Football in the 20-teens: No punting, no tackling

To most NFL fans, the term Wildcat conjures up an image of a running back receiving the snap. Whether or not this lends an element of diversity to a team’s attack is debatable. More certain are the formation’s implications to the offensive coordinator: that during running plays his team is no longer at a numerical disadvantage to the defense.

Usually when a quarterback hands off, he proceeds to take himself out of the mix, thus leaving the offense with but 10 players matched up against the defense’s 11. The Wildcat, in contrast, provides a contingency blocker. In any event, like many “innovations” in sport (as well as art and fashion), the Wildcat is actually a homage to the past — in football’s case, the venerable single-wing.

Even before the single-wing, there was punting, which is at least 100 years old. Can punting have outlived its usefulness? Shortly after Bill Belichick decided against punting — to disastrous effect — on fourth and two with two minutes left in the Patriots-Colts game November 15, this 2008 article on resurfaced:

Kevin Kelley decided to flip football convention on its head after Pulaski (Ark.) Academy’s second game of the 2007 season. Never a fan of taking his offense off the field, the coach became miffed when his Bruins punted. . . only to see Pulaski allow an 80-yard touchdown on the return. … As a result, [Kelley’s] 2008 team did not punt during 14 games. Such an unorthodox strategy may seem like lunacy, but it was successful: Pulaski won the 5A state title.

Author Jeff Fedotin expands on Coach Kelley’s reasoning:

Keeping the offense on the field on fourth down allows for more creative play-calling. Third-and-long does not have to be a passing down. [Pulaski] can run the ball, throw a screen pass or use any number of formations. Defenses do not know whether to use a nickel or dime defense. And Pulaski’s offense has less pressure on third down.

What’s more. . .

The Bruins even avoid punting when the defense has stopped them inside their own 10-yard line. “You can just tell people are in the stands thinking, ‘You’re an idiot,'” Kelley said.

It may not be the NFL or college, but high-school football coaches are subject to scrutiny, too. But Coach Kelley supported “this rationale with numbers analysis.”

Even at the simplest level, the stats make the no-punt policy intriguing. According to, the worst NFL team averages 4.5 yards a play. Skewed by long pass completions, averaging might be less useful than a median. Still, using all four downs, as Kelley was, means that your offense need only average 2.5 yards per play! Even the Cleveland Browns — proud owner of the 4.5 average above — can handle that.

Besides, punting runs counter to our competitive instincts. Remember when you first played backyard football? (I know, I’m dating myself. I can’t remember the last time I saw kids play a pick-up game.) Most likely, come fourth down, forget punting, you were hell-bent on going for it. After all, you only had four chances to make a fourth down. What red-blooded kid would forfeit one?

To put it another way, offense in football is the equivalent of batting in baseball. Punting then is something like leaving the batter’s box after two strikes. Imagine baseball’s coaching tradition calling for this: There’s a man (or three) on base. The batter has just been called for his second strike. But said conventional thinking on the part of the manager decrees that the batter must forfeit his remaining chances to hit the ball or draw a walk. Why? Out of fear that the batter has sufficiently tempted fate and might now hit into a double play.

Bottom line: Everybody wants their cuts and the fourth down is like one last pitch to swing at.

A no-punt policy also bears a resemblance to the full-court press in basketball, which is also all about maximizing the opportunities afforded you. In May of 2009, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker piece entitled How David Beats Goliath: How underdogs can win. Before turning his attention to press-master Rick Pitino, he tells the story of Indian Vivek Ranadivé who decided to coach his 12-year-old daughter Anjali’s basketball team. New to basketball, Ranadivé was puzzled.

A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press — that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?

He decided that “his team would play a real full-court press, every game, all the time. The team ended up at the national championships.”

Playing Archetypal Football

If the Wildcat, the full-court press, and the no-punt policy represent outside-the-box thinking when it comes to sports, this next concept harkens back to a time when boxes didn’t even exist — before, even, the wheel was invented. In fact, it requires that we connect with the archetype upon which football (near as I can tell) is based. Doubtless this story wasn’t consciously adapted to football, but sprung forth spontaneously from the collective unconscious of those who drew up the game. Come to think of it, when it comes to men pitting themselves against each other, maybe it was the only story going.

Imagine a war party has gone out on a raid. It successfully snatches a chalice or some holy artifact of disputed provenance and then endeavors to transport it back behind its own lines. Naturally, its enemy takes off in hot pursuit. In order to retrieve its purloined treasure, the enemy employs two tactics.

One, it attempts to defeat the war party and two, it dispatches brave warriors to zero in on the treasure itself. Note that the second tactic’s success would obviate the need to consummate the first. Applied to football, this story suggests that it implores modern coaches to keep their eye on what football is really about: the ball.

As a prelude to my proposal, which concerns possession of said ball, isn’t it time we stopped calling a fumble a fumble? At this late stage in NFL history, why continue to lay the blame for a lost ball at the offensive player’s feet, er, hands? Assuming, that is, he doesn’t just cough it up.

Today’s fumble is less a mistake by the offense than a successful foray on the part of the defense (or a commando raid). Just try to imagine what it’s like struggling to retain your grip on a ball while players with biceps the circumference of a tree limb are trying to pry it away from you. Instead of charging the offense with a fumble or crediting the defense with nothing more glamorous than a fumble recovery, why not award the defensive player with a “strip”?

Which brings me to my proposal: More and more, today’s defenses are urged to go for the ball (while, concomitantly, tackling fundamentals erode). Then why not worry less about halting the progress of the offense — including the player in possession of the ball — and, to the extent that it’s practicable, focus entirely on wresting the football from the possession of the offense?

Wait, isn’t stripping the ball a gamble? Perhaps, but the odds of success are sure to increase with reps. The particulars of this stratagem? When a back begins his run, forget about tackling him and go straight for the ball. Sure, he’ll continue to move forward and gain more yards. But his progress will be slowed and the rest of the defense will descend on him to assist in prying the ball loose. Either the ball will be sprung free or the runner will be slowed to a halt, if after a sizeable gain. In fact, to keep from losing the ball, he may go down on his own.

The defense may give up what once seemed like precious yardage, but it pales compared to the possibility of rescuing the precious treasure from the infidels. Of course, at times, such as when a runner manages to break away or after a long pass completion, thoughts of stripping the ball need to be put aside and the offensive player just needs to be brought down.

As an added bonus, stripping the ball instead of wholesale tackling saves your defense wear and tear, leaving it better equipped to avoid injury. It might take a few seasons for a coach to achieve success with this stratagem, but if he commits his team to it, the tide might turn dramatically in his offense’s favor, as with a full-court press or even a running strategy in basketball.

Oh, and the football? It should be died gold to remind players of its value.

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10 replies »

  1. Russ,

    Interesting piece – and sure to make fantasy players everywhere go nuts.

    One caveat – you may have already thought about this, but the strategy you’re emplying is ultimately going to make football a lot like Ultimate Frisbee.

    • Fun to contemplate, although if MY team goes for it on 4th-and-long from its own 1 yard-line with a 2-point lead and a minute left in the game, I’m gonna be a tad agitated.

  2. Although I fully comprehend only about 5% of this post, I’m fairly certain that any strategy resulting in less opportunity for general carnage (and employing the term “stripping”) is not going to fly here in the Holy Heart of Football. Just a guess.

  3. If teams focused on tripping the ball instead of tackling it would make the no pun theory obsolete as teams would never need to run a fourth down play.

  4. Considering the state of my two home teams…what the fuck, why not? (The University of Michigan and the Detroit Lions; between their recent performance and my time abroad, i’m pretty much football free.)

    Or we could really shake things up and start watching rugby instead of football. Most of the action, all the violence and no pads…still has something resembling the punt, i guess, but doing it on the fly changes everything.

  5. All of you are right. Football would become less violent. As the concussion issue demonstrates and with too many close calls regarding paralysis, hitting has gone about as far as it can go. Time to rein it in by turning to the sport’s basics. Yes, it would resemble rugby.

  6. These days I see a lot of full tomahawk chops at the ball as part of tackling. And I always thought that defenders should learn some akido and judo for other ways of taking down a runner. For instance, when a ball carrier tries to stiff-arm someone, that defender could just grab the proffered arm and with a simple wrist hold be able to swing them around 180 degrees and force them to run towards the other end zone.

    That New Yorker piece you linked to gave me other ideas. Like training the 5 worst players on a basketball team to become full-court press and top speed offensive specialists and have them come in for 5 minutes in the first half. Since they will only be playing for those five minutes they can go all out and wear the other team down, be able to rest your top players and maybe break even in scoring.

    In general, for games with complex rules like football, it would be a good idea to hand over the NFL rulebook to a tactical genius with little knowledge (or preconceptions) of the sport to see if he could find exploits. (Rho, you there?)

    • Yes. Rho as a special consultant to an NFL team. That has a certain … asymmetry about it. Whatever wisdom you could squeeze out of that, it certainly wouldn’t be conventional….

  7. But don’t worry, all of the plays he would draw up would all be done “in character”. *evil grin*