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Punts Inside the Twenty

Posted by Jason Lisk on October 31, 2008

I was fully prepared to write a post about how the statistic "punts inside the twenty" is completely worthless and misleading. After doing a little research, I don't think it is completely worthless. I do, however, think that it has the potential to be a bit misleading.

When you think about the statistic, what comes to mind? For 90% of you, the response is probably, "I don't think about punters and their statistics." Fair enough. For me, it conveys the preciseness or accuracy of the punter in pinning the opponent near the goal line. But if that's the purpose, it seems like the statistic is too broad to accomplish that. Is a punt that forces a fair catch at the 17 (which counts as a punt inside the twenty) really that much better than a punt that bounces inside the 5 and goes into the end zone? In fact, I think you could argue the latter is better so long as the team can down a certain percentage of those punts inside the five, even though that punter will have a lower "inside the twenty" percentage by risking more touchbacks.

Further, punts that are boomed from a team's own end of the field at full power, and may bounce past a returner and come to rest at the 15, are counted the same as a punt from the opponent's 40, where the punter drops a punt down inside the opponent's 10 or forces an uneasy fair catch near the goal line. To borrow some golf terms, it's the difference between using a driver and a sand wedge. In my opinion, the first type of punt (the "driver" that happens to end up inside the twenty) is already adequately reflected and rewarded in both the gross and net punting average of that particular punter. I don't think it needs to be categorized the same as the latter, where the punter is sacrificing gross average for accuracy. Also, I don't think punts that are conservatively dropped at the 15 for an easy fair catch should be recognized the same as punts that aggressively force a fair catch decision inside the 10. Thus, I would prefer that we use a "punts inside the ten" or "punts inside the ten versus touchback ratio", as a smarter, more focused, statistic. Or better yet, the average opponent's starting position following mid-field punts.

Now to the numbers. I looked at the punts so far in the 2008 season. I focused on those punts that occurred between the punting team's own 40 yard line and the opponent's goal line, to which I will refer as "mid-field punts", separating them from punts that are deeper in the team's own end and are more based on raw punting distance, rather than accuracy and hang time.

League-wide, there have been 425 punts in the mid-field zone in 2008. 60% (254) of those would officially be counted as punts inside the twenty. 22% (94) of them resulted in touchbacks. Touchbacks are not the worst result, though, as the remaining 18% were punts that were either returned past the 20, punted short of reaching the 20 in the first place, or shanked or hit out of bounds prior to the 20 yard line. None of these punts were returned for a touchdown in 2008, or returned across mid-field, with the average starting position for these bad punts being the 28.7 yard line. The "punts inside the twenty" from mid-field punts, conversely, had an average starting position of the opponent's 10.7 yard line.

The distribution of mid-field "punts inside the twenty" is not uniform. Here are the number of punts that have been downed, kicked out of bounds, or returned to each yard line inside the twenty in 2008:

Yard		Number
1		6
2		14
3		12
4		6
5		9
6		7
7		12
8		15
9		19
10		22
11		19
12		13
13		18
14		19
15		9
16		16
17		17
18		15
19		6

As you may have guessed, more drives are started at the 10-yard line as any other. Though we see some fair catches inside the 10, many teams have a 10-yard line rule for fielding a punt, and we see the numbers dip in the yards that follow toward the goal line, until we get inside the 3.

So how do the individual teams fare? Which are the best at downing punts and pinning opponents when they have to punt in this mid-field zone? If you look at the official punting statistics at NFL.com, you will see that Chicago and Tampa Bay lead in "punts inside the twenty", each with 18, and thanks to fewer punts, Chicago has the highest "inside the twenty" percentage, with 47% of all Chicago punts qualifying. However, both of these teams finish roughly middle of the pack in my evaluation. Chicago, for example, has 14 of its 18 "punts inside the 20" from these mid-field punts I measured, but half of them were downed between the 16 and 19 yard line.

And the team that, quite handily, is leading in opponent starting position, with four punts downed inside the 5 and three more inside the 10 (compared to 1 touchback and no other bad punts), is only middle of the pack in the official NFL statistic. Here is a chart for all mid-field punts so far in 2008, listed by team, and sorted by average opponent starting position. Going across, the columns show the opponent's average starting field position following a punt, the percentage of mid-field punts that would officially be a punt "inside the twenty", the total number of mid-field punts, and the number of punts that resulted in touchbacks (TB), and at each of the respective yardage groups. For example, Jacksonville is dead last in average starting position, with four touchbacks and five punts that resulted in the opponent taking over past the 20, out of 15 total punts.

Team	Opp.St.	IN20%	Punts	TB	1-5	6-10	11-15	16-20	21+
===========================================================================
phi	8.9	0.91	11	1	4	3	1	2	0
pit	11.7	0.80	15	1	2	5	4	2	1
nyj	11.9	0.63	8	1	2	0	2	2	1
det	12.5	0.80	15	2	0	5	4	4	0
clt	12.7	0.73	15	1	4	2	4	2	2
atl	13.2	0.78	18	3	3	4	5	2	1
ari	13.2	0.54	13	4	2	2	1	3	1
ram	14.0	0.73	11	2	1	4	2	1	1
buf	14.1	0.67	12	4	0	3	5	0	0
sdg	14.1	0.63	8	2	1	1	3	0	1
car	14.3	0.73	11	3	0	3	3	2	0
chi	14.3	0.72	18	1	1	5	1	7	3
tam	14.8	0.72	18	2	2	3	5	3	3
min	14.9	0.53	15	6	2	2	2	2	1
sfo	15.0	0.67	9	2	1	2	1	2	1
cin	15.1	0.57	14	2	3	4	1	0	4
oak	15.1	0.65	17	5	3	1	5	2	1
mia	15.5	0.60	15	3	3	2	4	0	3
cle	15.8	0.50	14	5	2	2	2	1	2
was	16.1	0.53	19	1	1	2	4	5	6
dal	16.7	0.47	15	5	0	2	3	3	2
htx	16.8	0.46	13	3	2	1	0	4	3
nyg	16.8	0.60	10	2	0	3	2	1	2
den	17.0	0.60	5	2	0	0	1	2	0
oti	17.0	0.54	13	4	1	1	3	2	2
gnb	17.4	0.44	9	4	0	2	0	2	1
rav	17.5	0.50	14	2	1	2	3	1	5
kan	17.7	0.53	15	3	3	1	2	2	4
new	17.7	0.38	16	8	1	1	4	0	2
sea	18.0	0.33	12	4	2	1	1	0	4
nor	19.7	0.42	12	2	0	3	0	2	5
jac	20.4	0.40	15	4	0	3	0	3	5
===========================================================================

The best punter in these mid-field punting situations has so far been Sav Rocca and the Philadelphia Eagles coverage unit. Four punts inside the 3 and Seven within 10 yards of the goal line compared to only one touchback is pretty impressive. At season's end, I'm going to try to run the second half numbers to see how much correlation there is between how a punting team does in the first half of a season and the second half, to see how much luck and noise is included in this data.

Finally, I also looked at how the percentage of punts a team has in this mid-field zone affects the punter's overall gross average. For example, Denver and Saint Louis have the two lowest percentage of punts occurring in the mid-zone. Only 22% of Denver's punts have occurred in this part of the field, and 27% of Saint Louis' punts. These teams, not coincidentally, happen to be first and third in gross punting average to this point in the season. When I run the correlation for all teams, the cc between mid-field punt percentage and gross punting average is -0.36, suggesting it is a real factor.

Back in July, I wrote about Pro Bowl Punters and how an over-reliance on gross punting average seems to have dominated Pro Bowl selections and generally results in punters on bad offensive teams and in warm climates being selected. This info further suggests that selectors need to place information into context, and in the case of punters, consider that the distribution of punts for each punter is not equal. Punters who get to hit driver all the time shouldn't be overvalued over those with a good sand wedge.

This entry was posted on Friday, October 31st, 2008 at 4:49 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.