Pete Carroll and the Beauty of Punting

If you’ve spent time on Seahawks twitter, first of all, I’m so sorry you poor bastard.  Secondly, you’ve probably seen the hashtag #PuntToWin brought to the forefront by the coalition of All-Pro punter Michael Dickson and his best friend, the known trader Sean Clement.  For most of us, #PuntToWin can just be a silly label, or a coping mechanism for dealing with supposed “cowardly” punts from Pete Carroll’s Seahawks.

But for Pete Carroll, punt to win is more than that.

It’s a way of life.

That fundamental element of Carroll’s nature hit rock bottom at home against the Saints in Week 3.  The Seahawks, struggling to stop the Teddy Bridgewater-led Saints, caused Carroll to lose sight of himself.

But the best lessons are oft learned after life beats the shit out of you. Credit to Pete Carroll, he learned from his mistakes and decided to take his 2-1 team to conservative levels that would make FOX news squeal.  He remembered that punting wins football games.

Seattle has gone on to win six of their next seven games since Pete recommitted himself to this core principle.  You might’ve seen something called the “Surrender Index” floating around on twitter, which attempts to quantify just how “cowardly” a given punt is. But you know what it doesn’t tell you?  It doesn’t tell you who wins the football game.

If you go back and watch the creation of the surrender index by Jon Bois in this 55-minute video strictly about punting — which you absolutely should because it’s fascinating — you’ll get treated to a little surprise even he can’t explain at the end.

The teams that committed the 10 saddest, most cowardly punts in NFL history finished those games with a 6-3-1 record, with one of the losses belonging to the 2012 Baltimore Ravens that would go on to win the Super Bowl.  And that’s not just an anomaly.  In 2019, the teams with the six most cowardly punts are a combined 34-21.  That .618 win percentage is just a shade lower than the video’s .650, and predicts a 10-win team over the course of a full season.  Pete Carroll is drop-kicking your measly 8-8, 9-7 prediction right back into your face while his coverage team guns it down the sidelines towards another double-digit win season.

Half of these teams are contenders, if not front-runners, to win their division.  The Steelers, for example, are a Wild Card contender, even with Mason Rudolph at the helm.  Some experts suggested they punt this season when Ben Roethlisberger was placed on IR, but they’ve decided to punt their way to a winning record instead.

The Patriots were undefeated until they went up against our the Ravens.  In that game, they punted four times on their first five drives and went into halftime trailing by just four points, with possession to begin the second half.  After that?  Just a single, meaningless punt with a minute left, while trailing by 17.  Perhaps more aggressive punting in the third quarter would have left them in the undefeated club with the 49ers, but alas.

Which brings me back to Monday Night Football.  The Seahawks punted the ball away seven times in San Francisco.  Their overtime punt from midfield combined with their go-ahead field fourth-quarter field goal lost the team 28% win probability, but you can’t win games with win probability.  You win game by getting your best player out on to the field as often as possible.  Carroll was not only adjusting his game plan to fit the trends of #PuntToWin, but was also forcing the 49ers to play against Jadeveon Clowney far more than any human should be comfortable with.

So the next time you think Pete Carroll made a decision that was “cowardly” or “conservative” or “completely ignorant of all the data surrounding the modern NFL,” consider instead:

Maybe Pete doesn’t need to start listening to the data.

Maybe — just maybe — the data needs to start listening to Pete.