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Punting Before 4th Down: A Brief History

Punting prior to fourth down used to be a common tactic in American football in the days of the single wing and scoreless ties.  Rather than risk a game-changing turnover, a team pinned deep in its own territory or facing an unlikely-to-be-converted down and distance would often punt early in a series.  If the defense wasn’t expecting a punt, a quick kick over the defense would have plenty of room to bounce and roll, flipping field position.

Strategy chart, Dana X. Bible, Championship Football, 1947.

But by 1953, the early-down punt basically would be obsolete.  The new T formation moved the quarterback under center, eliminating his ability to quick kick, while related offensive improvements made teams less willing to surrender possession without exhausting their chances to make a first down.

The 1960-61 49ers, inventors of the modern shotgun formation, punted on 3rd down at least once.

The 1971 Chiefs sent out the punter on a 3rd and 48.

Future NFL developments didn’t help.  Why use a quarterback to punt when kicking specialists are on the expanded roster?

And yet, under the right combination of circumstances, NFL teams will still punt before fourth down.  What follows are the details of every non-4th-down punt in the NFL since 1980.

1. Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, January 2, 1983

Coach: Mike Ditka, Chicago

Game Situation: 3rd & 24 at own 6, 10:49 4th quarter, ahead 23-13

Why: In the Bears-Seahawks game three weeks earlier, Seattle quick kicked on a direct snap to the fullback on a 4th &1 with four minutes left.  The 54-yard punt was downed at the 2, helping to preserve a narrow victory.

At the time, Ditka discounted the play call. “It’s a high school play.  If you stay up late enough, you’re gonna think of plays like that.”

What had happened: The Bears were sacked for -14 yards on second down, then held on what would have been a 17-yard 3rd & 19 run.

The punt: Jim McMahon’s punt over a surprised defense was downed 59 yards downfield.

What followed: The Bucs immediately drove 65 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 3, later kicked the tying field goal with :26 to go, and then kicked the winning field goal on their first drive of overtime to clinch a berth in the 1982 Super Bowl tournament.  The Bears would have advanced to the playoffs had they won (assuming the 49ers still would have lost to the Rams later that day).

2. Chicago Bears vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, September 11, 1983

Coach: Mike Ditka, Chicago

Game Situation: 3rd & 25 at own 35, 5:36 4th quarter, ahead 17-10

What had happened: The Bears ran for -4, were sacked for -6, then committed a delay of game.

The punt: Jim McMahon’s punt rolled out of bounds at the Tampa 29.

What followed: Unlike the previous year, the Bears defense kept Tampa out of the end zone on the final two drives of the game to seal the victory.

3. Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears, November 10, 1985

Coach: Darryl Rogers, Detroit

Game Situation: 3rd & 15 at own 28, 0:10 1st quarter, trailing 7-0

Why: potentially the last play of the quarter before the teams switched ends, strong tailwind, facing one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history.

What had happened: The Lions’ drive (starting with :28 left in the first quarter) went sack for -7, timeout, run for 2, timeout.

The punt: Unlike almost all of the teams in this list, the Lions used their regular punt unit.  Mike Black’s 64-yard punt (with an 8-yard return) would have pinned the Bears at their own 16, but Dave Duerson was flagged for running into the kicker, which was an automatic first down at the time.

What followed: The Lions would have been better off declining the penalty, as they were intercepted three plays later.   The Bears eventually won the game 24-3.

4. Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins, September 7, 1986

Coach: Buddy Ryan, Philadelphia

Game Situation: 2nd & 40 at own 16, 11:15 2nd quarter, ahead 7-3

Why: quarterback who led the NCAA in punting average two years earlier, offensive line that would give up an NFL-record 104 sacks on the season, new coach with a fondness for oddball plays

What had happened: After gaining 5 yards on first down, the Eagles committed four consecutive penalties.

The punt: Randall Cunningham took the snap from shotgun formation and punted into right guard Ron Baker’s back.  The ball deflected 15 yards downfield, where Redskins linebacker Rich Milot fielded it and returned it 3 yards to the Eagles’ 28.

What followed: The Redskins scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later and won in a rout, 41-14.

Note: Ryan emphasized in the 1986 preseason that the quick kick would be a part of his offense.

And with Cunningham back there, we can also quick-kick. I know they’ll boo it, but we don’t really give a damn. If it’s the thing to do, we’ll do it. A 70-yard play is a hell of a play. If you’ve got 20 to go on your own 20, I’d rather kick it out of the shotgun, quick-kick it on third down. It’d be a 75-yard kick. That’s a lot of grass.

5. Philadelphia Eagles at St. Louis Cardinals, November 2, 1986

Coach: Buddy Ryan, Philadelphia

Game Situation: 3rd & 21 at own 12, 9:25 4th quarter, ahead 10-0

Why: quarterback who led the NCAA in punting average two years earlier, offensive line that would give up an NFL-record 104 sacks on the season, new coach with a fondness for oddball plays

What had happened: The Eagles passed for -6 on first down, committed a penalty, then threw an incompletion on 2nd down.

The punt: Cunningham took the snap from shotgun formation and punted 39 yards with no return.

What followed: The Cardinals scored touchdowns on their final two possessions and won the game 13-10.

6. Philadelphia Eagles at Minnesota Vikings, September 25, 1988

Coach: Buddy Ryan, Philadelphia

Game Situation: 2nd & 18 at own 14, 7:20 2nd quarter, trailing 10-7

Why: quarterback who led the NCAA in punting average four years earlier, regular punter with an injured wrist from an earlier botched punt, coach with a fondness for oddball plays

What had happened: The Eagles ran for 2 on first down, then committed offensive pass interference on second.

The punt: Cunningham took the snap from shotgun formation and punted over the drawn-in defense.  The punt eventually rolled out of bounds 58 yards downfield.

What followed: The Eagles forced a 3-and-out, then drove for a touchdown on their next possession.

Note: This is the last second-down punt in NFL history.

7. New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles, October 10, 1988

Coach: Buddy Ryan, Philadelphia

Game Situation: 3rd & 18 at own 28, 4:50 1st quarter, trailing 3-0

Why: quarterback who led the NCAA in punting average four years earlier, coach with a fondness for oddball plays

What had happened: Cunningham was sacked on first down, then threw incomplete on second.

The punt: Cunningham took the snap from shotgun formation.  His 55-yard punt was returned 8 yards.

What followed: The Eagles’ next drive ended with one of Cunningham’s most memorable plays.
 

8. New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers, November 25, 1990

Coach: Bruce Coslet, Jets

Game Situation: 3rd & 24 at own 16, 9:00 2nd quarter, ahead 7-0

Why: new coach with a fondness for oddball plays

What had happened: The Jets were sacked for -14 on second down.

The punt: Ken O’Brien took the snap from shotgun formation and punted just 23 yards downfield.  After muffing the ball, Rod Woodson returned it 12 yards to the Jets’ 27.

What followed: The Steelers scored the tying touchdown seven plays later, while the Jets would not score again in the game.

Note: The notoriously-unathletic O’Brien had a 53-yard quick kick in the 1990 preseason.

9. Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys, October 16, 1994

Coach: Rich Kotite, Philadelphia

Game Situation: 3rd & 12 at own 4, 9:47 2nd quarter, ahead 7-0

Why: quarterback who led the NCAA in punting average ten years earlier, coach who’d go 8-35 over his next 43 games

What had happened: The Eagles ran for 1 on first down and -3 on second.

The punt: Cunningham’s punt over the defense was downed 80 yards downfield.

What followed: Despite being pinned at their own 16, the Cowboys drove 84 yards for the tying touchdown.

10. Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns, October 23, 1994

Coach: Bill Belichick, Cleveland

Game Situation: 3rd & 12 at own 21, 9:40 3rd quarter. trailing 13-10

Why: punter who doubled as a third-string quarterback, struggling offense, coach with a fondness for oddball plays

What had happened: Starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde, hiding a concussion from a second-quarter hit, was sacked on second down for a 2-yard loss.

The punt: Tom Tupa’s 44-yard quick kick from shotgun formation was returned 4 yards.

What followed: Though the Browns’ other backup quarterback, Mark Rypien, was unable to move the offense, the Browns scored their next 17 points off special teams plays and won 37-13.

11. New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills, December 28, 2008

Coach: Bill Belichick, New England

Game Situation: 3rd & 8 at own 41, 5:16 4th quarter, ahead 13-0

Why: extreme tailwind, coach with a fondness for oddball plays

What had happened: The Patriots, holding a two-touchdown lead midway through the fourth quarter in a game where downfield passing was near-impossible, ran for 1 on both first and second downs.

The punt: Matt Cassel’s 57-yard quick kick from shotgun formation rolled all the way to the Bills’ 2.

What followed: The Bills drove 64 yards without scoring, plus used half the clock and their final timeout in doing so.  See #10 for more.

12. New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills, December 28, 2008

Coach: Bill Belichick, New England

Game Situation: 3rd & 3 at own 40, 1:18 4th quarter, ahead 13-0

Why: extreme tailwind, coach with a fondness for oddball plays and rubbing things in, supposed fear of a blocked punt

What had happened: The Patriots ran for 5 on first down and 2 on second.

The punt: Chris Hanson’s 41-yard punt with the regular punt team on the field was returned 30 yards by Fred Jackson.

What followed: The Bills drive lasted 4 plays before the clock expired.

Note: It’s hard to find a scenario where this punt, especially with the regular punt unit, made sense.  Running for a first down would have ended the game; if Belichick feared a fumble, a kneeldown would have killed at least 40 of the remaining 78 seconds; if Belichick feared a fourth down block, he could have called for another kneeldown or an intentional safety.  Belichick claimed he punted on third down because he feared a 10-man rush and a potential punt block on fourth down, but the Bills rushed 10 on third anyway.  Plus, putting the regular punt unit out there meant the Bills could put Jackson, their only offensive player worth a damn that day, on the field to return it.

11. Denver Broncos at New England Patriots, January 14, 2012

AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND

Coach: Bill Belichick, New England

Game Situation: 3rd & 10 at own 42, 3:10 4th quarter, ahead 45-10

Why: coach with a fondness for oddball plays and rubbing things in

What had happened: The Patriots, up five touchdowns late in the fourth quarter against a Tim Tebow-led offense, ran for 1 on first and -1 on second.

The punt: Tom Brady’s 48-yard quick kick from shotgun formation was downed at the Broncos’ 10.

What followed: While the punt was rolling, the Broncos’ Von Miller cheapshotted Dan Connolly, sparking a brawl near the Patriots’ sideline.

Note: There is no way in which the decision to punt on third down made in-game sense.  Maybe Brady needed punting practice.

12. Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots, December 29, 2013

Coach: Bill Belichick, New England

Game Situation: 3rd & 32 at own 46, 7:49 3rd quarter, ahead 16-3

Why: rain, cold, coach with a fondness for oddball plays

What had happened: The Patriots committed consecutive holding penalties to start the drive.

The punt: Tom Brady’s 32-yard quick kick from shotgun formation was fair caught by Jim Leonhard.

What followed: The Bills went 3-and-out.

Note: Pro Football Reference’s play index erroneously lists several other punts from 1999-2014 as occurring before fourth down.  In all of these cases, PFR is merely repeating typos from the original gamebooks, which either failed to account for loss-of-down penalties (i.e., intentional grounding) or mistakenly negated downs with post-play dead-ball penalties.

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3 thoughts on “Punting Before 4th Down: A Brief History

  1. My favorite thing about this list is the commentators on video #2 saying "We haven't seen that one in a long time! Jim McMahon with his first punt in the NFL." despite the fact that, in video #1, the same commentators saw Jim McMahon punt on third down just 8 months prior!
    I know they're not perfect, but something that unusual, you'd think they'd remember it.

  2. You start with the Chicago Bears Tampa Bay when Seattle did it to Chicago first 3 weeks sooner.. why not re do this list with the SEattle kick first then Chicago v tampa bay…?

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