Archaic Football: The Puntout
Football's evolutionary tree includes branches that thrived and others that died. Archaic elements of football include techniques, equipment, procedures, and other aspects that were normal parts of the game before disappearing from use. The puntout, once a common and critical part of the game, was removed from the rules in 1920.
Most football fans today have never heard of a puntout, much less seen one in action. The image in the banner at the top of the page is the next best thing. It shows a play from Purdue's 1907 visit to Illinois. Take a close look at the image. The player at the right appears to be readying himself to punt or dropkick the ball. The team wearing white headgear stands on the goal line with the white goal posts to their right, seemingly ready to sprint forward. (The goal posts are difficult to distinguish from the side of the stadium in the background, but the goal posts' location is clear from other game images.) To the far left, players whose headgear matches the punter's ready themselves to do something, but what? As you might guess, the image shows Illinois executing a puntout against Purdue. We'll spend the rest of this article explaining the mechanics of the puntout before discussing its implications and demise.
I first heard of puntouts in 2015 when I found them mentioned in newspaper reports of games during the WWI era. Not being familiar with puntouts, I approached the issue like anyone living in the 21st Century and Googled "puntout" and "punt-out" since both spellings appeared in period writing. None of the sources proved helpful, but I soon gained access to period NCAA rule books and other sources that helped me understand the role and mechanics of puntouts.
Here's what I learned. Before 1920, the process of executing the "goal from touchdown," what most people now call the extra point, differed from today. Back then, the scoring team received the ball for their goal from touchdown attempt at the spot the ball crossed the goal line during the touchdown play. If they scored in the middle of the field, they received the ball in the middle of the field. If they score three yards from the sideline, they received the ball three yards from the sideline.
Once in possession of the ball, the scoring team had two options. First, the kicker could walk at a 90-degree angle from the goal line until he reached a spot that gave him a favorable angle and distance to attempt the kick. The kicker and holder then executed a free kick. Their teammates stood behind them or to the side, while the defense remained behind the goal line until the holder placed the ball on the ground, at which point, the defense rushed the kicker.
Walking the ball out was the preferred option when the touchdown was scored in the center of the field, but it was less attractive for touchdowns scored near a sideline. On touchdowns scored near a sideline, the kicker could only achieve a reasonable kicking angle after walking thirty to forty yards, making for a long kick at a less-than-ideal angle.
The scoring team's second option was to execute a puntout. Puntouts involved a player on the scoring team taking the ball and positioning himself behind the goal line and at least as far from the goal posts as the spot of the touchdown, even if doing so placed him out of bounds. The player then punted the ball onto the field; the linemen on the scoring team aligned near the 5- or 10-yard line to block the defense. Several backs spread out behind the linemen to catch the punted ball, after which they could run for the goal line, attempt a dropkick, or signal for a fair catch and attempt a free kick from the spot of the catch. Most teams fair caught the ball and tried the free kick.
Meanwhile, the defense aligned beyond the goal line, charging forward to bat the ball away from the offense. (The defense could bat the punted ball but not interfere with or touch the player attempting the catch.) Teams failing to catch the punted ball lost the opportunity to attempt the goal from touchdown, so many close games turned on the ability or failure to execute the puntout.
The image below is the same as that shown in the banner atop the page. This image is noteworthy because I have searched high and low for action images of puntouts, but this recent find is the only image of a puntout found to date. I assume similar images exist, and if you know of one, please leave a comment below with information on its whereabouts.
Of course, the fact that the puntout was a standard part of the game affected play-calling for offenses in the red zone. Although teams would prefer a touchdown scored near the sideline to a failed attempt to run the ball up the middle, there was substantial value in crossing the goal line near the middle of the field, particularly for teams down seven late in a game. (The two-point conversion did not enter the college game until 1958.) Scoring near the middle of the field meant the offense did not need to execute a puntout and the lack of hash marks at the time reinforced the tendency to run plays in the horizontal middle of the field. Still, the image below shows Princeton running the ball up the offensive middle on a play near the sideline rather than sweeping or passing the ball to the goal post side. Perhaps they were playing to their strength.
The puntout's end came in 1920. The rule makers sought to make the extra point process easier so teams scoring touchdowns, and converting their extra point, earned more points than teams making two field goals. The new rules eliminated the puntout, allowing the scoring team to attempt the kicked extra point from the spot on their chosen field. In addition, the defense could not rush the kicker. The rules changed several times during the 1920s before settling into a pattern similar to today's.
A final note regarding the puntout is that the referee could levy a five-yard penalty against the punter for feinting the punt to draw the defense offside. Since the punter was already behind the goal line, a vertical penalty made little sense. Instead, the penalty moved the punter five yards further away from the goal posts, making it the only instance of a horizontal distance penalty in football's history.
Postscript: More than one year after releasing this article, I found a second image of a puntout in action.