Quit Punting

by Len Wilson

Kevin Kelley never punts. He doesn’t believe in it. Instead, he believes the statistics that say going for it on fourth down gives football teams a better chance of winning games. Kelley became head coach of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2003. In 2005, his teams quit punting. They were already a championship team. In the eighteen years since he quit punting, they have won nine state titles.

Kelley says, “I saw a fifteen minute video of a Harvard professor. He had analyzed 2000 football games over a three-year period. He had come to the conclusion that you should never punt.” (It’s actually a study by a University of California, Berkeley professor.)

What does Coach Kelley’s philosophy teach us?


Here’s a quick football lesson for non-fans: In football, a team has four plays, or downs, to advance the ball at least ten yards down the field. If they succeed, the team gets a new set of four plays, starting from the ball’s location on the most recent successful play, which is called a first down conversion. If the team fails on their fourth play, the other team takes over at the ball’s spot.

There’s a deeply held conventional wisdom in the game of football that a failed fourth down play is a good way to lose the game – and get fired, if you’re the coach. So, after three downs, if the team hasn’t gained the requisite ten yards, most coaches will opt to use their fourth down to punt, or kick the ball all the way to the other end of the field, which forces the opposing team to travel a much longer distance back across the field to score points.

Kelley says that’s poppycock, and that you should use every try you get to succeed. In 2015, even professional football coaches and executives took notice.


Of course, most coaches would never take that chance, particularly in the high stakes world of collegiate and professional football.

Going for it is the safer decision far more often than most people, and most coaches, think. - Brian Burke

If going for it on fourth down instead of punting makes so much sense, why don’t other football coaches quit punting? Kelley believes that it is simply because of peer pressure – or conventional wisdom. Everyone else punts on fourth down. Punting is deeply ingrained in the sport of football, with coaches and fans alike. He once defied his own logic and punted, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Kelley is bucking the conventional wisdom.

If the statistics say that going for it is more valuable, then why don’t more coaches do it?


Statistician Brian Burke offers three theories on why coaches don’t go for it more often:

1. It’s outdated and uninformed thinking. In the old days of football, much lower final scores decided games. Since teams didn’t score often, punting nearly guaranteed the opponent couldn’t march the field and score on their next possession. This is called “playing field position.”

2. Decision-makers are more worried about job security that winning. A failed fourth down conversion attempt is on the coach, but a punt indicts the players on the field.

3. It’s an example of Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory is an economic concept that people tend to fear losses disproportionately more than they value equivalent gains.

Read #3 again for good measure. We fear loss more than we value gain. All three theories, but especially #3, tell us something about the loss of creativity.

Risk is a prerequisite for creativity. No risk, no magic.


We tend to accept the conventional wisdom. We side with protection. We keep an eye on fear. Even as adults, we’re still victims of the Fourth Grade Slump. We’re ignorant of new thinking, We fear judgment. We give disproportionate weight to loss over gain.

Maybe the concept of never punting is a bit extreme, and the analogy unrealistic to a workday environment.

But what would it look like if we were to act like Coach Kelley, and not withhold resources? What if we were to just go for it more often?


I used to hold on to creative ideas. In writing, I’d have an illustration, and I would have decided that it was brilliant, so I’d hold on to it, not wanting to waste it on something trivial.

On more than one occasion, I killed a good idea this way by missing its window of opportunity. In one case I saw a published book on the bookstore shelf whose central premise (the idea of a single “Big Idea” to drive programming) mocked my similar, undeployed idea.

Now, when I have a good idea, I use it, and not worry about using it wrong. I go for it, and it’s helped me to be more creative.

So quit punting. If you have a hunch, just go for it.