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To Punt or Not to Punt

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"To Punt or Not to Punt"

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Some people feel that the problem with the statistical defense of Bill Bellichick’s playcalling is that the “go for it” option failed to take into account how good Payton Manning is. If you think about it for a while, I think you’ll see that this is backwards.

The point of punting is that you’re trading possession of the ball for field position. Whether that’s a good trade depends in part on how likely your offense is to secure a first down if you don’t kick the ball to your opponents, and in part on how good the opposing offense is. But the better their offense is, the worse kicking the ball over to them looks. The only reliable way to stop a really good offense is to be extremely reluctant to surrender the ball to them. Against a poor defense, field position is extremely valuable since they’re unlikely to score unless they get the ball close to your end zone. But what it means to be a great offense is that you’re a legitimate threat to score from any position—you really, really don’t want an offense like that to have the ball.

The problem is that conventional thinking in the NFL is that after three downs the default should be to give up possession of the ball unless it’s a desperation situation or something else special. But most of the time teams should be extremely reluctant to give the ball up. Fourth-and-shorts aren’t that hard to convert, and field position is a lot less valuable than possession of the ball. There’s just a convention of labeling any decision to run an offensive play as “risky” that’s completely independent of any actual assessment of the risks. Deliberately giving the ball to the Indianapolis Colts offense is taking a risk. They’re good!

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