Starkey: What's a risk in football?
By Joe Starkey
Published: Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012, 11:20 p.m.
It's a copycat sports world. That has always been true. If something works — like Billy Beane's “Moneyball” approach to baseball — others are sure to try it.
Except in rare instances that absolutely boggle the mind.
Why, for example, have so few basketball players copied Rick Barry's underhand free-throw style? All Barry did was make 89.9 percent of his foul shots, third best in NBA history.
Was it too uncool to copy?
And why aren't kids across the country practicing knuckleballs? How can it be that National League All-Star R.A. Dickey is the only major leaguer — and one of only three pitchers in all of professional baseball, according to a story on ESPN.com — to employ the pitch?
Maybe it's too hard to learn. Or too hard to teach. Maybe organizations just don't have the patience to bring along a knuckleballer. They should.
Then there's Kevin Kelley, who coaches football at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark., and coaches it quite radically.
You might have seen Kelley profiled on HBO's “Real Sports.” He orders onside kicks after every touchdown and almost never punts.
“That's how I used to play in ‘Tecmo Bowl' and ‘Madden,'” says Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. “So I guess I can't blame him.”
Indeed, Kelley's teams put up video game-like numbers. He is 104-18-1 with three state championships in nine seasons — and he takes great exception when somebody questions his competition.
“We won the overall Arkansas State Championship last year,” Kelley wrote in an email after our phone interview Tuesday. “We play at a high level.”
Kelley claims his methods are backed by basic math. He started going for it on fourth downs after watching a video of a Harvard professor breaking down various football probabilities.
One example: When his team is backed inside its 10, Kelley says a 30-yard punt — compared to losing the ball on fourth down — would only decrease his opponent's chance of scoring by 15 percent. He believes his prospect of converting on fourth down is much greater than that, and his career conversion rate backs the notion. It's better than 50 percent.
The onside kicks are a no-brainer. Kelley says when he kicks off, the opponent's average start is the 33. That only increases by 15 yards if the team recovers Pulaski's onside attempt — which isn't easy, given that Kelley has multiple versions — so he'll always trade a possible 15-yard loss for the possibility of another possession.
Why aren't more coaches incorporating some of Kelley's methods?
Maybe some are, even if they've never heard of him.
Sean Payton's New Orleans Saints executed a memorable onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV. Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn't afraid to attempt fourth downs on his side of the 50, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made an unheard-of call three years ago.
Tomlin, you'll remember, ordered an onside kick even though the Steelers led Green Bay, 30-28, with 3:58 left in a regular-season game. His move was considered heretical but made eminent sense: The Steelers couldn't stop Aaron Rodgers.
So instead of giving Rodgers the rest of the game to drive and score, Tomlin essentially said, “Go ahead. We'll take the last shot.”
The Steelers allowed a touchdown but had enough time (barely) to come back and win on the final play.
Risk, if you want to call it that, is more acceptable in the college ranks than the pros. San Diego State coach Rocky Long is a Kelley fan and says he might not punt or kick field goals whenever his team crosses the 50 this season.
Kelley isn't sure how to feel about that.
“If he does it, and does it well, people might start doing it,” Kelley says. “And I don't want it to catch on because I've got an advantage over everybody right now.”
Even if a major college or NFL coach believed in Kelley's system, or wanted to incorporate some aspect, it's likely he'd have neither the courage nor the job security to do so.
One loss on a so-called “gamble” might be enough to end an experiment. And a coaching tenure. As Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch — a Kelley admirer — put it, “I don't know if that coach would be around long.”
But I'd love to see one try.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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