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June 03, 2018

Mailbag: How long before the NFL copies the Eagles' analytics-based aggressiveness on fourth down?

In our weekly Eagles chat on Wednesday, there were a lot of questions that we could not get to in time or other questions we did answer but could use more color. And so, let's do a mailbag post to answer some of the overflow.

Question from Desert Eagle: How long do you think it will take for the rest of the league to evolve with analytics, and become as aggressive as the Eagles on 4th down, etc.? Giants aside, of course.

To note, I answered this during the chat, but I'd like to organize my thoughts on it a little more clearly

To begin, teams might become more aggressive on fourth down, but I think it's going to be a long time before another team is as aggressive as the Eagles were last year.

There were three key factors in the Eagles' aggressiveness.

  1. Jeffrey Lurie was on board.
  2. Doug Pederson embraced his freedom to make aggressive calls because he had the blessing of the owner, and couldn't have cared any less about public backlash if the results didn't go as intended.
  3. The Eagles had an overwhelming amount of success on fourth down, which made it easier to continue to be aggressive.

Let's look at each of those points individually.

1) Jeffrey Lurie was on board.

During a media session just before the start of the 2017 season, 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? If the results on fourth down calls don't go well, blame math, not Doug.

As it turns out, Lurie's directive on fourth down aggressiveness led to a Super Bowl win. I'm not sure how many other owners would go out of their way to not only give their head coach that level of freedom, but to also expect it.

2) Doug Pederson embraced his green light on aggressiveness, and didn't fear backlash

In the aftermath of the Eagles-Giants game Week 3, Pederson got torn apart both by print media and local radio. How could he go for it on 4th and 8?!? The horror! Personally, I loved the call, and explained why in detail in a post titled ‘Dislodge yourselves from Doug Pederson's butt for that 4th-and-8 call, people’ from back in September.

After seeing what can happen in the aftermath of a game (A WIN, NO LESS!) when a fourth down call doesn't have the desired result, Pederson could have become less aggressive. Luckily for the Eagles fans who killed him for that call, Pederson didn't care what you thought.

3) The Eagles had an overwhelming amount of success on fourth down

Back in February, we did an analysis of all 29 of Doug Pederson's 4th down 'go for it' calls in 2017. We determined that the Eagles scored an additional 74 points as a result of those calls that they otherwise wouldn't have scored, and only had three points go against them. That is an overwhelming amount of success, which no doubt made it easier for the Eagles to ramp up their aggressiveness. 

It is very unlikely that the Eagles' success on fourth down calls will be matched by themselves or any other team anytime soon. Without a similar level of success, will other teams have the stomach to continue to make risky (but correct) decisions despite more frequent failings? My guess is no.

Question from Norm Snead: Is Josh Adams going to be “hang nailed” onto injured reserve?

To begin, he’ll have a chance to make the team in training camp, so we’ll see how he does there.

Ultimately, however, if he ends up being a bubble guy who could go either way in terms of making the team or not making the team, I don’t think they’ll have to trump up some phony injury to get him on IR for the season. After all, it’ll mean he wasn’t good enough to beat out guys like Donnel Pumphrey and Wendell Smallwood.

There were 20 running backs selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, and he wasn’t among them, obviously. He’s a guy they can probably safely get on the practice squad if he doesn’t do enough to make the team.

If I were to name a good “hang nail” candidate, I’d go with either Jordan Mailata or Josh Sweat.

Question from Pragmatic: I know Vegas making the NHL finals is pretty improbable, but Carolina and Jacksonville both made conference championship game appearances in their second season. It does seem in sports today, a few smart moves and you can be competitive.

Yeah, I mean, look at what the Eagles were after Chip Kelly got fired. They had released or traded their best players, they were saddled with some horrendous contracts, and team morale was in the toilet. Two years later, we’re wondering if they might be a embarking on the start of a dynasty.

Anyway, your question got me curious about how teams were selected back when the NFL added new teams, as I didn’t remember. Per wikipedia, here's how it worked when the Texans were added in 2002: 

Each NFL team listed five players that the Texans could select, and the Texans were required to claim either 30 players or $27.2 million in contracts (38% of the 2002 salary cap). After the Texans selected a player from an existing team, that team could remove a player from their remaining list. If a second player was taken, the existing team could then pull back its remaining three players. However, teams were not required to remove players from the draftable list, resulting in three Jets and three Jaguars being drafted to the Texans. The Texans were prohibited from selecting a player from a team and trading the player back to that club.

Existing teams were not allowed to put punters or kickers on the list, nor any player from their 2001 roster who would have become an unrestricted free agent in 2002. They could not list players who went on injured reserve during the 2001 summer's training camp nor any player who would become a restricted free agent after the 2001 season. Their list could include only one player with more than 10 years' experience.

Given those guidelines, here are the five players I think the Eagles would have left exposed:

  1. Mychal Kendricks: They would’ve been more than happy for someone to take him off their hands with no cap hit.
  2. Vinny Curry: Ditto.
  3. Brent Celek: Celek would be the one player allowed with 10-plus years of experience.
  4. Marcus Johnson: He was a throw-in in the trade to acquire Michael Bennett, and a player the team had soured on.
  5. Steven Means: This was a toss-up between Means and Smallwood. While I don’t think either player has any trade value, I think it is at least somewhat feasible the team could get something extremely minimal in return for Smallwood, so I’d leave Means exposed.

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