Behind the lines: Punt!!

They were woefully under-matched against one of the better teams coached by now retired head coach Todd Dayton at Cokeville, and there have been a lot of outstanding Cokeville Panther squads.

My friend Tim Nolan of Greybull had the Panthers at home in the opening round of the 1989 Class 2-A playoffs.

The Buffs were 8-0 during the regular season including a 27-26 overtime win over the rival Lovell Bulldogs, but they were no match for the 10-0 Panthers who rolled through the playoffs, including a 46-0 shellacking of Burns in the state championship game.

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It was the golden era of Cokeville football with the Panthers winning six consecutive state titles from 1986 to 1991. Nolan was a crafty coach who could keep his team in games regardless of how overmatched they might be.

My late friend Harold Bailey and I drove up to Greybull to watch that opening round contest.

In those days, the playoffs meant something in a classification with 27 teams spread over four conferences. You had to win your conference to make the playoffs, unlike the present system that often sends teams with 1-7 records into the post-season.

You thought it was just the college bowl games that have been watered down, the truth is, so have the high school playoffs in Wyoming.

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Cokeville ran the same plays they used in all 41 years of Dayton’s and his assistant Brian Nate’s career. Trap, toss sweep, lead plays off tackle and pass maybe three to five times a game. It was devastating and wore most teams down by the half.

The Panthers handled Harold’s Wranglers 49-0 that season, but we were both high school football fans, and friends of Tim’s and wanted to see how he handled the Panthers.

The wind blew that afternoon at a constant 35 miles per hour out of the Northwest, with gusts over 50, yes, perfect conditions for Cokeville’s run-you-into-the-ground style offense.

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Nolan had the Buffs in the game, trailing by just a touchdown as the first period came to an end. Greybull had the ball with that howling wind at their back with just seconds left in the first quarter. Cokeville stuffed them on first down and Nolan called a timeout with two seconds left on the clock.

After the timeout, on second down, from their own 15-yard line, the Buffs ran a toss sweep to the right, but the halfback pulled up, and pooch punted the ball down the center of the field. It caught the Panthers off guard. The ball only sailed about 25 yards, but that howling wind caught it as it bounced, and it rolled dead inside the five-yard line. The Buffs had reversed the field.

It took the Panthers most of the second period to march the length of the field before they scored. It might seem trivial, but if the Buffs ran two more plays before punting into the wind, Cokeville would have had a short field and scored quickly.

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The final score was still a lopsided 35-11, but it was one of the closest margins the Panthers had that season.

In the modern era, where many young coaches learn football from playing Madden on Sony Playstation this type of strategy is largely forgotten. They’ve been trained to believe they can change fate with the flick of a button, and when there is no button, just a furious pass rush with clamp-down corners waiting behind the linebackers, reality takes hold in an especially vicious way.

I’ve watched 20-something, early-career teachers, forced into coaching who have no business being there, and who likely don’t want to do it in the first place. They’re easy fodder for experienced coaches and somewhere in the mix, many of them have become convinced that punting is an admission of failure.

Quite the opposite is true, but there are many online coaching venues that agree with that premise and offer up the success of obscure programs that rarely if ever punt as examples. What they don’t mention is the plethora of defeats that come with this strategy.

I’ve even heard of punting being politicized. (What isn’t politicized these days?)

Extremists claim that punting is “liberal” because it shows no confidence in your offense. Never mind that your offense has failed to move the ball on three consecutive plays before fourth down, it just isn’t American to play defense evidently.

By refusing to punt, you show confidence in your team, and when you’re stuffed on fourth down, give the other team a short field to quickly score on, at least you have the respect of your players and fans with your decision to stand behind them.

Sure you do. They’ll support you all the way to the school board meeting where they’ll be clamoring for your head on a platter. You won’t have to worry about your longevity with a program, you won’t have any.

Why is punting such a bad thing?

The answer goes back to that generation raised on video games where the long shot is always answered with success.

I coached with a couple of younger guys in my final seasons who were clearly of this mindset. I’d watch them dig holes with offenses much too complex for teenagers to run, then stay with it on fourth and 14 or worse situations from deep in their own end of the field. Their fourth down attempts failed every time, without exception, leaving the defense in the untenable situation of trying to hold off the other team from inside the Red Zone.

It was exasperating at best.

Good teams play offense, but great teams play defense.

One of my mantras to my teams was this little gem, “If they don’t score, you can’t lose.” Yes, it could end up 0-0 and go into overtime, which happened a handful of times in my career, and are among the most memorable games I ever played or coached in, but we didn’t lose, at least in regulation we didn’t.

I’ve seen the hesitation to avoid punting many times and witnessed it a few times already this season.

Punting isn’t admitting defeat, it’s keeping your team in a game, and reversing fortunes if you’ve spent the time in practice with your deep snapper, line, punter, and bullets to get great coverage.

Harold was an advocate of this strategy and always had at least one player who could punt while running the sweep.

I can still hear him sending in a messenger end, “Quick kick on first sound…” even though it was just third down.

When in doubt, punt.

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