The Return of the Pooch Punt!

About a month ago, watching Arkansas and Georgia meet in a fairly exciting SEC football game, I saw something I hadn’t seen in a long time. On a fourth down in that “no-man’s land” (about the Georgia 40), Arkansas quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Ryan Mallett took a snap in the shotgun, and pooch punted inside the Georgia 10.

This got me thinking about how effective the pooch punt can be when used properly. And it also dawned on me that now, more than ever, certain elements are in place to promote a renaissance — if a brief one — of the pooch punt.

Here’s why:

1. Teams go for it more on fourth down now.

Conventional football wisdom is changing. Offenses are better and more diverse, and teams understand statistics that reveal that it is often more efficient to go for it on fourth down in certain areas of the field — most notably, between the 40s. Thus, when a team lines up to go for it in those spots, it’s entirely believable. A defense has to be ready for an actual play; it can’t even contemplate the possibility of a pooch punt, leaving it as vulnerable as ever.

2. Teams use shotgun more, especially in short-yardage situations.

Back in my day — you know, six to eight years ago — the shotgun was reserved mainly for long-yardage, obvious passing downs. Not so anymore. The rampant proliferation of the spread option means many of the most successful running teams in college football run out of the shotgun. Even in the NFL, teams like the Giants and 49ers run frequently out of the shotgun, since their quarterbacks prefer to operate from deeper in the backfield. So another telltale sign of an upcoming pooch punt — QB in shotgun — is no longer a telltale sign.

3. Quarterbacks are more athletic

The last quarterback to consistently and effectively utilize the pooch punt was John Elway, one of the most athletic men to ever play the position in his time. Nowadays, though, in a league with Michael Vick, Vince Young, David Garrard, Josh Freeman, Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, et. al, Elway would barely crack the league’s top five athletes at the position. Now, the link between athleticism and punting ability is, admittedly, somewhat tenuous, but I for one think there’s a better chance these quarterbacks can punt a ball 30+ yards than most of their predecessors. That, or the Punt, Pass, and Kick competition is a fraud.

4. Punt returners are more dangerous than ever

The explosion in athleticism in the sport has reached every position; in fact, it’s creating new ones, it seems. Return specialists used to be rare, but now teams draft players specifically for their prowess as returners (see: Devin Hester or Tennessee’s Marc Mariani). Over the last decade, we’ve seen a plethora of extremely dangerous returners, including Hester and Dante Hall, who each set returning records. This season, there were more kickoff and punt returns through five weeks than ever before. Limiting a returner’s impact on the game is now a key priority of a gameplan, and the easiest way to do that is to keep him off the field.

5. Teams are more creative when it comes to punting

Because returners are more dangerous than ever (and because it seems, anecdotally, that more punts are being blocked these days than usual), teams have altered their approach to punting — especially in college. College teams now employ seemingly ridiculous punting formations, with a secondary offensive line halfway between the primary line and the punter, or with the punter rolling out to avoid pressure. The bottom line is that many teams are scared to simply line up their punter 15 yards deep, and have him kick the ball to a returner.

The Pooch Punt Renaissance will likely not last long — after all, so much of its effectiveness relies on its surprise — and it will not dramatically alter the sport’s entertainment value in the way the American Point Guard Renaissance can for basketball. But the next time your team tries a too-long field goal or sends a short punt into the end zone for a touchback and a 15-yard net, remember: The pooch punt is always an option.

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One response to this post.

  1. I cannot believe you commandeered my category for this pointless prognostication. How low can one set the bar for a renaissance? I know we and the Italians differ on what constitutes a renaissance, but what do you require for your “brief” resurgence in pooch punting? Like one more in 2010?

    Reply

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