who gets known for having used a crazy strategy to try to win. It’s so much safer to hire retreads like Karl Dorrell and predictably lose with an offense that couldn’t get out of its own way.
The irony, of course, is that there are examples of contrarian thinking paying off on the college level. As Staples observes,
Some coaches have done just that, but that requires imagination on their part and faith on the part of the administration that hired them. Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson is the only Power Five coach who runs the option as his base offense. Despite middling results before he got there and academic requirements that limit which recruits he can take, Johnson has won an ACC title. Last year his team went 11–3, won the ACC Coastal Division and pushed then unbeaten Florida State to the limit in the ACC championship game. The option takes away the need to recruit blue-chip quarterbacks, allowing Johnson to pull from the far deeper pool of athletic high school quarterbacks who would have otherwise been moved to tailback or safety in college. It also changes the math for offensive linemen. It’s tough to find ready-made 315-pounders. Alabama and Ohio State are going to get those guys. But the option puts a premium on speed and athleticism for linemen. There are far more lean(ish) 265-pound high school linemen who might grow into 300-pound monsters, and Johnson can recruit from that pool.
I’m not going to claim there aren’t limits on how far Johnson can go with the triple option. But it’s hard to argue that Georgia Tech isn’t a more successful program right now than Vanderbilt, even taking into account the relative strengths of the conferences they play in.
Take a chance, fellas. What do some of you have to lose? And who knows? You might even find that your fan base likes it.