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Punt-Happy College Football Coaches Are Afraid of Unemployment, And Math

When college coaches like Stanford's David Shaw punt despite good field position, they're choosing fear over analytic good sense.

by Kevin Trahan
Sep 9 2015, 2:58pm

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Down by a touchdown in the third quarter in Evanston, Illinois, Stanford University's offense drove down to the Northwestern University 37-yard line. On fourth-and-four, Stanford coach David Shaw faced an important decision: kick the very long field goal, go for it, or dare I say, punt.

Much to the relief of the Ryan Field crowd—yes, the Northwestern crowd—Shaw sent out his punt team, hoping to "pin em deep," as they say in the football world. Stanford did not pin 'em deep. The Cardinal's punt went into the endzone for a touchback, netting 17 yards on the play. Playing for field position did not work, as Stanford failed to score on the next drive, or the next, and only scored after a Northwestern field goal led to a kickoff return. Stanford lost the game, 16-6.

This was, by all accounts, a very bad decision. Unable to move the ball all day, Stanford squandered some of its best field position of the game just to give the ball back to its opponent—basically the equivalent of an interception 17 yards down the field.

Read More: The NFL's Math Doesn't Add Up

This is not a one-time occurrence. Shaw, like most football coaches, has absolutely no idea how to manage field position and game-changing decisions, as has been well-documented in the past. There are some pretty smart people at Stanford, I've heard; they might want to have a word with their football coach.

All it would take—or all it should take—for Shaw to realize how he's costing his teams is a simple math lecture. As this graph shows (courtesy of Advanced Football Analytics, where you can see how it was derived), there is absolutely no way Shaw should have punted the ball in this particular situation, or any similar situation:

This is hardly a David Shaw problem. As SB Nation's Jon Bois wrote, tons of teams punted past midfield this week, mostly to no avail.

Beyond punting, coaches often make extremely conservative decisions that defy all logic. Northwestern lost a game last year by purposely throwing the ball short of the first down marker on numerous occasions. And earlier in the week, University of Washington coach Chris Petersen opted to have his freshman quarterback spike the ball to set up a long field goal attempt—"the safe move"—rather than take a shot at the end zone or get closer for the potential game-tying field goal. The Huskies missed the field goal and lost the game.

These decisions, like Shaw's punting strategy, make no sense. Those who buck the trend are often rewarded, but since this is the way it has always been done, coaches are reluctant to change.

Kevin Kelley—the head coach at Pulaski Academy, the top high school in Arkansas—says that you start to think differently when you take your mind out of the gutter that is football tradition.

"I saw a 15-minute video of a Harvard professor, and he had analyzed 2,000 football games for a three-year period, and he had come to the conclusion that you should never punt," Kelley told Grantland. "That's when I started asking, and I had our coaches start asking, 'why' about everything in our program. Why are we really punting? Well, because everybody else does it on fourth down."

Introducing the David Shaw 17-yard punt face. --Photo by Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley is obviously an extreme example, but his point remains: Coaches across the country collectively make hundreds of mistakes that we know for a fact are wrong based on statistical analysis. So why does it keep happening?

Part of it is that coaches just don't want to change their way of doing things. But there is more to it. Job security is hard to come by in college coaching, and college coaches are careful so as not to do anything out of the ordinary that might cause someone to seriously reconsider their employment status. You might generally dislike your favorite coach's conservative style, but he's going to have more people calling for his head after not converting that crucial fourth-and-one.

So rather than do what statistically makes sense, coaches make choices that we absolutely know are wrong because it looks safer.

There's also the issue that coaches don't recognize punts for what they are: turnovers. If you asked Shaw what's worse—an interception 17 yards down the field, or a punt that nets 17 yards—he would undoubtedly say the interception. But 17 yards is 17 yards, and moreover, it's just 17 yards. For a Stanford offense that likely wasn't going to get good field position again, and for a defense that had been strong all day, that 17-yard gamble was worth the chance to extend the drive.

Some teams are trying to save themselves from their own, old-fashioned ways. Nebraska has hired an analytics coach, and part of his job is to essentially tell coach Mike Riley when he's being dumb.

But football is football is football. And because of history, punts will continue to happen in an opponent's territory and after three-yard out routes short of the sticks.

Stanford will likely continue to punt on fourth-and-short in the opposing territory, because that's what they are used to doing. And opposing fans will breathe a deep sigh of relief when he gives the ball back. That's generally not what you want to hear as a coach, but it's as good of a reminder as any that a little bit of math can go a long way.