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Sports

October 28, 2012

CHALK TALK: Fourth downs a going concern

PORT NECHES — What does “three-and-out” mean anyway? Where did it come from?

I’m not sure anyone has every asked that question, nor do I care. The reason I bring it up is because it’s time we talked about fourth downs. See, three-and-out implies that a defense stopped an opposing offense three times and forced them to punt. That also assumes teams will elect to punt on fourth down instead of going for it.

Slowly, but surely, there is a trend developing across football with teams resisting the urge to punt on fourth down. We touched on this tangentially earlier this season when we talked about Nederland’s game management taking advantage of field position. But, there is a growing trend of coaches who decide not to punt on fourth down and Port Neches-Groves fans have seen a little of that this year.

To put this all in context, we need to go back in time a bit. In 2008, a high school coach in Arkansas decided he was never going to punt after one of his punts ended up being returned 80 yards for a touchdown. Seems like sort of an overreaction, don’t you think?

Well, it’s worked out pretty well for Pulaski Academy head coach Kevin Kelley, who made national news a few years back for his unconventional strategies of punting never and going for onside kicks after every touchdown. How well has it worked? Pulaski Academy is 104-19 over the last nine years with three state championships to its name. Last year, the Bruins averaged 51 points per game and punted just once. All season. In the past five years, Pulaski Academy has punted five times.

Flash forward to this season, where San Diego State head coach Rocky Long has decided to turn down the punting dial a bit, too. Right now, only ten teams have punted less than the Aztecs this season and all of them have played one less time than Long’s team has. Why are teams developing a new way to look at an old problem?

Part of it is simple probabilities.  Way back in 2006, a Berkeley economist did a study that was highly publicized about fourth-down strategy. There is a much higher probability that a team can add to its win total by going for it more often on fourth down. However, coaches also have to answer questions about why they went for it on fourth-and-11 from their own 34. That’s why the strategy hasn’t caught on across the sport.

For PN-G head coach Brandon Faircloth, his decision to eschew the punt at times this year isn’t a philosophical one, it’s more of a practical concern. His team will have the best chance to win if the offense keeps the ball and extends drives. It’s not because he doesn’t trust his punter, as Kaleb Clark is one of the best in 20-4A this season.

Necessity may have forced his hand a bit, as the team tries to maximize whatever time it gets with the ball, but it’s developing into an attitude. As the Indians have gone for it more and more, the team has fed on that success, to the point where they almost expect to make it.

They’ve made plenty of them, too, as the Indians were five-for-five on fourth down conversions against West Orange-Stark and had only been stopped once this entire season on a fourth-down try after the Nederland game. That may not be unusual for teams who only go for it on fourth down occasionally, but for a team that could try four or five conversions a game? That number becomes more impressive.

The success that PN-G has enjoyed on fourth down conversions is also partly due to their playcalling system. With the head coach in Faircloth also calling the plays, he can decide on third down whether the team will go for it on fourth. That one decision and look ahead frees up his playbook.

 Now, on third-and-5, Faircloth can call a 3-yard pass or run, knowing he’s going to have another high-percentage play ready on fourth down. When he was an assistant at other stops calling plays, Faircloth didn’t have that luxury and had to go for the whole five yards in that situation on the third down call. That’s not a bad thing, but it does limit his playbook and the chance for success a little.

Faircloth also brought up an interesting point about the trend to go for it on fourth down more often. He said it could have to do with defenses at all levels of football and how open field tackling may be slipping. That’s something we also explored earlier this season when the spread option came up. Space and pace is a thing because it’s hard to find players who can run and play in space while also being the best tackler on a team.

It’s not impossible. Look at Memorial’s Darius Lemora, who made a great tackle against Baytown Sterling. The hybrid safety was playing on the edge to stop the outside pitch, closed on the ball carrier and was blocked to the ground as the runner tried to cut back away from him. Lemora didn’t blink, going to the ground but still lunging for the runner and making the solo tackle. If you want a reason why he’s committed to a Division I school like Washington State, look right there. Good tacklers who can run don’t grow on trees.

Especially in high school, that depth is harder to come by, which means coaches can find mismatches in space more readily. Those mismatches also give them options on fourth down, instead of playing conservatively and punting all the time.  Not every team will adapt non-punting as a philosophy, just as PN-G hasn’t really adopted it either. Teams will still attempt to play the odds, which for a Nederland squad may mean punting to give its defense a chance to force another takeaway or score another TD.

For PN-G right now, it means being more aggressive in third and fourth down situations and not going quietly into those three-and-outs.

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