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The Importance Of Fourth Down

Posted Feb 9, 2018

Eagles' aggressiveness on way to title was backed by analytics

Eagles QB Nick Foles (left) and coach Doug Pederson discuss a play-call during the Super Bowl.

The transcendent moment of Super Bowl LII was undoubtedly the “Philly Special,” the gutsy fourth-and-goal play-call from the 1 that resulted in quarterback Nick Foles’ receiving touchdown.

Inside the NFL did a great job of capturing the real-time discussion on the sideline prior to the snap, when Foles and Eagles coach Doug Pederson quickly came to the decision.

For Pederson, aggressiveness in such situations is nothing new. He has become a darling in the analytics realm for his penchant to forgo punts and field goals in favor of going for it on fourth down, a decision the number-crunchers say is often the right one.

The Eagles may not have won the Super Bowl without converting on that play and a fourth-and-1 from their 45 with 5:39 remaining in the game. After the win, Pederson detailed his fourth-down thought process on the NFL: Game Theory and Money podcast.

“The way we do it and the way I like to think of it is, No. 1, I think of our defense,” Pederson said. “How well is our defense playing in the game? Just the general how well our defense is playing at the time gives me a little better sense. Do I need to take this gamble, this risk? Secondly, I flip it. How well is the offense performing? Are we on a roll right now? Are we moving the ball? Are we struggling to move the ball? How are we doing offensively?

“Situationally, this is where more of the numbers and analytics comes in. By field position, by the down and distance, and just the win probability of the success rate of getting that fourth down. I’m constantly being communicated with. I have a coach upstairs in the press box that is giving me this information real-time, game-day. ‘Hey, coach, if we can get it to fourth-and-2, fourth-and-3, this is the ‘X’ amount. This is the success rate here in this situation.’ Now, ultimately, it is my decision whether to go for it in those situations or to punt the football. Whatever it might be. But as our numbers have shown, I have elected to go for it on fourth down more than most.”

Former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians approached fourth downs with a similar aggressiveness during his five-year tenure with the team. It worked in a 2016 win against Washington, when a David Johnson conversion on fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 34 helped ice the win. It didn’t last year in Houston, when Adrian Peterson was stuffed on a fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 35 and the Texans scored a touchdown one play later.

It will take some time to learn new coach Steve Wilks’ tendencies on fourth down, but he made it clear recently how much emphasis he will put on situational football. Like the Foles and Pederson interaction showed, these decisions must be made in a matter of seconds, and Wilks wants to have everything well-oiled with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy.

“Constant communication in a certain situation,” Wilks said. “Fourth-and-one, do we want to go for it? Third-and-1. Tight situation for us, two-minutes. Do we want to be aggressive? Do we just want to get through and get to the half and come back in the third quarter and be ready to go?

“We will work this out throughout the week as Mike and I talked about during the interview process of having a plan and then being able to communicate that plan throughout the game and say, ‘OK, these are the things we talked about. We talked about this being our number one play in this situation.’ Then boom, ‘I’m good with it, let’s run with that.’ What I always talk about is clean, concise, clarity. Those are the things that we’re going to operate off of each and every week.”

While the probabilities can guide the coach in a certain direction, Pederson said it comes down to execution. He had the utmost confidence his players would convert a wide-receiver-to-quarterback pass play on the NFL’s grandest stage, and they came through.

“You’re going to put it in the hands of your players, and they know that,” Pederson said. “If they know that, then they’re going to do everything in their power to make that fourth down. If they feel like the coach is just pulling this one out of a hat somewhere, it may not be the same. If I don’t show that trust in them, then how can I expect them to execute that play?”

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