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Interactive Graphic: How Mike Leach embodies the #NeverKick philosophy

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Come explore how WSU went from the most punt-happy team in the nation to one of its most aggressive on 4th down.

Of all the tidbits out on the internet about Mike Leach, I think my favorite may be a 2006 appearance he did on the Lubbock nightly news. It’s Leach at his odd ball best talking about mud storms and the importance of calendars.

The reason it’s my favorite is a quote he throws out that I think embodies his play calling style, which is “you’re gonna be dead in 100 years anyway, live dangerously.” He follows it up by talking about the importance of expecting sun, not letting the bad stuff hamper your day and most importantly, don’t be a coward.

Coach Leach doesn’t seem to be much of an adrenaline junkie outside of football, but I think he gets his fix via football — and being an eternal optimist on 4th down helps him amp the heart rate.

We’re all well aware of how he rose to stardom by throwing the ball more than anyone thought necessary at the time and having a quirky love of pirates, but looking back at his performance at Texas Tech and how he’s shaped WSU, I think Leach sees a bit of the risk taking of Daniel Boone or Black Beard in himself.

There are a good amount of Twitter jokes on how important it is to #neverpunt; when WSU is in a field goal slump, our Slack channel will talk about how we should #NeverKick in general. Those memes are easy to embrace with Leach as our coach. I can roll my eyes at the gambler cliches, but Leach backs it, and plus, going for it on 4th down makes football more fun and there is some statistical proof that teams should go for it way more than they do.

Back in the dark days of 2008 and 2009, the Cougs punted 176 times across those two seasons. Meanwhile, Leach’s Red Raiders only punted 26(!) times in 2008 and 46 times in 2009 for 72 total. Looking back at that rough, punt-happy time, it’s clear why CougCenter was running articles about who in the top 10 of the NFL Draft was going to select Reid Forrest. Since Leach’s arrival in 2012, he has turned WSU into the #NeverKick powerhouse we were always meant to be.

The below chart looks at what I’m calling #NeverKick percent. It takes 4th down attempts + field goals attempts + punts to get “total 4th downs”, then divides 4th down attempts by that number to see how often a team went for it. It’s not perfect, as teams will kick a field goal on 2nd down at the end of a half or game, or go for it on 4th in a spot that wouldn’t normally make sense with a game on the line, but in the words of our fearless leader, live dangerously. Hover over a logo to get the full detail of punts, kicks and 4th down attempts.

Flip your phone horizontal on mobile or go to this link to open the chart in its own view.

Our proclivity to avoid kicking and roll the dice on 4th down peaked in 2014 when the Connor Halliday-led Cougs were tops in the nation in this made up stat, going for it on 4th down 37% of the time. WSU closed out 2016 second in the Power 5 and 5th nationally going for it 33% of the time on 4th down. It’s not quite the glorious 40% that Leach’s 2008 team hit, but it’s better than 13% the Cougars went for it on 4th down in 2009.

Football is supposed to be fun, and Leach’s embrace of the #NeverKick philosophy can cause me to pull my hair out at times, but overall I’d say it adds to the entertainment value of Coug games in a good way and is probably the way WSU has to play to compete against teams stacked with more talent. As much as I like to make fun of Stanford (115th in #NeverKick) for punting from their opponent’s 40 or UW and Chris Petersen (123rd in #NeverKick), they can stomach more conservative play with their surplus of talent.

Here’s to more fun and less punting.

Oh, and by the way: If you, too, are looking to embrace the power of not kicking and looking to support Steve Gleason, go to this link and pick up some of his #neverpunt merchandise.