It’s 4th-and-1. Your team has the ball at midfield in the third quarter of a tie game. What does your coach do?
Odds are that he calls for a punt, and that you’re comfortable with that decision as a fan. Odds are that the other team’s fans are even more comfortable with it.
The evils of punting on fourth and short – and indeed punting in general – are well-documented. (Perhaps the loudest critic of “fraidy-cat” punting tactics is Gregg Easterbrook at ESPN’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, a column any serious football fan should make a weekly read.) Statistical support for the notion that a more aggressive stance on fourth down generates more wins has been readily available since 2005.
I wholeheartedly support the aggressive, science-backed “go for it” position. Fourth down aggressiveness is a demonstrably better strategy, but the reason I find it so easy to accept (aside from the fact that I’m anti-tradition by nature) is because it confirms what I’ve felt all along while watching my beloved Green Bay Packers play.
The feeling of which I speak reappeared in Week 1 when the San Francisco 49ers came to town. Green Bay trailed San Fran by eight points and the 49ers faced 3rd-and-2 in their own territory. When Frank Gore came up short, leading to 4th-and-1, I had that familiar feeling. That feeling had me thinking – no, willing – one thing over and over again.
Send out the punt team! Send out the punt team!
I breathed a sigh of relief as Jim Harbaugh sent out the punt team.
We’ve all experienced similar emotional situations. When your favorite team is playing against a frighteningly powerful opponent facing a fourth-and-1, your heart beats a little faster. Why? Because you don’t want to see Tom Brady, or Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers march back into the huddle to get that yard and keep the drive going. I didn’t even want to see Alex Smith back on the field, since he was helming an offense that averaged 5.8 yards per rush on the day (which is a bit more than the one yard they needed here).
Even from the opposite side, punting on fourth and short can seem absurd. In 2011, the Packers averaged over six yards per play and lost almost no players from that offense. Without getting into a discussion about standard deviations, I can definitively say that Mike McCarthy is better off sending one of the most efficient quarterbacks in NFL history back onto the field to get one yard in his own territory, even against the tough Chicago Bears defense he faced in Week 2. Why? Because the alternative is kicking to arguably the best punt returner in NFL history in Devin Hester – which is exactly what McCarthy did. The fact that he got away with it doesn’t make it the right choice.
Normally I counsel against making decisions based on emotion. Our “gut” reactions very often mislead us and contradict proven facts. In some rare cases, however, statistics back that gut reaction. Fourth and short is often one of those times.
What I do know is that the next time your favorite team’s opponent faces 4th-and-1, you’ll be thinking the one thing science says the opposing coach shouldn’t even consider:
Send out the punt team!