September 08, 2017
As we have covered extensively this offseason, Doug Pederson and the Philadelphia Eagles were the most aggressive team in the NFL on fourth down decisions a year ago, and they are highly unlikely to suddenly become more conservative in 2017.
Back in July, we noted that Pederson went for it on fourth down 27 times in 2016, most in the NFL. In fact, only two teams (the Texans with 23, and the Rams with 20) attempted to go for it 20 or more times in 2016.
We then took an individual look at all 27 times Pederson went for it, and concluded that we were on board with about 95 percent of those aggressive calls.
At the conclusion of his press conference on Thursday, as in off the podium, owner Jeffrey Lurie said completely unprompted that the burden of fourth down calls should not fall on the shoulders of Pederson, or any other head coach in the NFL.
"Actually, am I allowed to raise another point on something," Lurie asked. "Sometimes people try to critique coaches on fourth down decisions, and things like that. I want to just sort of explain to you how those decisions get made, OK? Because we should really take some of the burden off of any coach in the league. A lot of teams – ours is one of them – it’s all in the offseason done with mathematics, and it’s not based on any form of instinct. If it’s going to be 50-50, 48-52, then a coach is going to have their instinctual predilection. But what we’ve found is that there have been so many decisions over time that are too conservative for the odds of maximizing your chance to win."
Lurie's message? Blame math, not Doug.
"You’ve seen certain coaches that are deemed more aggressive. It’s because the math leads them there. That’s all it is. So any decision – hopefully any coach of ours makes – it based on maximizing the chances to win.
"We’ve lived with television commentators and reporters and whatever for 20, 30, 40 years who have always kind of adopted kind of a very conservative approach to those decisions. When you do the math, you really want to try to be a lot more aggressive than the public would normally anticipate. I think the smarter teams do it that way.
"And you can fail. If you have a 42 percent (decision) and a 58 (percent decision), and you choose the 58, and it seems like why are you doing it that way? And you may lose that fourth down. You may not gain that play. You may lose that. 'Oh how could make that decision?' Well, it gave you the best chance to win."
The Eagles' philosophy in regard to fourth down calls is dead on. The reality in the NFL is that teams should go for it on fourth down more than they do, according to the percentages. But more often than not, NFL head coaches lean absurdly too far to the conservative side. Fans have even adopted the conservative approach, as one of the common criticisms of Pederson during his rookie season as a head coach was that he was too aggressive on fourth down.
When we put together analysis of all 27 times Pederson went for it last season, there was one fourth down call that really stood out to me. The Eagles had a 4th and 2 at the Vikings’ 44-yard line, 1:21 left in the first half, leading 8-3. Pederson opted to go for it. Carson Wentz took it himself for a 6-yard rush and a first down. As a result, the Eagles kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired in the first half. 11-3.
That was a ballsy call. If you don't convert there, you give the Vikings a chance to score going the other way before the end of the first half. But if you do, you're likely going to get at least a field goal, which the Eagles did. That was a fourth down call that helped the Eagles win a game like they also did against the Browns and Bears, among others.
My question is this: Does anyone really even remember this call? I can admit that I hadn't before I went back and looked at all of Pederson's fourth down calls a season ago. But you know what calls everyone does remember? The two failed fourth down calls in the Eagles' first matchup against the Giants.
There's no doubt Pederson would have been criticized harshly for his call against the Vikings had he not converted and the Vikings scored going the other way.
But because he did... crickets. Observers tend to only remember the calls that go wrong. Don't be that fan. #EmbraceTheMath.
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