Attention football strategists. Why not a field goal instead of a punt?

Football is enjoyable, the American kind in this case.

I was watching a college game at the stadium and during warm-ups the kicker for our team was nailing 50-yard field goals regularly. I’ve seen him before kick a 53-yarder.

So now for my question. Our team was down by two points late in the third quarter. They were stopped on third and eight yards on the opposition 41 yard line. On fourth down the coach called for a punt.

I said from my comfortable seat in the stands, wait. Wait. You don’t understand. Let him try a field goal. The coach paid no attention. And our guys went on to lose by two.

The question: why not kick a field goal? The guy might make it and we grab the lead. If not, the bad guys can catch it and run, like on a normal punt.

This happened twice in this game.

I admit to not knowing football strategy, but this seems an easy way to possibly score and maybe demoralize the bad guy a bit when we pull ahead, and, if not, put the them in to punt reception mode.

What am I missing here?

To answer your question, it seems your coach is excessively risk-averse. He should have gone for it on 4th down (try to get a first down, that is.) College kickers aren’t likely to make a 59-yarder, but punting would be of very little benefit.

I am strongly of the view that you should go for the first down any time you are facing a 4th-and-short (or even 4th-and-less-than-10) between midfield and your opponent’s 35-yard line.

If the defending team doesn’t return the field goal attempt, they get the ball at the spot the kick was attempted from.

So if they’re on the 41 yard line, that’s a 58 yard field goal attempt, which is pretty ambitious. Punting that doesn’t seem conservative to me at all.

To clarify the math, the kicker kicks the ball from about 7-8 yards back. And the uprights are at the back of the endzone. So a kick from the 41 yard line is actually a 59 yard kick. Probably out of his range.

58 or 59; over the last decade or so, many pro teams (and probably college teams, too) have changed from having the holder 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage, to 8 yards, to reduce the chance of having a kick blocked. This is especially relevant on long field goals, where the kicker will try to hit the ball with a lower trajectory (for maximum distance), which also leads to a higher chance of it being blocked.

Even if the kicker in question has a strong enough leg to regularly hit 50-yarders, and has successfully kicked from 53 in the past, the extra 5 or 6 yards in this case can make a huge difference – 53 may well be about as far as that kid can reliably kick. Most college kickers likely don’t have enough leg for 58 or 59 yard field goals, unless they get very lucky.

If it were late in the fourth quarter, that’d be different. But, as the OP describes it, it was late in the 3rd quarter. If the kicker makes a 58-yarder, awesome, his team has a one-point lead, but that’s fairly meaningless, with over a quarter to play.

But, if he misses it (and I would guess that he probably would), then instead of giving the other team the ball somewhere around their 20 yard line (which you’d do with a punt), you’re instead giving them the ball around midfield – unless they try to return the missed field goal, which they shouldn’t, they’d take possession of the ball at the spot where the kick was attempted (the 48 or 49 yard line). This means that you’ve given the opponent outstanding field position, with which they have a good chance of extending their lead.

The punt gives your team very good odds of getting the ball back without having given up additional points, with plenty of time left in the game to score, and then take the lead, ideally leaving little time left on the clock for the other team to score again.

OTOH, if this situation had presented itself late in the 4th quarter, and the team can’t be sure that they’ll be able to get the ball back with enough time to try to score, then that’s the time for trying a low-percentage field goal attempt.

A field goal attempted from the 41-yard line is 58 or 59 yards. As of two years ago, anyway, that was the all-time franchise record for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. Probably out of the question by most reasonable standards for a college player.

The difference between a 53-yarder and a 59-yarder is a whopping big one.

As mentioned above, if a field goal in that situation is attempted and missed, the opposing team will get the ball with really good field position to start their drive.
Attempting to return a missed field goal is not a usual play.

The pros are definitely too risk-averse. There was a high school football coach a couple of years back who made it a policy to never punt, and it turned out to work really well.

See also two-point conversions. If you can get your chance of success for those up to 50%, you should be doing them almost all the time, especially in the early game. But almost nobody does.

The higher up you go in football (or probably in most sports), the less that unorthodox approaches are rewarded, unless you’re really good at succeeding with them.

In the NFL last year, the two-point conversion success rate was 48.7%, which was a bit over over half of the one-point success rate (93.4%). So, in the long run, you would, indeed, likely score more points by always going for 2, yes. But, if a team loses a game by a point or two, and had failed at some two-point attempts early in those games, that’s a coach whose decision-making will be called into question.

Yeah, coaches minimize their chances of getting fired vs maximizing their chances of winning. These often align, but if current accepted best practices gives you a 50% win rate, many coaches will choose that over something unorthodox that gives them a 55% win rate, since nobody will blame them in the former case while many will blame them in the latter.

This sounds analogous to the advice that a goalkeeper stands the best chance of stopping a penalty shot in soccer (football) if he stands in the middle rather than preemptively diving left or right. The reasons keepers dive is because they’d be lambasted viciously if they stood still rather than jumping in anticipation.

Thanks, everybody.

I didn’t know about the field position thing if the field goal is unreturned.

Giving that field position is a killer.

But by the same token, if a coach always goes for the two-pointers and wins a game by a point or two, nobody’s going to applaud his genius for it.

And if the league average is 48.7%, then almost surely there are some individual teams where it’s higher, and those teams should REALLY go for them.

Kevin Kelley. Coached Pulaski Academy of Little Rock, AR to a 216–29–1 record over 18 seasons. Hired by Presbyterian College in 2021. He applied the same strategies against FCS Big South Conference opponents. Won a game vs St. Andrews 84–43, but overall went 2-9. He resigned at the end of the year. Currently not employed in football.

There likely are, but the sample size is small – few teams attempt them very often.

Last season, there was a total of 154 two-point conversion attempts in the NFL, or an average of 4.8 per team. Only six teams tried it more than 6 times over the course of the season – the Chargers were tops, with 11 attempts (and 7 successes). That gave the Chargers a 63.6% success rate, but with such a small sample size, it’s likely not statistically-significantly different from the league average of 48.7%.

…except their kicker was drafted by the Cowboys, then didn’t make the team because he didn’t know how to punt…

(ETA: I made that up, because I thought it was funny. It probably didn’t happen)

You know, I hear that story brought up a lot, but I can’t seem to find any real information about your much success can be attributed to that coach and how is just that the school was widely out matching their opponents. It looks like last year the coach tried to move to college football with the same strategy. He went 2-9 and was out after a year. Meanwhile the high school team still went 13-1 and outscored the other teams over 2 to 1.

Also, that % would likely change if teams tried to go for them much more often.

for someone new to American football, you’ve nailed it. Field position is vitally important. Who is your college team? Any answer other than Alabama is OK.