NFL Teams Should Always Punt Block
A Moneyball analysis for the NFL’s most boring play.
On the eve of the Presidential election, the Monday Night Football game played out between the Buccaneers and the Giants.
Twice during the game, the Buccaneers punted the ball and for both punts, the Giants lined up in a full-on punt block, despite it not being a desperation situation.
The Buccaneers punter shortened his distance and kicked seemingly normal punts. The whole thing blew over without controversy except for a few observational tweets from the twitter-verse.
This got me thinking though — why did the Giants, with a special teams specialist head coach — decide to punt block in those two situations? Was there something in the data telling them to do so? Did he know something no one else knew?
My short answer is:
Yes, I think there is an advantage in always punt blocking with no returner.
To figure out this question, I had to compare the expected outcomes of the two strategies based on 2020 season data.
Strategy 1: The Normal Punt Return
The normal punt return is how you’d imagine it — a balance of rushers, corners, and a returner. The goal is to optimize for a punt return.
Across the 420 punts so far this year, 43.6% had attempted punt returns. The average punt traveled 47.6 yards and there was an average of an 8.7 yard return. This resulted in -39.0 net field position for the returning team on 43.6% of punts.
On the 56.4% of times when there is no punt return (due to fair catches, touchbacks, and out of bounds kicks), the average net field position is the length of the punt (47.6 yards).
Therefore, the expected value of a normal punt return strategy is -43.9 yards for the returning team.
Strategy 2: The Full Punt Block with No Returner
The full punt block strategy in this situation is all 11 players rushing the punter with no returner. It’s a full out rush.
For the alternative strategy, we look at a couple of factors to compare its performance.
First, we look at the rate of punt blocks in the NFL. So far in 2020, that number is about 0.7%. On those 3 punt blocks so far this year, I determined the returning team’s average net field position gain to be 3.3 yards (based on my amateur video reviews).
On the 99.3% of occasions when a punt is not blocked, we assume the ball travels the normal average punting distance from before (47.6 yards).
On face value, this strategy doesn’t make sense. The expected value of a full punt block for the returning team is -47.3 yards, which is a worse average field position by nearly 4 yards compared to the normal punt return strategy (-43.9 yards).
The interesting part happens when one accounts for the difference in punt length due to the punt block rush. Since more people are coming after the punt, the punter shortens his distance from the snap. This means he has less room to gain power for his punt, and he subsequently kicks a weaker punt.
If one assumes an 80% average distance on rushed punts vs normal punts, then the expected net field position for a punt block strategy is actually -37.7 yards, which is an average of 6 yards better than the normal punt return strategy!
Playing for Yards in a Game of Inches
With the NFL average of 1.78 punts per game, this equals 11 additional field position yards per game or 176 free yards on the season just from changing a team’s punt return philosophy.
As Al Pacino says in Any Given Sunday, Football is a game of inches, and savvy coaches would be wise to pick up a lot more than those.
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Some Caveats: This analysis doesn’t account for “roll” from unreturned punts in the Punt Block Strategy. The Giants had one player run back to scoop it up, presumably to not let it roll too much. Also, I’m not sure what the right number is for the distance difference between rushed and normal punts. 80% feels like a reasonable assumption. A future analysis should look at the long-term effect of points from both strategies. There wasn’t enough data in this analysis to determine if points scored off both strategies made a difference. Please message me if you’d like a copy of the analysis.