INDIANAPOLIS — Over the last 29 years, only four NFL coaches have gone for it on fourth down as often as Doug Pederson did in his first two seasons as Eagles coach.
While the number of fourth-down attempts doesn’t always reflect aggressiveness – many are necessary for trailing teams – 32 games is a large enough sample. Pederson went for it 53 times – eight times more than the next team over that same span and 23 times more than the league average.
Numbers tell only part of the story. Anyone who watched the Eagles over the last two years saw that Pederson liked to fly outside the envelope and not just on fourth down. He’d go for two, as he did against the Panthers after an early-third-quarter touchdown which broke a 10-10 tie. He’d push for points despite time limitations, as he did against the New York Giants with Jake Elliott’s game-winning 61-yard field goal.
And Pederson didn’t turtle up in the postseason. He had the Eagles drive 60 yards for a field goal with 29 seconds left before the first half in the NFC championship game. He converted on all three fourth-down tries in the playoffs, including twice in the Super Bowl, with the “Philly Special” trick play being the most aggressive and memorable.
But Pederson wasn’t reckless. He used analytics. When there was gray area his lead-foot approach often led to a conversion or points and ultimately wins — the last a championship.
Naturally, teams around the NFL have noticed. Polling coaches and general managers for lessons learned from the Super Bowl-winning team is often a rite of passage at the annual combine. And the answers have been varied.
But with new coaches, some of them linked to Pederson, approaching the job with a fresh set of eyes and incumbents looking for any new advantage, it’s possible that some teams will try to copy the Eagles’ aggressiveness this coming season.
Frank Reich, who became the Colts’ head coach last month, had perhaps the best vantage point as Pederson’s offensive coordinator.
“Just watching how he did that and how he was so incredibly aggressive on fourth down and in every way in play calling, that was good for me to see,” Reich said Wednesday. “I’ve always considered myself a pretty good play caller and a pretty aggressive play caller. … So to see that again in Doug was a good reminder to me how we need to take it here to this team.”
Matt Nagy, who worked with Pederson in Kansas City, wasn’t as effusive when asked if he had plans to call plays and manage games as assertively. But the new Bears coach simply flashed a knowing grin and said, “I like it. I like it.”
As of the first day of the combine, Pederson said that he yet to hear from any other coaches looking to spitball ideas. They can be a fickle group and it’s not as if he reinvented the wheel. There have been previous explosions of aggressiveness, particularly on fourth down, in the NFL.
“It’s all philosophy. It’s all sort of personnel preference,” Pederson said. “Every play caller is different. They’re not me. I’m not them. But I would imagine there might be one or two guys that might say, ‘Hey, what’s going on through your mind?’”
Rams coach Sean McVay, while professing admiration for Pederson’s attacking mind-set, was careful to note that there are many variables based on situation that still must be considered. The Rams went for it on fourth down only 11 times last season – converting five — but that didn’t stop them from being the top-scoring offense in the league.
Sean McDermott, whose Bills went 2 of 15 on fourth down in his first season, said that knowing when to go for it and when not to takes time to learn.
“I think that’s one of the adjustments to the job, right?” the former Eagles defensive coordinator said. “As a head coach, it’s probably the thing you always talk about and it’s never really finished on the to-do list. You’re always looking at new situations that come up that haven’t been even thought of or haven’t come up maybe to this point.”
Andy Reid, whose Eagles teams averaged 13.1 fourth-down attempts from 1999 to 2012, said it was possible that Pederson’s aggressiveness could trickle down through the league.
“New England’s been doing that for a few years,” Reid said.
The Patriots, though, haven’t been among the more aggressive fourth-down teams over the last eight years. Bill Belichick was more of a gambler earlier during his tenure in New England. But since 1991, only Bill Parcells with the Patriots in 1994-95 and 1995-96 (35 of 74 and 35 of 73), Dave Wannstedt with the Bears in 1996-97 (34 of 55), Dick Lebeau with the Bengals in 2001-02 (17 of 53), and Jack Del Rio with the Jaguars in 2007-08 (33 of 57) went for it as often as Pederson.
Only two teams over the last 29 years had a greater success rate than the Eagles had this season (17 of 26) when attempting to convert on as many fourth downs – the 1996 Bears (20 of 28) and the 2002 Jaguars (18 of 26).
Pederson may have the final call, but the Eagles have an intricate system that incorporates their analytics – led by assistant linebackers coach Ryan Paganetti – into game-time decision-making. Paganetti has a direct line to Pederson’s headset and they will often confer after touchdowns on whether to go for two points, at the end of each half on how to use timeouts, and when the offense gets into fourth down territory.
The analytics crew has mathematical charts that are broken down into color-coded categories that are green for go, red for stop, and yellow for a call that may require more instinct. But there are various darker and lighter shades within the three colors that could require more nuance.
Every NFL team uses analytics, some more than others, but its influence has grown over the last five years, according to Reid. Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who returned to the NFL this offseason after a nine-year layoff, sounded like a dinosaur when asked if he planned on using the new player-tracking devices available to all teams.
“Man, I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998,” Gruden said before wondering out loud how to pronounce “data.”
“I’m not going to rely on GPS’s and all the modern technology,” Gruden said. “I will certainly have some people that are professional that can help me from that regard. But I still thing doing things the old-fashioned way is a good way, and we’re going to try to lean the needle that way a little bit.”
Whether Gruden was being disingenuous or not, Pederson had the opposite response and said that the GPS was “going to be a great resource.” His openness to analytics, something the Eagles have long been at the forefront of, was one reason owner Jeffery Lurie hired him.
Pederson hasn’t been dogmatic about football, but calling a game is still a learned skill and requires an ability to multitask. It’s unclear if Paganetti’s chart suggested the Eagles go for it on fourth and 1 just before the half, or later in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
But considering the success of Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, and many other variables, such as a trust in Nick Foles, who initially suggested running “Philly Special” at the goal line, Pederson went with his good old-fashioned gut.
“You’re in the biggest game of your life, it’s fourth and 1, before halftime, and you’re calling that play,” Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said. “It’s not big balls, it’s tremendous balls.”