By HCR Staff | Nov. 21, 2018
Analytics have increasingly played a role in a coach’s decision-making process, and some coaches have become more aggressive than others. One area in which coaches are pushing the envelope more than in previous years is going for it on fourth down. Analytics such as NYT’s Fourth Down Bot can take part of the credit for an increase in fourth-down conversion attempts. Last year’s Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles demonstrated on-field success with this marriage between analytics and aggressiveness. Former Eagles offensive coordinator and current Colts head coach Frank Reich referenced a similar chart to the Fourth Down Bot that helped persuade Doug Pederson to go for fourth downs even up to a distance of eight yards. Ironically, it is the same team and head coach that makes this week’s Situational Call for inconsistency on fourth down.
Seven out of the 10 Situational Calls this season have highlighted fourth-down attempts. It may seem we swing between praising aggressiveness to condemning it, but it depends on the situation.
In the Eagles’ 48-7 loss to the Saints on Sunday, Pederson swung between being aggressive and conservative on more than one occasion. With aggressiveness comes the need to be consistent, or at least aggressive in the right moments. In his post-game press conference, Pederson alluded to a fourth-and-1 on the Eagles’ opening drive when he chose to punt. This was their sixth three-and-out in 10 opening drives this season. Pederson may have highlighted this particular call, but he showed better judgment here than later in the game.
Philadelphia was behind 31-7 when they faced a fourth-and-5 at their own 41 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Down 24 at that point isn’t pretty, but a comeback is still possible. (Even Saints head coach Sean Payton said a 31-point lead can be lost when he defended his decision to go for a fourth down that resulted in a touchdown.) Fourth-and-five is convertible, but the chances are low and there is still time to let the defense create a turnover or change in momentum. Pederson stuck to his guns but the pass fell incomplete, and the Saints went on to score another touchdown.
Nine minutes later, the Eagles faced another fourth-and-gray-area. It was fourth-and-6 again at their own 41, only this time Pederson decided to punt it. We question Pederson’s decision here. At this point in the game and with the defense proving itself incapable of stopping the Saints, there isn’t much to gain from punting.
What was the difference from an analytics perspective between fourth-and-5 and fourth-and-6 from the same location on the field, with a similar score?
Pederson would finally make the right call with 11:52 remaining in the game on a fourth-an-1 on the Eagles’ 34 by going for it. However, at this point it didn’t matter. The inconsistency shown on the previous drives put them too far behind the sticks to recover.
To be clear, Pederson did not lose the game because of his inconsistent aggressiveness. Almost nothing was going right for the Eagles. Still, his calls on these fourth downs drew inquiries to his use of analytics and shook the team’s overall swagger on future fourth downs. Unwavering aggression has been the true Philly Special for the past two seasons. Prior to Sunday, they were at the top in both attempts and conversions on fourth down. But on Sunday, they looked like a team unsure about going for it and when they were sure, it was out of desperation. When a coach is unsure about going for it, it can be reflected by the team’s lack of execution.
It’s a tough loss all around, and credit goes to the Saints for flawlessly executing their game plan. It was a different Situational Call of the Week, but it serves as a reminder that consistency and confidence in your team’s strengths is critically important.