We’re almost halfway through the 2019 regular season. While it may seem like we have more weeks like Week 8—weeks that set football back half a decade, rather than move us forward—significant progress is being made toward playing smarter and more efficient football.
This article highlights some of the head coaches who are consistently and systematically making good decisions that would have been considered silly a decade ago. At a time where the league needs many young quarterbacks to step up in the stead of injured, retired or soon-to-be-retired stalwarts at the position, some head coaches are building environments that are +EV for their young signal-callers and should be commended for doing so.
As always, our analyses of these decisions is made possible by PFF WALSH, our in-game win probability model powered by our friends at AWS.
1. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
Harbaugh is not like the two other men in this list. He’s been the coach of the Ravens for 12 years, and while he’s given his team an edge in unconventional ways in the past (like perennially shepherding one of the league’s best special teams units), he has learned to leverage mathematics in recent years and has the Ravens in position to win their second consecutive AFC North title.
He’s made good decisions that did not work out or lead to wins, like going for a two-point conversion in Kansas City after a penalty made it a one-yard try, or heeding the advice of our own Kevin Cole in going for two down by eight points in what amounted to a blowout loss against the Browns in Baltimore. These losses did not deter Harbaugh or the Ravens, as he and Lamar Jackson teamed to forgo a field goal against a one-loss Seahawks team on the road, opting for a Jackson touchdown run that increased their chances of winning that game by 13 percentage points over a made field goal.
Lastly, one of the best decisions Harbaugh has made this season was hiring Greg Roman to run his offense. Schematically, the Ravens are running one of the most unique offenses in the NFL through eight weeks, facing middle-of-the-pack box counts on early downs while running on early downs at the league’s third-highest rate, deploying the most-efficient types of runs (designed quarterback runs) with Lamar Jackson to the tune of 321 yards, with only 113 coming after contact, for an average of 6.9 and 4.5 per carry, respectively. In our play-by-play coaching metric, Roman has been top-five all season, leveraging the strengths of his team masterfully so far.
2. Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and the Colts certainly got lucky when Josh McDaniel decided not to take their offer to be head coach, giving them Frank Reich. We saw immediately that Reich learned to lean on the math from his time in Philadelphia, going for a fourth down and medium in overtime against the Houston Texans in Week 4 of 2018, a decision that ultimately cost the team the AFC South.
Penny poor and pound rich at the time, the Colts eventually rebounded from a 1-5 start and were one of our favorites, process-wise, heading into the 2019 season. These hopes were dashed when Andrew Luck decided to retire with just a couple of weeks to go in the preseason. Knowing that he needed to provide a platform for youngster Jacoby Brissett to succeed, Reich has delivered. During their first win of the season, a 19-17 victory in Tennessee against the Titans, Reich went for fourth down and one yard to go in his own half in the fourth quarter, generating 18 win-probability points by opting for a Brissett sneak.
No coach is perfect in this regard, though, but Reich is one of about ten coaches making the “correct” choice more than half of the time in neutral situations. For example, against the unbeaten Chiefs in Arrowhead on Sunday Night Football, the second-year head coach went for two fourth downs on a third-quarter drive that extended their lead to 16-10, but forwent multiple other opportunities to go for it, including a fourth down and one yard to go at the Chiefs' 14 yard line with 13 seconds and one timeout left.
3. Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles
One of two Super Bowl-winning coaches in this list, Doug has taken his lumps at times through the season’s first eight weeks, needing a win in Buffalo to get to 0.500 and within a half-game of reclaiming the NFC East for the first time since they took the Lombardi in 2017.
Pederson struggles a bit with run/pass selection as a play-caller, especially on early downs, opting for the -EV second-down strategy (usually running the ball) the third-most in the league through the season’s first eight weeks. However, he is a master of extracting extra downs and extra points out of a football game. In Week 1, he earned our first AWS Decision of the Week award by going for a short fourth down at his own end of the field, accelerating a comeback victory for the Eagles. He effectively ended the plucky Washington team’s chances of an upset win in the same game by going for two points while up seven, extending their lead to two scores in the process. He made the same decision in the season’s fourth Thursday night game against Green Bay in Lambeau, with the third-quarter try being unsuccessful in what was eventually a seven-point road win. In last week’s game against the Bills, he went for two points when up by a score of 9-7 in a game that had wind so substantial that the expected value of his offense scoring two points from two yards away was higher than that of his kicker scoring one from 33 yards away.
While he was eventually upstaged by Dan Quinn, Pederson generated 16 win probability points with a fourth-down decision in Week 2 that put them in a position to win that game on Sunday Night Football. This has been the case more often for the Eagles in 2018 and 2019 than when they ran so pure in their Super Bowl-winning 2017 season. Doug Pederson’s inclusion on this list is in large part due to his commitment to making +EV decisions even when they don’t work out, or their working out doesn’t immediately lead to success on the field.