Tuesday, September 15, 2009

First, Do No Harm. Also Second

The Patriots' rousing 25-24 win over Buffalo last night reminds us that luck is also the residue of your opponent's bad design.

While Leodis McKelvin's decision to return the kickoff he wound up fumbling to blow the game for the Bills is a debatable issue, please put me firmly down on the side of the debate which calls it a major error in judgment. It's a risk management-return on investment question for me. The slightest hint of a possibility of a turnover is not worth risking the certainty of in effect giving the Pats an extra time out. If the offense makes a first down, the Bills win. Putting the game-changing onus on New England's defense rather than its robust offense seems like an easy call.

I admit special teams coaches and players, especially return guys, don't think that way. I believe, however, that they should. McKelvin inadvertently demonstrated evidence in support of one of my pet pro football theories, namely, that when it comes to kick returns, less is more, and none is perhaps most.

Were I a special teams coach (I'm not qualified, as my voice isn't loud enough), my opening speech to the kick return teams would be as follows: "Men, we ain't paying you enough to be heroes. Your job is to make sure the guys who are getting paid to be heroes get a chance to do their jobs."

Fifty years-plus of watching pro football (first game in person, 1956) have convinced me that kick returns aren't worth the trouble they cause returning teams. That is to say, on balance, negative plays far outnumber positive ones. Over the course of a season, the game-winning effects of the spectacular touchdown returns and all the good field position created by successful returns by one team do not equal the game-losing effects of the fumbles and muffs and the poor to execrable field position created by bad returns and, most of all, the ubiquitous illegal block and holding penalties that seem to happen on two out of every three punt returns.

My belief in this theory grows stronger every season. Leaving the Pats game aside, I will point out that the other biggest return play of the week was DeSean Jackson's TD punt return for the Eagles, which only took place because the refs missed an obvious block in the back which would have turned the TD into about a ten-yard loss.

It is my contention that if a team did nothing but risk avoidance on kick returns, if it fair caught every punt, and either downed every kickoff or never ran one back past its own 25, but also never committed a return penalty or turnover, it would have a better won-loss record than an equal team which played returns the conventional daredevil way. I don't suppose Bill Belichick would be willing to give my idea a shot in the interests of science. He loves football theory discussions, but not that much.

No coach would ever turn my theory into practice. I may well be right, but what I propose is a psychological impossibility for the reckless human beings who bring x's and o's to three-dimensional life. Simply put, on the field, pro football players are half-crazy, and special teamers are half past that state of mind. The risk-reward calculus for men who are assigned to what once were pretty accurately termed "the suicide squad" is not a matter of mathematics. You can't ask men to suffer the risks of selling out in the most violent collisions their violent sport creates without offering the reward of the chance to be difference-makers. It would be neither humane nor smart coaching.

I still know I'm right, though. It's probably why I'm the only football spectator in the U.S. who goes "Attaway to go!" every time a return man sticks up his hand to signal a fair catch.


At 3:16 PM, Blogger KSR said...

You may have already seen this, but SI just ran an article about a high school team that refuses to punt, and the coach goes over some statistics on why it's not worth it.



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