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Post The Fair Catch Factor: when you’re better off doing nothing

Tuesday October 2, 2012

EDSBS has come up with a metric called the Spike Factor where they look at what percentage of plays a team would have been better off just spiking the football.

Saturday’s game inspired me to look at a similar metric for Georgia’s return game against Tennessee: the fair catch factor (FCF). What would the impact have been had Georgia just taken a knee on every kickoff or called for the fair catch on every punt?

  • UT Kickoff: Mitchell returned 16 yards from the endzone rather than take the touchback. FCF: -9 yards.
  • UT Punt: Mitchell return for no gain. Tackled immediately. FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -9 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Touchback. FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -9 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Touchback. FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -9 yards).
  • UT Punt: Downed on the 1. The punt bounced on the 16. FCF: -15 yards (Cumulative -24 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Nathan Theus fair catch made at the 19 on a short kickoff. Fair catch factor: 0 yards (Cumulative -24 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Todd Gurley fielded the kick around the two-yard line and stepped out of bounds. The kick landed in the field of play, so it was a live ball. Still, it landed on about the one – it would have rolled into the endzone for a touchback. Typically a returner would have no problem returning a kick from the 1-yard line, but Gurley had to play this ball near the sideline on the run after sprinting over from the middle of the field. His momentum carried him awkwardly over to the sideline. We’ll say that the right play was to let it roll into the endzone for a touchback and give an FCF of -23 yards (Cumulative -47 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Richard Samuel fielded another short kickoff and advanced the ball 10 yards. FCF: +10 yards (Cumulative -37 yards).
  • UT Punt: Ball punted out of bounds, no return. FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -37 yards).
  • UT Punt: PUNT BLOCKED! No return, but well done Marc Deas! FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -37 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Kick to the 7 yard line returned by Mitchell to the 19. Not a great return, but there was no chance of a touchback. FCF: +12 yards (Cumulative -25 yards).
  • UT Kickoff: Touchback. FCF: 0 yards (Cumulative -25 yards).

Tennessee’s final three possessions ended on turnovers, so there were no more punts or kickoffs. Georgia had two field-able punts in the game. Mitchell fielded the first under pressure, and it’s not unusual to see a fumble after a returner is hit that quickly. The net result was the same as a fair catch, and he would have saved himself a big hit. The second punt was the disaster. Mitchell was lined up at the 10, and the ball hit around the 16. At that point Mitchell was wise not to try to pick it up, but he could have easily made a fair catch before the ball landed.

Only three of Tennessee’s kickoffs gave a reasonable chance for a return. The opening kick was just across the goal line, and it was a reasonable call to bring it out. But Mitchell couldn’t get it past the 20. Mitchell had another opportunity in the second half on a kick to the 7 – no decision to make there; it had to be returned. Still, the return team was unable to break the 20. The Vols also kicked a few deep enough to be obvious touchbacks, and they tried a few pooch kicks to the upbacks. The kick fielded by Theus was effective – again Georgia started inside its own 20, and the Vols were in good field position when they forced a fumble. The second short kick was less successful. It only went to the 25, and Richard Samuel knows what to do with the ball in his hands. He advanced it out to the 35, and Georgia was in good shape with a much shorter distance to drive for their tying field goal.

Then there’s Gurley’s botched return. Gurley has been Georgia’s most productive kick returner this year, so I was happy to finally see him sent out there in the second quarter. It was a well-placed kick in that it forced Gurley to make a decision: it was close enough to the goal line that it might be a touchback, but it was far enough away from where Gurley had started that he had a lot of work to do in order to return it. It was also short of the goal line, so you had the tiniest chance of Tennessee recovering the kick if you just let it roll and die short of the goal line (it wouldn’t have). The result wasn’t quite Orwin Smith or Xavier Carter territory, but it was close.

So with an FCF of -15 yards on punts and a net of -10 yards on kickoffs, Georgia finished the game with an FCF of -25 yards. They would have saved themselves a net of 25 yards’ worth of field position by just playing for the fair catch or the touchback. Those decisions also contributed to Georgia’s awful second quarter field position, so it’s possible that the fair catch strategy might have saved Georgia’s defense some points as well.

One Response to 'The Fair Catch Factor: when you’re better off doing nothing'

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  • buccanbulleagle

    October 2nd, 2012
    12:17 pm


    aside from cumulative yards, i think another interesting angle would be to contrast the actual number of undesirable outcomes (i.e. fumbles and other miscues) against favorables ones of say over 25 yards….my theory is that for every big return, you risk more of a negative result, thus strengthening your point that an auto fair-catch practice would be wiser, or at least whenever there is anyone even close at all to the receiver.