There’s a simple solution to Miners’ kicking problem: Don’t kick

When the other team scores on the first play from scrimmage and then ads two more touchdowns in the first quarter, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose the game.

That was certainly the experience of Nevada Union last week, when the Miners gave up three quick scores and eventually lost 29-20 to Oakmont High School.

What could go wrong?

But the one thing that really frustrated coach Brad Sparks was the team’s kicking–or rather, its inability to do it. The Miners missed the only extra point they attempted, and bad punts continually put them in bad field position.

“I’m over the top frustrated with the kicking game…,” he said after the game. “I’m getting to the point where I will never kick the ball again the rest of the year, except kickoffs.

“Shoot, I might not even kick the ball on kickoff. We might just stand there and throw the ball across the field, I don’t know.”

Actually, Sparks is onto something. Just ask Kevin Kelley, coach of highly successful Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark. Pulaski, currently 5-1 this season, never punts and always kicks off onside. Always.

Kelley, who has won two state championships in the almost 10 years he’s coached the team, is a stats nerd who developed his great insight after reading an analysis of 2,000 games played over a 3-year period by a Harvard professor.

Two things became really clear to Kelley: Field position, valued by every coach you’ve ever heard from, is overrated, and keeping possession of the ball is extremely important.

One way to increase your time of possession is to go for it on fourth down instead of punting. Kelley explains the proposition this way when its fourth down and you have the ball on your own 5-yard line:

If you go for the first down and don’t make it, the other team will score a touchdown 92 percent of the time. If you punt, the other team gets the ball around the 40-yard line and scores a TD 77 percent of the time.

That’s not a big difference in terms of scoring odds, and the odds get even better when you figure in the conversion rate. Kelley said his team converts on fourth down 50 percent of the time. That makes it worthwhile to forego the punt and go for it.

Similar thinking goes into the onside kick. On an average high school kickoff, the receiving team gets the ball on its 33. If Pulaski tries an onside kick and fails, the receiving team gets the ball on its 47–not a huge difference in field position.

But Pulaski recovers the onside kick 20 percent of the time (and the other team knows they’re going to do it!) and that makes a huge difference in turnovers. As every football fans knows, the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game 80 percent of the time.

This is just another example of how analytics is changing sports: Baseball teams now employ shifts that shouldn’t work but do, basketball teams know that shooting a lot of 3-point shots can cover up a lot of weaknesses, and football teams know that passing is a lot more effective than running the ball.

So Sparks should follow Pulaski’s lead and quit kicking the football. He’ll be less frustrated and the Miners might actually win a few league games.

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