Posted by Jason Lisk on August 17, 2010
One of the most exciting plays in football is when a punter is standing at the opponent's 40 yard line, waiting patiently as the play clock ticks down slowly to zero. You need to get some more space for the punter to work his magic. For those that have played golf, this probably feels like a good strategy. I know that I would rather hit a full sand wedge into a green rather than be 40 yards closer. Then again, I don't have data for how accurate I really am from 115 versus 75 yards out (which is a good thing) to measure if my subjective feelings are actually correct, or whether I am remembering specific shots that are skewing my perception. In the NFL, we can measure the average starting position based on where a punt occurs. Is it actually a good play to take a delay of game to create more room? Let's look at the 2009 numbers.
First, I want to thank Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats for his play by play database that he has made publicly available. I'm working on cleaning up a punting database to do some further research, in line with what I talked about punts inside the 20, and so far I have only touched 2009 and have been testing it. I thought I would go ahead and post this, which may interest only me, since I know punters are H-O-T. These are numbers from the 2009 season with net yards by field position, from the team's own 40 yard line and closer to the end zone.
|YARD LINE||NO||NET AVG|
To smooth the data out, this next table has the same info, but uses the yard line, as well as the results from the 1 yard before and after it, to put a net yardage by field position. The "diff" column represents the difference in net yards at that yard mark, versus five yards further back. In order to justify a delay of game five yard penalty, we would need to gain at least five net yards from moving back.
It looks like taking a five yard penalty to gain more punting room for the punter is not justified by these numbers. Sure, it helps the punter's stats, as net yards are lower the closer to the end zone you get. It is arguably a break even strategy at around the 36 yard line and in, but then again, you probably should be going for it anyway if you are inside the opponent 36. Beyond that, well, it is costing teams somewhere on the order of 1.5 to 2 yards on average by moving back. That doesn't consider other factors, such as moving back reduces the chances of a first down by a penalty such as running into the kicker or offsides.
No coach is going to lose his job or win a Super Bowl by foregoing a delay of game penalty on a punt. Honestly, it's not that big of a deal, and you can count on one hand the number of times most teams do it during a season. But coaches are a generally meticulous bunch, so it surprises me that they would willingly give up 1 to 2 yards of anything. Plus, it's really annoying to watch a guy wave his arms back and forth for twenty seconds waiting for a delay of game penalty.