In the 2017 season the Philadelphia Eagles went for it on fourth down 29 times, most in the NFL. Doug Pederson’s decision to go for it a bunch worked, and what’s more, every observer agreed that it worked. The Eagles went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl with their backup quarterback.
That aggressiveness was visible on the biggest stage of the season, too: The famed Philly Special was a fourth-and-goal play at the end of the first half where the Eagles could’ve been content to kick a field goal. The Eagles converted a second fourth down on their game-winning drive.
And yet when the Eagles went for it in Week 1 early in the third, analyst Charles Davis was against it. He wasn’t ill-informed; he talked about Doug Pederson’s fourth-down strategies. He just didn’t think it was a great idea if you wanted to win this game.
The Eagles converted on a Carson Wentz QB sneak. They scored a touchdown on that drive—and on their next two, for good measure. Despite falling into a 17-0 hole, the Eagles won their season opener relatively easily.
The most notable decision to kick on Sunday came from Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who decided to send his kicker out three times inside the five-yard line against the Ravens on Sunday. Kingsbury said he did not even consider going for it on any of those fourth downs, even though his team was trailing each time.
“We have a system and have analytics involved and all sorts of things that we go through,” Kingsbury said of the considering to go for it on fourth down. “At those points in the game, that was the decision I made.” As it turned out, no coach had ever made decisions quite like that before.
It’s unclear what numbers would’ve told Kingsbury to kick. There are lots of reasons to go for it. There is ample numerical evidence that teams should generally be more aggressive on fourth down. The new kickoff rules make it even more important to chase short touchdowns over short field goals, as football analyst Chase Stuart noted in a write-up of Kingsbury’s decisions. With the other team getting the ball at the 25 instead of the 20 on a touchback, they’re more likely to score. If you miss on a short field, the opposing team is at least backed up against own end zone. (Stuart also noted that the Cardinals, heavy underdogs to the Ravens, should have taken advantage of their limited chances to score touchdowns!)
There is even the simple results-based evidence of an aggressive coach, once derided as the dumbest man in football, winning the freaking Super Bowl with his backup quarterback by going for it a lot on fourth down.
It’s also fun as heck. Go for it on fourth down! It’s a time when numbers encourage you to be reckless! It rules!
There has been some adjustment. Stuart, a digital prophet of fourth-down strategy, wrote in Slate in 2017 that the long-term trend has offenses staying on the field on fourth down more often. But there have still been high-profile cases of coaching chickens already this NFL season.
The Wall Street Journal focused on Mike Tomlin’s decision to punt from midfield late in Sunday’s game. The week before, he punted it away on a fourth and 5 at the Steelers’ own 40, down 10-0 to the Patriots. New England scored six plays later to make it 17-0. Good thing the Steelers hadn’t gone for it; if they failed, the Patriots might’ve made it 17-0!
Or how about the Saints on Sunday? They trailed 20-6 early in the fourth quarter with a fourth-and-14 in Rams territory and kicked a field goal. The Rams went 75 yards in four plays and made it 27-9 two minutes later.
So why aren’t more coaches more aggressive, even amid near-universal agreement that it’s often the smart thing to do? During Super Bowl 52, the Eagles had an assistant linebackers coach who communicated realtime advice from the team’s analytics department. By the time the Eagles had fourth-and-goal on that final first-half drive, Peterson had already gotten word that he could and should go for it on fourth down, if it came to it.
That nugget comes from Tim McManus’s examination of the Eagles analytics department. McManus writes that Eagles analytics head Alec Halaby has complete buy-in from owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman. The numbers say go for it more, so the Eagles go for it more. And Pederson knows he can go for it without his owner getting mad at him every time (and there will be times) going for it fails.
But not every owner is Lurie, and not every coach has job security like that. Even a future generation of football coaches raised on aggressive Madden tactics might still be taking marching orders from people who want to be conservative with the ball, or who don’t want to risk answering questions from the media about a failed fourth-down conversion. Nobody wants to be embarrassed; go for it on fourth down and come up short, or lose big, and you could be the laughingstock of the league for a week or two.
But maybe some coaches just really do want to kick field goals and punt the ball away. McManus’s article also lets former Eagles GM Joe Banner dish on a certain former employee of his:
Shortly after taking over the team in the mid-1990s, Lurie and Banner commissioned professors from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania to conduct various quantitative studies. One concluded passing more on first down would lead to a more productive offense. This ran counter to their offensive coordinator’s approach. When the season was over, they brought the study to him. It did not go well.
“To say that this coach went berserk would be an understatement,” Banner said, as the outraged coach chewed them out for “thinking we knew better than he did, and interfering, and acting as if we knew football.”
Banner did not want to name the offensive coordinator, though the timing points to current Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden.
And, wouldn’t you know, Jon Gruden made an odd decision on Sunday. The Chiefs led the Raiders, 28-10, early in the fourth quarter. Oakland had the ball, and went on a five-minute drive into Kansas City territory. Consecutive sacks pushed it back into Oakland territory for a long fourth down. Gruden looked at the situation and punted the ball away. The Raiders had given up.
An 18-point comeback in 6:25 would’ve been improbable. But not scoring a touchdown on that first drive made it impossible. Why not try to win?