Tuesday's Kansas City Star ran a Rustin Dodd feature on high school football coaching cult hero, Kevin Kelley. Kelley is the coach famous for always going for it on fourth down, never punting and laying down onside kicks after every score.
Kelley's punt and kickoff aversion theory, as shocking as it sounds, is actually rooted in statistical research. Without rehashing Dodd's whole article - be sure to read it for an concise explanation of the method to Kelley's madness - Kelley believes possession in football is grossly undervalued, and traditionally bound football coaches are far too willing to punt possession back to their opponents when it might, in fact, be in their statistical advantage to go for it on fourth down. Kelley's system has won him four Arkansas state football titles and a 77-17 overall win loss record.
High school football has long been a fertile testing ground for seemingly sacrilegious approaches to the game. The millions of dollars on the line like you'll find in college ball and the NFL doesn't allow for the patience required for such wild assed experimentation to start paying off. Not to mention the stark contrast in talent you'll find in successive levels is usually enough to figure out and shut down most gimmick heavy strategies. See Chip Kelly and the blur offense up in Philadelphia.
However, as we've seen with the Air Raid, which was created in the high school ranks, a gimmicky unconventional offense can rise to a level of prominence and be made legitimate by greater talent running the system.
In Dodd's article, he uses the downtrodden Kansas football program as a template for a school that might be willing to try Kelley's anti punt, anti kickoff, always go for it on fourth system. With nothing to lose, in a rebuilding mode, Dodd argues that a team like Kansas is afforded a prime opportunity to try out more extreme measures.
I'm not entirely sure how to process Kelley's system yet. Although, I appreciate the spirit from which it was created, and agree that coaches balk at the idea of going for it on fourth far too often. When it comes to high school ball, I definitely think Kelley is on to something. I was at the Lawrence High-v-Free State High football game last Friday night in Lawrence. Free State had complete control of that game early on despite being an inferior squad. Then the punting and kicking shenanigans began. One punt went straight up into the air for a grand total of seven yards. You see this over and over in high school ball. Punting is a highly specialized skill, and in high school it is absolutely a liability for teams.
In the college game though, you see marked improvement, and in the NFL the punters are marksmen with booming legs. Being able to flip field position, if you have the punter capable of delivering, can be a very potent weapon for a team. I don't foresee Kelley's never punt or kickoff the ball system ever taking full root in division one college football or the NFL. However, the existence of Kelley's system does expose one nagging point about traditional football. Traditional coaches' unbending commitment to an ultra conservative manner is slowly being proven to be quite a bit foolish in its own right.
When it comes to punting, in all level of football, there exists this limbo land between the 50 and the opponents' 40 yard line. It's a zone where it's too far out for a field goal attempt, and with a punt you risk gaining just 30 to 20 yards of field position if it goes into the end zone for a touch back. If a team finds themselves in a fourth and five or less in this limbo land, more coaches should just go for it, especially in the college game. In the NFL you have punters skilled enough to drop a kick into the coffin corner. An act aided by the rule that allows special teams players to bat a ball back out of the end zone as long as the player or the ball never touch the turf beyond the goal line. In the college game though, once a punt breaks the plain of the end zone in the air it's declared a touch back regardless of whether the player knocks it back into the field or not. Pinning a team inside their own 20, let alone their 10, in college football is enough of a low percentage play to be scrapped altogether if you don't have a Dustin Colquitt level punter on your roster.
As for the constant onside kick aspect of Kelley's system, again, high school rules and talent makes the prospect of constant onsides less of a risk. High school football lines kickoffs up at the 40 yard line with the ball needing to travel 10 yards for recovery. Worst case scenario you give the ball to your opponent at, or just beyond, midfield. In college and the NFL the kickoff line is the 35. But you see plenty of personal foul calls following scores that tack a 15 yard penalty onto a kickoff, which then places the ball and its tee on the 50 yard line. And yet, you never see a coach try the onside kick there. Again, the ball has to travel 10 yards. The damage is usually no worse than giving up a 35 yard kickoff return. With college football having changed their kickoff touch back rule in 2012 to result in the ball being brought out to the 25 instead of the 20, the prospect of kicking the ball through the end zone from the 50 borders on the idiotic. Basically, it's a difference of 10 whole yards compared if that same team had just tried an onside kick instead.
The most extreme case of self destructively conservative and gutless coaching I've ever seen took place in a Kansas football game during the disastrous 2009 season that saw Mark Mangino fired. Going into a Halloween contest against Texas Tech in Lubbock, the Jayhawks were sputtering through a two game losing streak and Todd Reesing was struggling through a severe groin injury. In that game against Tech, the 'Hawks pulled ahead 21-14 on a Reesing to Dezmon Briscoe TD pass at the end of the third quarter. On that play, Tech was flagged for roughing the passer, which the referee announced would be tacked onto the kickoff. During the extra point attempt, Tech was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, which was also added to the kickoff. Back to back 15 yard penalties resulted in Kansas lining up to kick off the ball from the Tech 35 yard line. Kansas had just taken the lead. Their season was seemingly hanging by a thread. As we know now, one more win that season would have meant a bowl game for the 'Hawks. It was the perfect time to go ahead and try an onside kick that, at the worst, would have given the ball to the Red Raiders at the 25. At the best it would have won the 'Hawks the ball back already in field goal range.
What did Mangino do? He had Jacob Branstetter kick the ball up into the second deck of Jones AT&T Stadium. When you factor in that an onside attempt from that location would have put the ball on about the 25 yard line, the Jayhawks gained five whopping yards of field position. Mangino. I love the fat man, but that's what happens when you have ham on the brain all the time, I guess.
The change to Kickoff touch back rules in college football was an attempt to limit the vicious collisions which often follow kickoffs. However, since this change we've seen more and more teams try and pot shot their kicks just short of the goal line in an attempt to keep a return to a shorter gain than that 25 yard touch back. We've also seen coaches go to the punt less and less beyond the 50 yard line. So gradually we are seeing coaches becoming more creative in the kicking game.
While people may want to rush to label Kelley's anti punt and kickoff system as reckless, we've also seen enough evidence that coaches' unbending rigidity and conservatism when it comes to giving up possession can be equally as reckless. So who knows. A modified version of Kelley's system, one which at least takes a more aggressive approach beyond the 50 yard line on fourth downs, could become very successful in the college game.
When you've got nothing really to lose, like a broke down Kansas program does right now, you may as well take more unconventional chances and just see what happens.