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Kevin Kelley is the high school football coach at Pulaski Academy, a private school in Little Rock, Arkansas. He's received a great deal of attention for his utterly unorthodox strategy when it comes to kicking the ball: don't. Kelley's teams never punt, never return punts, and always attempt onside kicks during kickoffs. This approach has yielded remarkable results, with Pulaski's Bruins winning three state championships while going 124-22 over the last decade.

Kelley's been featured in publications ranging from Sports Illustrated to the New Yorker, and now Grantland has put together a terrific short interview in which he explains his philosophy and the effects it's had. Even if you aren't a football fan, and even if you know little about the sport, it's very much worth watching:

But why bring this up on a political site? Coach Kelley, it turns out, shares a core trait with the online activist movement that spawned the progressive blogosphere: He's an outsider at heart. Kelley rejects conventional wisdom because the facts say he should.

After watching a video from a Harvard professor who concluded teams should stop punting, Kelley says he started asking "'why' about everything in our program." That led him to adopt an empirical approach—you might call it reality-based—that revolutionized his team's kicking game and made them wildly successful (while having a ton of fun, too).

Kelley could have played it safe. He could have rejected the advice of some pointy-headed Ivy League academic, just like the football establishment has. But like the Bill James devotees who ultimately succeeded in dragging professional baseball into the "Moneyball" era, Kelley isn't interested in tradition for tradition's sake. He's interested in winning, and in understanding the numbers so that they can help him win. They may ignore Kelley now, but eventually, they'll be listening to him—and imitating him.

Sounds a lot like a political movement I know. And one I'm proud to be part of.

P.S. For more on the math behind Kelley's approach, check out the New York Times' Fourth Down Bot.

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Comment Preferences

  •  How do you not return punts? (11+ / 0-)

    What do you do if someone punts to you?
    Thanks.

    "You can die for Freedom, you just can't exercise it"

    by shmuelman on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:09:12 AM PST

  •  Big Data is great, until the interpretation sucks (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    foresterbob, commonmass, duhban

    and then you end up with something stupid like Romney Wins Ohio.

    I like our side's long-term chances better precisely because we're a lot smarter and reality based. Big Data or no ...

  •  One of my favorite bumper stickers is... (11+ / 0-)

    Question Authority, which I expand to say

    Question Authority. Question Everything.
    Just because it's convention wisdom, or because everybody else does it, is not a good enough reason for me to follow the crowd. I prefer to do things that make sense to me.

    And in the Land of Kos, I'm not the only one who feels that way. That's one reason I like it here.

    •  Absolutely. Question everything. (4+ / 0-)

      While sometimes we progressives are as bad about hearing things--real things--we don't want to hear, we seem to be much better about thinking empirically. Which is why we're liberals, I suppose.

      I don't know a whole lot about football--ask me about baseball or hockey or golf, those sports I play or have played for fun over the years and follow the pros. However, it seems to me football is a very "conservative" sport in terms of "conventional wisdom". This guy is clearly innovative. In fact, if he knows anything about baseball--despite several World Series wins in the last decade--perhaps he has some "outside the box" thinking he could share with the pitching coaches at Fenway Park. ;)

      Pope Francis: the Thumb of Christ in the eyes of the Pharisees.

      by commonmass on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:24:10 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Here. Here! n/t (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      foresterbob

      Question authority!

      by Bob Friend on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 02:04:30 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I had a friend who had that bumper sticker. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      foresterbob, dewtx, greengemini, duhban

      She was a substance abuse counselor.  One day we got into an argument on the subject, and the killer punch she employed was, "I'm an authority on this."  I laughed so hard, I couldn't argue with her anymore.

      The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself." -- Wanda

      by the autonomist on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 02:26:01 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I thought it was our policy to punt... (14+ / 0-)

    on the first down, because otherwise the other team might get a safety.

    /snark

    I don't blame Christians. I blame Stupid. Which sadly is a much more popular religion these days.

    by detroitmechworks on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:22:10 AM PST

  •  What is the political version of punting? (0+ / 0-)

    I'm having difficulty understanding the point of this.

    If punting means departing from timid policies and actions determined by focus group, then sometimes (often?) it's the right thing to do. Maybe that isn't what the author is talking about though.

    •  things that come out of focus groups (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bythesea, Wreck Smurfy

      are data used by professionals. Not the same as conventional wisdom.

      ...better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. -FDR, 1936

      by James Allen on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:34:06 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  To clarify (I plead ignorance of football) (0+ / 0-)

      punting might mean giving up control of the ball, or it might mean taking a risk. Not sure which the author means.

      •  Missing on fourth down means (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        commonmass

        giving up the ball as well, with better field position than a punt downfield normally would.

        In this case, assessing success is equal to assessing risks. In long term stats, you could quantify the greater loss in field position.

        The truth is we are tortured by the truth.

        by walkshills on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:48:23 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  In politics, the version is leaving an issue (5+ / 0-)

      on the table, perhaps through a procedural vote. The phrase, which we hear here ever so often, is: kicking the can on down the road.

      The Republicans and their five-year campaign of obstruction have pushed most everything down the road to be addressed another day when they think they will have enough power (votes) to win. They punt on first down, so to speak.

      There have been football games played in abhorrent weather conditions, particularly snow and ice, where both teams would punt on first down every time they gained possession, hoping that the other team would muff the punt or fumble in the run back.

      I think it was Arizona/Arizona St. that did that one whole game, and the final play was a pass to the end zone that the DB tipped and receiver, who had slipped and was flat of his back, caught the tip and scored a TD to win the game.

      More teams - like Oregon and those of Mike Leach at Texas Tech and Washington State - go for fourth downs at a much higher rate than most NCAA teams. The pros are more committed to the field position game and are thus more conservative except before half time and the end of the game.
       

      The truth is we are tortured by the truth.

      by walkshills on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:45:37 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  this isn't really a metaphor (5+ / 0-)

      the point is that here is a guy who is willing to look past conventional wisdom and see what the facts say about how he should coach the game. that's the spirit of liberalism - not being afraid to test out new ideas, to weed out the good ones from the bad, and to do things a new way if it's better than the old way.

      "Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." - Mark Twain

      by GrimReefa on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:38:51 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  But...if Dems did that, we wouldn't have achieved (6+ / 0-)

    The sequester, food stamp cuts, no extension of unemployment benefits, and all our other austerity 'victories'!

    We must keep our honored tradition of punting - especially on first down!

    "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses??" - future President Paul Ryan

    by Fordmandalay on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:30:43 AM PST

  •  "The Shift" in baseball...... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass

    where the infielders are shifted from their normal positions based upon the batter's hitting performance.

    Never saw it until Joe Maddon started it a couple years ago for OUR Tampa Bay Rays.

    Now, I don't think there is a team who doesn't use it.

    Just a thought.

    "The first duty of a revolutionist is to get away with it.". Abbie Hoffman

    by Joes Steven on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:35:15 AM PST

    •  The strategy goes way back. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      James Allen, paradox, Joes Steven, mkor7

      Even before teams used to shift for Ted Williams, who actually hit great against it.

      The truth is we are tortured by the truth.

      by walkshills on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:02:30 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  yeah (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Joes Steven

        we did it in little league.

        The Rays a few years ago, though, were a real inspiration. Nearly made it with a total team payroll similar in size to just one Alex Rodriguez.

        ...better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. -FDR, 1936

        by James Allen on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:12:17 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  the idea of "the shift" is old (4+ / 0-)

        but the Rays took it to new heights. they have a bunch of different shifts now, and they move their infielders around more than any team in baseball except for the Orioles, who have been copying them.

        not coincidentally, the O's and Rays are the two best fielding teams in baseball, and this year both teams broke the MLB record for fewest errors by a team in a season (it's now the O's record with 54 team errors in 162 GP).

        "Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." - Mark Twain

        by GrimReefa on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:46:20 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Like I said, it was new to me. (0+ / 0-)

        And it worked.

        I've been a Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays fan since day one.

        After years and years and years and years of futility i used to beg for a .500 baseball team.

        They've made the playoffs four of the last six years while facing the Bank-mee's and Dread Sox seemingly every other weekend.

        I'm a happy fans!

        "The first duty of a revolutionist is to get away with it.". Abbie Hoffman

        by Joes Steven on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:59:08 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I get the point, but "pointy-headed Ivy League (0+ / 0-)

    academic"? Hmmmm.

    "The soil under the grass is dreaming of a young forest, and under the pavement the soil is dreaming of grass."--Wendell Berry

    by Wildthumb on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:35:17 AM PST

  •  So, let me get this straight. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock

    In 2010, by refusing to "play it safe" and voting for more democrats, but instead figuring it would be best just to stay home until there were "better" democrats ... we are now left with state houses across the country rewriting the rules ... redrawing the lines ... and leaving our team about 50 points behind, which we probably wont make up for a generation.
    Ya ... good call.

    •  Wrong Mythology, this is Christmas. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      commonmass, quill, mkor7

      Your "DLC is our savior" mythology is to be cited in the lead up to Elections.

      /snark

      I don't blame Christians. I blame Stupid. Which sadly is a much more popular religion these days.

      by detroitmechworks on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:48:44 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  not punting does not equal not voting (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bythesea, mkor7

      not voting is like forfeiting the game. It's like in other countries where a party boycotts the elections. Its ridiculous and accomplishes nothing but conceding to your enemies.

      ...better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. -FDR, 1936

      by James Allen on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:14:14 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's nice ... (0+ / 0-)

        adorable really. But not punting is taking a risk, hoping that you can pull out a first down and keep on the offense.

        In 2010, many idiots around here said they were just going to stay home ...  in the hopes that it would show the party that they wanted better democrats and better policies ... and that lovely little opinion translated to the ballot box, for certain.

        They forfeited ... but I think many of them would still be of the opinion that it was fourth and goal and they went for the long bomb.

        Yes, it has had "some" results (see Elizabeth Warren), but the resulting redrawn maps across the country will leave us at 4th and 30 for decades.

    •  Maybe Confusing Activists With Voters. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      walkshills, kurt, Ezekiel in Exile

      The right spent 2 years motivating their base especially seniors, and we spent 2 years laughing at how crazy extreme they were behaving.

      So the senior vote actually increased over 2008 and is solidly Republican.

      Meanwhile all our demographics decreased because the party didn't think or was afraid to do motivational messaging. Youth and minorities especially stayed home. I've seen a report that women shifted right; but I don't know if that means they really did, or whether it was more R women turning out like their seniors, and fewer D women turning out.

      This was millions of ordinary people not activists pouting. And we must also remember that the tea party candidates mostly were talking jobs and economy not what they actually did once they were elected and met with the Kochs. So it's not like most people had the information to see the threat.

      We can blame 10 million people for failing to perform, or we can blame a few hundred professional Democrats for motivational failure. Occam's says blame the party not the voters.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:34:50 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I was an assistant precinct chairman (0+ / 0-)

        in 2010 and a committeeman in 08. I had to hear the bullshit coming from dozens of "activists" about how they were soooo disappointed in Obama ... and how they wanted single payer and we could talk till be were blue in the face about republican obstructionism and the Joe Lieberman effect and you name it ... but they were convinced by staying home it would "send a message" .... and I was reading that same crap around here.

        Obfuscate all you want ... this site and others had a major negative effect on that election.
        I've never seen democrats act more like republicans than in that election.

        Yes ... I'm fucking pissed off. Especially after seeing what's happened. To women's rights ... to union rights ... to voter rights.

        Great job!

        •  Have you got the right site? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          annieli

          I believe this comment needs to be directed to the comments section of "Firedoglake" or "Rall.com"

          /snark

          I don't blame Christians. I blame Stupid. Which sadly is a much more popular religion these days.

          by detroitmechworks on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:56:37 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  It is too bad that... (0+ / 0-)

          eventually voters wise up to your bullshit.

          We've listened to those lame D excuses for so many years now that they don't convince anybody.

          Right.  Union rights were doing so well when Obama failed to do anything for EFCA even with D control of the House and 60 votes.

          And Obamacare is going to be such a boon to the D party.

          2014 will make 2010 look like a good D year.

  •  I've been anti-punt for a long time, too (7+ / 0-)

    You're giving away 25% of your teams chances to get the next down.

    You tell your team in advance, it's do or die, and they'll step up.

    I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business.

    by CFAmick on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 10:57:23 AM PST

    •  I suspect the teams that do this (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Nebraska68847Dem

      acclimate to it quite well in a relatively short period of time.

      It also changes the tactical thinking from three downs to four.

      The truth is we are tortured by the truth.

      by walkshills on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:21:52 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Agree with that. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kurt, greengemini

      Unless you're close to your own end zone.

      (He says if he doesn't get anywhere on  fourth and close to his end zone, the other team as a 90+ plus percent chance of a TD; whereas if he punts, it's a 70+ percent chance, and the difference isn't worth giving up the down. I don't really agree with that -- there's a big diff between 90+ and 70+ percent, depending on the time and score.)

      Not sure whether the onside kicks and no returns would be wise in an NFL context either, though I could see it working in high school.

      •  Also when you consider that (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        greengemini

        with a farther distance to go, the opponent has a greater chance of making an error -- they could throw an interception, the ball could be fumbled.

        There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- goddammit, you've got to be kind. -- Kurt Vonnegut

        by Cali Scribe on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 01:45:08 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  It has to be situational (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greengemini

      If you've got a 4th and 20 on your own 5 yard line, then you might be better off punting, giving your defense a better chance of preventing the other team from scoring (even if the opponent went 3 and out they'd still get 3 points with a field goal). On the other hand, if you've got 4th and 2 at your opponent's 45, out of field goal range but with the likelihood a punt would go into the end zone and come out to the 20 anyway for a net of only 25 yards, you might be better off going for it especially if you've got a decent offensive line and a good power RB or FB.

      Then again, this whole piece could be seen as another veiled attempt to keep Ray Guy out of the Hall of Fame.

      There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- goddammit, you've got to be kind. -- Kurt Vonnegut

      by Cali Scribe on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 01:43:26 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  One of the reasons I don't follow football anymore (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greengemini

      is that it's so scripted and predictable and, well, conservative. If all teams played like Pulaski plays (I watched the video) I might actually find it worth watching again.

      OTOH, the game here in Canada is significantly different (only 3 downs; longer, wider field) and I'd be really interested to see the "bot" work out the percentages for these tactics in the Canadian game. I suspect the results wouldn't be quite so favourable, but still worth trying.

      -8.38, -7.74 My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world. - Jack Layton

      by Wreck Smurfy on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 06:47:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  the box (0+ / 0-)

    Actually, thinking within the box is the smart thing to do when the box is built using the latest science.  The box says the climate is changing--those outside this box are deniers--are dooming the planet.  The box says to spend your way out of recessions, the crazies want austerity.  We're in the box, the right place to be.

    Actions speak louder than petitions.

    by melvynny on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:07:04 AM PST

  •  He probably is nothin like most progressives or (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bush Bites

    most conservatives.

    Very few people are able to let the facts overrule their emotions and beliefs.  I have not seen anything to suggest that progressives are less susceptible to irrational behavior than conservatives.

    LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

    by dinotrac on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:15:30 AM PST

    •  I'd take issue on this. (5+ / 0-)

      Progressives are more rational by their very definition, of being more utilitarian and problem solving. That is, logic and rationality are a tool they employ in solving the world.

      I think that the goals of the right wing have little to do with solving the same problems we consider...they want to solve their own perceived problems and, as I stated above, that's more about power than anything else.

      Throw in the conservatives are more authoritarian and somewhat more belief-prone, they are more easily manipulated by their leadership toward their goals of power. In other words, governing is a means of power whereas with progressives, governing is a means of solving persistent problems, both utilitarian and political.

      If you ignore facts as well as the real world, it means you wear blinders (your obsession and narrowed view) and what you don't see will come back to bite you in the ass. I think the very process of life pushes people out of their emotional and belief zones on an everyday basis. These people may go back to their old mode, but it will never have the comfort it once did.

      It may be interesting to note that this era of increasing information is pushing people in a way they have never been pushed before...it is quite confrontational, on the street as well as for the gamers and kids.

      There are few hiding places like there were in the rural world 75 years ago.

      The truth is we are tortured by the truth.

      by walkshills on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 11:36:44 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  "By their very definition" (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        greengemini, buddabelly

        I can't think of anything that would better prove my point.
        When you believe you are right because you exist, you cease to be critical.

        I agree completely, by the way, with your fourth and fifth paragraphs.

        LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

        by dinotrac on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 12:54:03 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I think the statistician's reasoning is flawed. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    walkshills, Bush Bites, Cali Scribe

    What Kelley has done at the high school level is not necessarily indicative of the soundness of his strategy; as at the lower tiers football is all about relative talent moreso than strategy.

    That being said, I think the statisticians reasoning is flawed. I'll bet that a lot of the succesful fourth down conversions supporting the thesis involve late-game drives where the offense is forced to try to convert, played against prevent defenses more concerned about stopping touchdowns than first downs.  Once you removed all the plays where one team was being forced to "go for it" due to being behind, I'd suspect the data pool would be so small as to have high error bars.

    •  Somehow I doubt (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greengemini, mkor7

      That there exists such a simple flaw that has eluded everyone else that's looked at this. And I don't know that you need to only look at 4th & X situations for success rates. What matters is the yardage you need. I can't really see why the frequency of obtaining a first down would be different for 2nd & 1 versus 3rd & 1. It's just one yard either way.

      In fact:

      Decisions to go for it on fourth down (that is, not to kick) are sufficiently rare, however, that they cannot be used to estimate the value of trying for a first down or touchdown. I therefore use the outcomes of third-down plays instead.
      So yep, this objection has been anticipated and overcome.

      Get the Daily Kos Elections Digest in your inbox every weekday. Sign up here.

      by David Nir on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 05:56:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  In Canada, you're more likely to see teams go for (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greengemini

      it in short yard situations because the DL is a little further away from the ball. QB sneaks are almost money plays up there.

  •  Even when it's 4th and America at your own 1? (0+ / 0-)
    •  lol (0+ / 0-)

      Think...

      And then you'll see why I laughed at your comment.

      CW (conventional wisdom) got you to 4th on your own 1 yard line.

      Enagaged activism wins elections. 100 million words on liberal/progressive websites gets beat by one new GOP voter casting their vote.

      by Nebraska68847Dem on Thu Dec 26, 2013 at 02:34:41 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  It strikes me that in youngsters there is a real (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    greengemini

    learning advantage in always going for it, and not giving a pass until some time later.

    If you never go from forth downs you never succeed in making that first down and keeping the offense.

    You've admitted defeat in that offensive drive.

    •  that too. (0+ / 0-)

      But, if you punt from your own end-line, 77% of the time, you get scored on again.
      So, the coach concedes the fact that it's a defeat either way, and plays to win.

      I like to play to win.

      I despise a prevent defense.

      Enagaged activism wins elections. 100 million words on liberal/progressive websites gets beat by one new GOP voter casting their vote.

      by Nebraska68847Dem on Thu Dec 26, 2013 at 02:36:42 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  OK! (0+ / 0-)

    Lots and lots of people did not watch the video and yet commented; clear and obvious.

    WATCH the video.
    The guys has something to say that makes perfect success.

    Enagaged activism wins elections. 100 million words on liberal/progressive websites gets beat by one new GOP voter casting their vote.

    by Nebraska68847Dem on Thu Dec 26, 2013 at 02:38:01 AM PST

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