Each week we’ll highlight a few of the most important coaching decisions that contributed heavily to the final result. While many of these high leverage situations occur on fourth down, we’ll introduce some other situations where a coaching decision swung his team’s chances of winning in a major way as the season goes on.
There are a few main tools for doing this analysis: The most obvious is win probability, which takes into account the situational components of the game along with the strength of each team in each facet to predict the chance of winning. Another data point that is useful and in most cases aligned with win probability is expected points, which takes into account the field position, down and distance to predict the number of points that we expect the offense to score on the next offensive play. We can also compare the expected points for a team before and after a play to measure how successful a play was, and we’ll also make use of conversion probability, which leverages the strength of each team in each facet to predict the chance a team picks up a first down on a given play.
During the season, more analysis may work its way into this column but this gives us plenty to start with. While we leverage machine learning to make sound predictions for each of the above, we will do our best to make this article accessible to all and we’ll do our best to answer any questions.
Doug Pederson stands above the rest, again
[13:03 left 3rd quarter, 4th and 1 @ PHI 34, WAS 20 PHI 7]
While Sean Payton deserves a mention when it comes to making the sound decision on fourth down no other coach has come close to doing so at a better rate than Pederson. The Philly Special got plenty of publicity for being a “ballsy” call, though the real risk would have been to kick a field goal against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Pederson’s brilliant decision-making was on display in Week 1, and it started before the play which we are actually going to highlight here. Down 10-0 with 10:52 left in the second quarter, the Eagles went for it on 4th-and-2 from the Washington 29-yard line, This play will get swept under the rug because Wentz threw incomplete to Desean Jackson, but that decision was great evidence of Pederson’s sound decision-making. By going for it, the Eagles gave themselves a 42% chance to win while a field goal attempt carried a 39% chance of victory. 3% seems small, but that is a large margin for a single play in the second quarter.
Fast forward to the third quarter, where the plucky Redskins had extended the lead to 20-7. The Eagles were on their own 34-yard line facing a 4th-and-1 in a situation that seemingly leaves all head coaches sprinting toward the punt unit and a worse chance of winning the game. But Pederson was not about to let himself fall prey to conventional decision making or the failed 4th-down attempt from earlier in the game. Over the last three seasons, teams down by two scores or less on their own end in the first three quarters went for a 4th-and-short (1 or 2 yards to gain) just 15% of the time. With so much field to work with, the chance of converting is higher than most would expect; given the Eagles' strength offensively, we would predict they convert this play 69% of the time they go for it. This is an important consideration here because we often assume converting is a 50/50 proposition. With a conversion, the Eagles' chance of winning would jump to 29% while a punt would result in a 19% chance of winning, and a turnover on downs would give the Eagles a 14% chance of coming out victorious. You’ll notice that the difference between a conversion and a punt is 10% and the difference between a punt and turnover is just 5%. Even if the chance of converting were simply 50%, going for it would be the smarter decision. But given the 69% chance of converting, this is a no-brainer.
The last bit of brilliance comes with the play call. The chance of converting with a run in this situation was 73% compared to 64% with a pass, which is impressive in and of itself, but if you must run why run backward to hand it to a running back? Doug Pederson didn’t take this chance and instead let Carson Wentz handle it on a sneak. The QB sneak has a 90% success rate on 3rd/4th and 1 between the 20s over the last three seasons and yet is massively underutilized in favor of the traditional five steps back to get one step forward approach.
Doug Pederson coaches to win more than any other NFL decision-maker, and Week 1 of 2019 was a perfect example of this fact. He also likes ice cream (if you haven’t seen this video you should google it now), which makes him a top candidate for human of the year. In Doug we Trust.
Matt Nagy chooses to punt away Trubisky’s best throw of the night
[11:10 left second quarter, 4th and 3 @ GB 41, GB 7 CHI 3]
Down 3-7 after struggling for their first three drives, none of which went for over 25 yards, the Bears finally saw Mitch Trubisky completing a nice back-shoulder throw down the left sideline to Allen Robinson for 27 yards. Three plays later, they found themselves in a situation which should be a no-brainer in today’s league: 4th-and-3 at the opponent’s 41-yard line. Too far away for a field goal and a punt is expected to yield roughly 30 yards of field position. That’s why you should try to capitalize on your best drive of the game so far and go for it. Matt Nagy, however, sent out his punter Pat O’Donnell. We have to give credit to the special teams unit for pinning the Packers on their own four-yard line, but we shouldn’t confuse results with the process.
By choosing to give the ball away, the Bears (who had a 56% chance of converting when running the ball) lost 3% of win probability compared to going for it. Our numbers say that the Bears had a 51% chance of winning after punting while they would have won 60% of the time after a successful conversion attempt and 47% of the time after turning it over on downs. For those who aren’t familiar with the law of total probability, here is an easy mnemonic: If a success adds more win probability (51% to 60%), than a failure would cost you (51% to 47%), and the chance of success is a coin flip or better, you go for it. Every single time.
After getting this out of the way, let us turn our attention to what happened before the 4th down decision. On a 3rd down run that set up the 4th-and-3 play, the Bears committed an offensive holding penalty, leaving the Packers head coach Matt LaFleur with the option to have the Packers run a 3rd down play with 11 yards to go instead of the fourth down. Naturally, if you know that the opponent is going to punt, you decline this penalty. However, we have just figured out that the Bears should have gone for it and have learned they would have converted 56% of the time. Historically, teams have turned a 3rd-and-11 play near midfield into a new first down at a rate lower than 40% (including potentially going for it on 4th down), suggesting that accepting the penalty would have been a fairly good option.
While this is not necessarily an egregious decision, we think it’s a good idea to shed light on it since the decision to decline or accept penalties in certain situations is a rarely discussed topic, even though it’s as simple to solve as 4th down decision making with today’s expected points and win probability models.