When Doug Pederson went for it on fourth-and-8 last week against the New York Giants, it is likely that the coach had Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie’s approval.
Pederson’s unsuccessful attempt spurred a week of criticism and second-guessing from fans and media alike, never mind that the Eagles beat the Giants, in part because they had converted on two other fourth downs.
But those were mild 1-yard gambles in comparison, and if weren’t for some peculiar decision-making by Giants coach Ben McAdoo, the Eagles would have allowed their first touchdown after a failed fourth-down try for the first time since Pederson became coach.
Lurie, almost clairvoyantly, spoke before the season about the criticism coaches often face over fourth downs. It was as if he had anticipated the furor that would arise some two-plus weeks later. But Pederson had already been the most aggressive coach in the NFL in 2016, with obvious backing from his boss.
“I just want to sort of explain to you how those decisions get made because it should really take some of the burden off … any coach in the league,” Lurie said Sept. 7. “For a lot of teams — and ours is one — it’s all in the offseason done with mathematics. It’s not based on any form of instinct.”
Lurie conceded that there were a few situations in which instinct was necessary — when the math was 50-50, 48-52 — but, in truth, situational football isn’t as black and white. Pederson had to gauge more than just the down, length, field position, quarter, and score before deciding whether to roll the dice.
But Lurie’s greater point was that the NFL, by and large, had been too conservative and that old-school coaches and their defenders in the media had failed to adopt a more analytical approach to calling a game.
“When you do the math you really want to try to be more aggressive than the public would normally anticipate. I think the smarter teams do it that way,” Lurie said. “And you can fail. When you have a 42 percent-58 and you chose the 58 and … you may lose it, [critics say], ‘Oh, how could you make that decision?’
“Well, because it gave you the best chance to win.”
The Eagles have tried to convert an NFL-high 30 fourth downs over the last two seasons. They’ve been successful 50 percent of the time, which is about the league average (51.6) over that span.
The odds typically favor offenses that are willing to gamble in plausible fourth-down scenarios – unlike when they’re trailing either by larger deficits or late in games — but the Eagles’ success rate in scoring points after conversion as opposed to allowing points after failure is significant.
They have gone on to score on 12 of 15 successful fourth downs with seven touchdowns and five field goals, and have allowed just one touchdown and one field goal on defense after failing to convert on 15 tries. The touchdown came only after Donnie Jones fumbled a punt and the Eagles were charged with going for it on fourth-and-13.
Distance has certainly played a factor in Pederson’s success rate. The Eagles had an average of 2.9 yards to go when they’ve converted fourth downs and 6.4 yards when they’ve been unsuccessful.
Eight yards is difficult to gain on any down, but Pederson said that 34 percent of fourth downs from that distance had been converted over the previous 10 seasons. More variables also factored into the equation of whether to go for it — the ball was on the Giants 43 with two minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the first half, and the Eagles led, 7-0 — but there was a subjective element, as well.
Pederson said that the offense had been moving the ball – the Eagles had already gained 150 yards — and that he trusted his defense, which had held the Giants to 78 yards, if quarterback Carson Wentz and the offense had failed.
“It’s ultimately my decision,” Pederson said.
And Pederson’s inclination has been to be aggressive more times than not. He had never been a head coach at any level higher than high school, so he didn’t have much of a track record. But he genuinely seems aggressive by nature. It could be his quarterback background or because as a first-time coach he wants to show his players that they have his confidence.
The Eagles were among the first NFL teams to incorporate analytics into their football operations. Former team president Joe Banner was an early proponent and the department has only grown over the years. When Pederson interviewed with the Eagles he said that having an understanding and willingness to use analytics was discussed.
“I don’t think it was necessarily a deal-breaker,” Pederson said.
While Chip Kelly had been at the forefront in sports science and many other innovations, he used analytics to an extent. Alec Halaby, who is now the Eagles’ vice president of football operations and strategy, had been relegated to a marginal role when Kelly had been given personnel control.
But Lurie and Howie Roseman have only broadened its reach, which goes well beyond just fourth-down math.
“I think some of that stuff should be proprietary,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “But there’s certainly everything from in-game situations to where we use it most is in preparation for a team and whatever tendencies from quarterbacks or offensive linemen and things like that.”
The Eagles have several staffers who work either full time or part time under Halaby, including assistant linebackers coach Ryan Paganetti, who is one of two analytics voices in Pederson’s ear on game days. A former running back at Columbia, Paganetti feeds the coach statistical information throughout the game.
“The communication between he and I is that we even talk on second down — ‘Be prepared for … ,’ ‘Maybe expect this … ,’ ” Pederson said.
Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said that he had never worked for an NFL team in which an analytics staffer had a direct line to the head coach or a play-caller. But more teams around the league are doing it.
“I think the dialogue is incredibly appropriate and professional, well-communicated and well-prepared the whole week long,” Reich said. “And then it’s up to coach’s decision what to do with it.”
Pederson, typically, goes for it.