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NFL Strategy: Taking a Delay of Game to Punt It Away, When Does Five Yards Make Sense?

Coaches love to create room for the punter to work his magic. In a previous strategy talk, I discussed how the evidence shows teams need to be more aggressive throwing passes when backed against their own end zone. The other area where coaches try to create space is for those punts into a short field.

If you’ve ever played golf, you know that sometimes hitting a full shot feels better than trying a partial shot from 20 yards closer. Of course, slight mishits are more likely to leave you further away the farther out you are, so there are tradeoffs. The same is true of punting.

So what does the data from the last decade show? Is there any advantage to taking a delay of game and moving five yards back? If so, where does it end?

Here are punts from 2002-2011, starting at the opponent’s 32 (inside that, there are very few punts), and going out to a team’s own 45 yard line. As a note, I don’t have the punts from exactly the 50 because of a programming issue finding those accurately that would have taken too long to fix, and so forgive me. Hopefully we will survive.

What this shows is the distance to the opponent’s end zone at the time of the punt, the touchback percentage on punts from that distance, and the average ending field position after the punt (including touchbacks, returns, etc.).

There’s a reason it’s called No Man’s Land, and a reason that going for fourth down conversions should be extremely attractive. Between midfield and the opponent’s 30 yard line, there is very little gained by getting additional yards and then having to punt. Almost every yard gained as you cross mid-field until you get inside the 30 is a wasted yard if you do not get through it.

As for the delay of game strategy, though, it doesn’t appear to be beneficial at any point. That isn’t to say that it’s a bad strategy, just that average payoff isn’t any better by moving back 5 yards. It’s a fairly neutral strategy, so you can understand why we don’t have showdowns where the defensive team declines the penalty over and over in a battle of wills between the teams. I wouldn’t do it if I had 4th and 8 or less, because the opponent may commit a five yard penalty on the punt that would either pick up the first down or put me in a position to go for it. I would hate to neutralize that by having previously given them five free yards to lessen the impact of a penalty.

Now, late in a game, with a lead, you may want more certainty. Moving back does reduce the number of touchbacks if you are punting from inside the 35. The average starting position is about the same, so we have less variation.

Taking an intentional penalty beyond your opponent’s 40 seems like a bad idea. The average starting position starts to jump as we cross mid-field. The reason? Returns become far more likely. I would hate to move back from the opponent’s 45 to midfield and risk a return, if my goal was more certainty in being able to control where the opponent starts.

[photo via US Presswire]

 

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