The Eagles outpunched the Patriots in Super Bowl 52, with Nick Foles somehow keeping pace with Tom Brady even with Brady performing at the top of his game. The Eagles fused their play-calling, play design, and use of personnel packages into an attack so modern, so devastating it humbled Bill Belichick on the game’s biggest stage—with a backup quarterback. But don’t overlook Doug Pederson’s willingness to say fuck-all to customary NFL risk aversion. That’s what’s at the root of the Eagles’ first championship in 57 years.
The New York Times on Friday published a prescient story about Pederson’s preference for flouting convention. In a nutshell, Pederson spent the entire season optimizing the value of a given situation because he isn’t afraid to use predictive analysis in his decision-making. And he didn’t shirk from this during the Super Bowl.
With 38 seconds remaining in the first half and the Eagles leading 15-12, they faced a fourth-and-goal from the Patriots’ 1-yard line. What will be most remembered is the gimmicky play they ran, which was stunning for several reasons, not least being its perfect and easy execution:
And that’s fair. But what drove that play was Pederson’s insistence on going for it in the first place. Many other NFL head coaches would have been glad to kick the field goal and to take the three points there—the safe, “smart” option. But Pederson hasn’t operated that way all year—and with good reason.
During the regular season, the Eagles converted a league-high 17 fourth-down conversions, and their 26 attempts were second only to the Packers’ 28. Philly’s conversion rate of 65.4 percent was third behind the Saints’ 80 percent and the Jaguars’ 76.9 percent. But the Saints (15 attempts) and Jags (13) were far less likely to go for it on fourth down than the Eagles were.
Entering the Super Bowl, the Eagles had only attempted to go for it on fourth down once in their two playoff games. It worked—and resulted in their only touchdown in their divisional-round win against the Falcons.
The Foles TD catch wasn’t the first time the Eagles leveraged their odds last night. Earlier in the second quarter, after LeGarrette Blount’s 21-yard touchdown run gave them a 15-3 lead, Pederson elected to attempt a two-point try rather than an extra point, and it failed. Traditional NFL thinking suggested Pederson was chasing points by trying to get back what was lost after kicker Jake Elliott’s missed a PAT back in the first quarter. And when the Pats took a 33-32 lead with 9:26 remaining in the game, that point was the difference. But, again, the decision was consistent with what the Eagles did all year, when they led the league in two-point attempts per game (0.6) and in successful conversions per game (0.3).
“My mentality coming into the game was to stay aggressive until the end and let playmakers make plays,” Pederson said afterward. “I trust my instincts. In games like this against a great opponent, you have to make those tough decisions and keep yourself aggressive.”
There would be one more instance in which Pederson stayed aggressive by factoring win probability into his thinking: The decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 45 with 5:39 remaining while trailing by one. Again, it was the right call:
The one time Pederson elected to play it safe last night was when he chose to run the ball on third-and-5 from the Patriots’ 25 with 1:56 remaining, just after Brandon Graham’s stunning strip-sack of Brady. But by then, most of the damage had been done because the Patriots were out of timeouts. The smart play was to burn the clock down close to the one-minute mark, kick a field goal to extend the lead to eight, and play enough of a prevent to keep the Pats in front of them and inbounds. In the end, the Pats were left to heave a Hail Mary from their own 49 on the game’s final play.
After watching the Jaguars similarly toy with the Patriots with a play-action-heavy scheme in the AFC championship game, only to turtle in the fourth quarter, it was refreshing to watch Pederson and the Eagles continue to be so aggressive right up until the end. It’s a big reason why they’re the champs.