DANVILLE, Ind. — As Danville High School kicker Dustin Rieser trickled an onside kick off the tee on the opening play of the season, the coach on the opposing sideline had one thought.
“They must not think they are very good,” Plainfield coach Brian Woodard said.
That the onside kick was unsuccessful was of little concern to Danville coach Russell Sumner. In his second year at the school, Sumner has installed a new pedal-to-the-floor philosophy that has the Warriors attempting onside kicks with regularity, going for it on fourth down the majority of the time and eschewing extra-point attempts for two-point conversions.
It’s a style that’s more X-Box than Woody Hayes.
But before you peg Sumner, 33, as the sky-diving, alligator-handling type, understand that his philosophy is rooted in the mathematical probability of the reward outweighing the risk.
Challenging the status quo is nothing new in statistics-driven baseball, most notably in Michael Lewis’ bestselling book “Moneyball,” which chronicled the Oakland A’s and the sabermetrics philosophy of general manager Billy Beane. In the nine years since the book was released, many more baseball teams now utilize advanced statistics sabermetrics in player evaluation and building rosters.
Football is well behind baseball and basketball in translating statistical evidence to on-field decisions. But the sabermetrics approach is gaining traction in football, with even The New Yorker reporting on the topic last month.
“We’re holding on to philosophies from the 1940s and ’50s, when football was a field-position game,” Sumner said. “The scores were 7-0 or 9-6. Punting on third down wasn’t uncommon. But it’s a different game now. I think to voluntarily turn the ball over to the other team, we’re doing our kids a disservice.”
A new way of thinking
Sumner’s unconventional philosophy is actually rooted in Little Rock, Ark.
In 2007, after his Pulaski Academy team in Arkansas allowed an 80-yard punt return in the second game of the season, coach Kevin Kelley decided enough was enough.
Kelley had reada 2003 study, updated in 2005, by Cal-Berkley economist David Romer, who compiled NFL data from 1998-2000 and concluded teams should be far more aggressive on fourth down.
“Even on its 10-yard-line — 90 yards from a score — a team within 3 yards of a first down is better off going for it,” Romer wrote. “In practice, however, teams almost always kick on fourth down early in the game.”
Kelley took Romer’s theories and put them in use. His 2008 team, which won Arkansas’ Class 5A title, didn’t punt all season. In a game last season against Cabot, one of the best teams in the state, Pulaski Academy recovered three onside kicks in succession and led 29-0 before Cabot even touched the ball on offense in a 64-34 victory.
To Kelley, the philosophy is all about playing the percentages. According to his numbers, an opponent typically recovers an onside kick at its own 47-yard-line. A conventional kickoff is returned to the 33. The downside is just 14 yards of field position, while the upside is possession of the ball.
“Just because something’s always been done that way,” Kelley said in 2008, “doesn’t mean it should continue to be done that way.”
Brian Burke, a former Navy pilot, has been studying football analytics for six years and founded the popular web site, advancednflstats.com. Burke shares Kelley’s belief that coaches are far too timid on fourth down decisions.
“Football is a conservative sport,” he said. “People revert back to the tried and true. Back when the Pottsville Maroons would beat the Green Bay Packers 6-3, a punt or a field goal was like death sentence to the other team. The passing game has evolved so much, but conventional football wisdom gets passed down through the generations and coaches generally revert back to those ideas when the pressure is on.”
Statistics, however, are not as easily translated in football as they are in baseball, Burke said. Baseball is a series of one-on-one matchups, while football is “22 players colliding in human chaos.”
“Football is the sport that is the hardest nut to crack because there are so many variables,” Burke said. “There’s down and distance, score differential, timeouts. There are literally billions of combinations.”
But Burke added that fourth-down strategy and when to onside kick are based on probabilities that are relatively easy to track. It’s easier said than done, though, when you’re not the one making the call.
“I’d like to think I’d put my money where my mouth is,” Burke said with a chuckle. “But my money is in a safe place.”
New math, new results
Danville is 4-2, two wins better than it was last year at this time, and in reach of its first winning season since 2007. Yet not everybody understands — or wants to understand — Sumner’s new age style of football.
At a recent game at Frankfort, some Danville fans grew restless after a second onside kick failed, with a couple shouting, “Use your kicker!” One of the biggest cheers of the night came after Rieser booted an extra point late in the first half to give Danville a 29-0 lead. The Warriors converted two of three two-point conversions on their first three touchdowns.
“Some people (in the community) don’t understand what we’re doing yet,” said senior defensive back B’ster Detty. “But they don’t know the stats. They were kind of like we were at first, wondering if it’s really going to work.”
Sumner’s resolve was tested right away, in the opener against Plainfield. Danville converted just one of its four two-point conversions, which turned out to be crucial in a 29-26 loss. Plainfield drove for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
Danville athletic director Jon Regashus, who wholeheartedly supported his coach’s philosophy when he broached the idea in the spring, called Sumner the morning after the Plainfield loss.
“I asked him if he still believed in his philosophy and he said he did, absolutely,” Regashus said. “That’s what I was hoping he would say. Just because it didn’t work out that game, doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision. But we did talk about that back in the spring. When you do something that’s against the grain and against tradition, you open yourself up to criticism when it doesn’t work.”
Sumner, who is also the offensive coordinator, follows a script during the game, which takes what he calls “gut feeling” decisions out of the equation. Sumner has a laminated card that includes all of the fourth down scenarios where Danville will either go for it or punt. An assistant coach in the press box relays the information to Sumner during the game.
“It’s all built into what we do,” said defensive coordinator Dave Nichols.
Perhaps the biggest advantage for Danville is difficult to quantify: preparation time by the opponent. Woodard admitted he had no idea what he was up against before the opener started and was forced to adjust on the fly.
Western Boone coach Jed Richman said Danville “was a headache” to prepare for, though the Class 3A second-ranked Stars won 24-9 in the season’s third week.
“They put you under constant stress,” Richman said. “You never know what they are going to do or how they are going to do it. They believe in their system and it’s producing results for them. There’s a lot of merit to what Russ is doing.”
Will anybody follow? Both Woodard and Richman said they are likely to stick with “conventional” football. But innovation doesn’t always happen overnight.
“It’s a trial and error sport,” Burke said. “If someone who is bold and inventive and adopts this full menu ideas and goes and wins a Super Bowl, then everybody is going to follow it. Until that happens, we’ll be shouting here on our perch.”