Fielding Punts Inside the 10 in the NFL: What Do the Facts Show?

By Jason Lisk

Have you ever wondered whether the “you shouldn’t field a ball inside the 10” saying is even remotely close to being true? If you are like me, you sit up at night pondering such things. And then, if you are obsessive, end up going and watching more punts than are probably healthy.

To look into what is appropriate on punts, I looked into all punts so far this year that (a) resulted in a touchback, (b) went out of bounds inside the 12 or closer to the goal line, or (c) were downed at the 12 or closer to the goal line.

From there, I tossed out all the touchbacks where the ball sailed into the end zone, or resulted from bouncing balls before the 12 yard line, or where the ball went out of bounds without first bouncing in play.

So what’s left is a look at the facts of what has happened in 2015. I say facts, rather than data, because people get caught up on the word “data.” These are recorded observations, like most data, of what has happened. (Just like “the computer says coaches should go for it more” is recorded data of what has actually happened in NFL games).

Here’s a fancy chart, with observations of where a ball first hit inbounds. So when it says “5” on there, that’s the average start for teams for all balls that first hit at the 5-yard line following a punt. In this case, 20% of punts that land at the 5 end up as a touchback. The average starting point for the offense, if they allow the ball to land at the 5, is at the 8.9 yard line (that takes into account touchbacks at the 20, as well as the location of balls downed).

Here’s the glossary of those terms–

  • AVG START is the average starting point if the ball is not fielded but lands at that point, including the value of touchbacks
  • TB% is the total number of balls allowed to bounce that result in a touchback
  • Inside 3% is the percentage of balls allowed to bounce that end up being downed at the 3 yard line or closer to the end zone
  • Fielded % is the total number of punts that were fair caught or returned at that yard line, divided by the total that were punted to that point
  • Avg Ret Yds is the Average Return Yards for all attempted returns starting at that point
  • Fair Catch % is the total percentage of balls landing at that point that were fair caught by the return team.

There are some interesting observations here. First, these include all punts. You may be surprised to learn that only 22% of all balls allowed to bounce between the 5 & 9 yard lines reached the end zone. If we take out punts that traveled more than 50 yards, then we take out over half of those touchbacks. The chances of a pitching wedge type punt bouncing into the end zone if it is dropped between the 5 and 9 yard line is only 10%.

Once we account for those longer punts, the actual cutoff for where returners should typically fair catch a ball, balancing the risk and rewards of allowing the bounce, is around the 6 to 7 yard line.

And as it turns out, that’s about the range where we see the percentage of fair catches drop dramatically. It is also about the range where we see the risk of being pinned against the end zone outweigh the reward of a touchback, if a ball is allowed to bounce.

The other thing that stands out to me is that players have been pretty good at decision making on when to return a ball that is caught at the 5 yard line or closer to the end zone. (Well, Lucky Whitehead’s attempted return from the 1-yard line excepted). You really only want to attempt a return if you can get a sizable one, because of the higher likelihood of a touchback. Ten of the 14 returns in that range gained more yards than the expected average result of just letting a ball bounce.