Conservatism in the NFL and Kevin Kelley of Paluxy Academy

The NFL is a strange place…for the top echelon of football, many of its tactics are stiflingly conservative and risk-averse. Teams punt continually on 4th and short, even though this gives the opponent the ball, often with good field position. The statistics consistently show that going for it on fourth and short is likely to result in a first down, so the underlying rationale appears to be bound up with not wanting to risk a muffed attempt, the handing of field position to the opponents, and derisive cries or questions afterwards of “why didn’t you punt?”.
As commentators have noted, punting is a way of shifting the blame back to the team. If the coach punts, and the defense then fails to stop the opponents from scoring, the defense gets the blame. If the coach orders a conversion attempt on fourth down and the attempt fails, the coach gets the blame for ordering the conversion attempt.
In 2005 Kevin Kelley, a high school coach in Arkansas, after doing some number-crunching on high school football stats, began avoiding all punts. His team at Paluxy Academy goes for it all of the time on fourth down, and he always onside kicks instead of performing a regular kickoff. His tactics have resulted in multiple state championships, as a result of which the NFL, after 10 years, has woken up and now NFL coaches and general managers are flying to Arkansas to pick Kelley’s brains.
Kelley’s philosophy is fundamentally different to the rooted philosophy in the NFL. He regards possession as more important than field position, reasoning that as a general rule you cannot score unless you have the ball. It seems to be working for him in high school football. Whether it will work in the NFL remains to be seen. If listening to Kelley results in more teams abandoning the fraidy-cat punt on fourth and short, I’m all in favor.


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