The fascinating, controversial thinking behind the NFL’s 4th down revolution

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Everyone remembers “Philly Special.”

But NFL coaches and analytics departments studied all 29 fourth-down attempts by the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles offense, not just the most famous one.

If it feels as if teams are being more aggressive than ever on fourth down, that’s because they are. Offenses had attempted to convert 219 fourth downs (48.9 percent success rate) after five weeks of this season, which was up dramatically from 143 in 2018 (56.6 percent), 121 in 2013 (42.1 percent) and 116 in 2003 (45.7 percent), according to the NFL Media Research Team.

What’s changed? Well, the 2017 Eagles, coached by Doug Pederson, happened, and rode an aggressive approach on fourth down from the start of the season all the way through to winning the Super Bowl.

“The old saying is, ‘It’s a copycat league,’ and that’s the thing that people choose to copy from the Eagles,” Football Outsiders editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz told Sports+. “It freed up coaches to start looking at film with a purpose, and take chances and be aggressive in ways they really had never done before.”

Pederson, who now coaches the Jaguars, recalled that the Eagles offensive line was especially dominant on fourth-and-1 quarterback sneaks. His approach soon evolved.

“Analytics plays a big part in that, with understanding scenarios and field position, but at the same time you just can’t wake up and say, ‘I want to go for it on fourth down,’” Pederson said this week. “You have to prepare your players for it. We did it in the offseason leading up to that year, so the guys were accustomed to it. Then, when you start having success on fourth down, the players really begin to embrace it – and it challenges them in a good way.”

Football Outsiders keeps an “Aggressiveness Impact” statistic that tracks how often coaches leave the offense in on fourth down, based not on what they should do but on what they have done historically since 1981. What was the effect of the Eagles, who famously turned Super Bowl LII in their favor with a direct snap to the running back, reverse to the tight end and throw to quarterback Nick Foles for a touchdown (“Philly Special”) on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line?

“The tidal wave is so strong that we had to change the baseline in the stat because last year every single coach in the league was above-average historically,” Schatz said. “Following analytics has made a lot of coaches more aggressive. That, in turn, has freed them up to make aggressive decisions not based on analytics. In the past, when coaches went with their gut, they were almost always conservative.”

The biggest drop in aggressiveness is the difference between fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2, per Schatz. But is the pendulum now swinging too far in the other direction?

Head coach Doug Pederson of the Jacksonville Jaguars looks on against the Indianapolis Colts during the first half at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 16, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Doug Pederson said the groundwork for the Eagles’ “Philly Special” play in Super Bowl 52 was laid in training camp that season.
Getty Images

“We’ve gone too far thinking that every fourth down or two-point conversion is the same,” said ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former quarterback. “They are all very independent based on how your team is, how the game is going, who you are playing against. The game has become very offensive-centered: It’s easier to move the ball and/or score because of the rules and the space. Coaches are smarter. I have no problem being aggressive as long as when coaches tell us why, it makes sense.”

The most aggressive coaches since the start of the 2021 season are the Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury, the Eagles’ Nick Sirianni, the Lions’ Dan Campbell, the Browns’ Kevin Stefanski, the Ravens’ John Harbaugh and (in a smaller sample) Pederson and the temporarily retired Sean Payton, according to Football Outsiders. The most conservative are the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, the Texans’ Lovie Smith, the Patriots’ Bill Belichick and members of the Belichick coaching tree.

In other words, for the most part, younger coaches who were offensive assistants are more likely to go for it on a fourth down than older coaches from a defensive background. No great surprise there, but the data shows a few unexpected trends.

The Rams’ Sean McVay and the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan are less aggressive than expected of the wunderkind set. The Chargers’ defensive-minded Brandon Staley, according to Schatz, was “the most aggressive coach on fourth down in NFL history, and he hit” on many decisions last season before moving toward the modified average this season.

Staley came under fire Oct. 9 for passing (not punting) on fourth-and-1 at the Chargers’ 46-yard line with a two-point lead and 1:14 remaining. An incompletion positioned the Browns for a missed field-goal attempt, but Staley calls aggressiveness “an easier way to live.”

Head coach Brandon Staley of the Los Angeles Chargers calls a play against the Denver Broncos during the second half at SoFi Stadium on October 17, 2022 in Inglewood, California
Chargers coach Brandon Staley’s propensity for going for it on fourth down has drawn criticism in wins as well as losses.
Getty Images

“We were trying to seal out the game and leave no doubt by getting one yard,” Chargers running back Austin Ekeler said at the time. “I liked the call. He believes in us.”

There’s a risk, though, in making defensive players feel as if they are not trusted – a situation Harbaugh ran into Oct. 2, when he passed up a go-ahead field goal to go for fourth-and-2 late in the fourth quarter against the Bills. Cornerback Marcus Peters confronted Harbaugh, but coaches now realize they must think two series ahead.

“I believe in my players,” Pederson said. “If you go for it on fourth down and don’t make it, then you put your defense out there and hopefully they get a stop for you. It’s just putting your players in situations to be used. We’re struggling a little bit on fourth down right now, but it doesn’t take away from the aggressiveness I show in our football team.”

The Cardinals, Lions and Eagles, respectively, have added the most win probability percentage with their fourth-down decisions this season, according to Football Outsiders’ Game-Winning Chance statistic. The Chiefs, Broncos and 49ers have had the biggest decreases in win probability. The 2022 season is on pace to have the most “good calls” – defined as the number of times a team goes for a fourth down when a certain threshold of win probability is added – since data collection began in 2011.

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals watches his team play against the Carolina Panthers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on October 02, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
After attempting 29 fourth-down conversions last season, Kliff Kingsbury called for his offense to stay on the field on fourth down 22 times through this season’s first six weeks.
Getty Images

“You’re not going to beat these good teams with 3s, and you’re not going to beat them with punts,” Orlovsky said. “You have to go for it. Everyone thinks these coaches are saying, ‘Do what the analytics are saying.’ No! There are more factors to it.”

The revolution just started with analytics, which still fights an uphill battle against perception. People tend to remember the aggressive failures more than the aggressive gains.

“If not for that one [success],” Schatz said, “they would not have been in the game to lose it.”

Deal or no deal

The NFL trade deadline is Nov. 1. The activity won’t come close to matching the flurry that happens at MLB’s trade deadline – that’s OK because the excitement of NFL free agency trumps MLB’s free-agent crawl – but the deadline has picked up steam in recent years, with younger general managers who are more willing to make trades than their predecessors. Just see Thursday night’s blockbuster deal sending Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers.

Here are four more trades that make sense:

Packers acquire: WR Chase Claypool (signed through 2023)
Steelers acquire:
 OLB Jonathan Garvin (signed through 2023), 2023 fifth-round pick

The Packers are desperate to add a receiver for disgruntled quarterback Aaron Rodgers after ignoring the position in the first round of drafts since 2002. Claypool has flashed star potential, but never has recovered from some selfish on-field actions under coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers add a late-round draft pick to atone for trading two away and get a young edge rusher to add into the rotation in T.J. Watt’s absence.

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool (11) hauls in a pass from quarterback Mitch Trubisky with New England Patriots cornerback Myles Bryant (27) defending during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022.
Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool could be on the move before the NFL’s trade deadline.
AP

Bills acquire: RB Cam Akers (signed through 2023), 2023 seventh-round draft pick
Rams acquire: OLB Shaq Lawson (signed through 2022), 2023 fifth-round pick

Unlike other trade seekers, Akers is staying away from the team until his deal is done, which means the Rams have less leverage. With possibly the greatest free-agent running back class of all time available in March, Akers, who has 56 rushes in six games over the past two injury-plagued seasons, isn’t as valuable. The Rams always are looking for pass-rush help, but Lawson isn’t the same as trading for Von Miller last year.

Bengals acquire: DE Robert Quinn (signed through 2024)
Bears acquire: 2023 third-round pick, 2023 fifth-round pick

If the Bengals are going to repeat as AFC champions, they are going to need to pressure the Bills’ Josh Allen, Chargers’ Justin Herbert and Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes the way that teams pressure their quarterback Joe Burrow. Nine sacks through six games isn’t enough. Adding Quinn’s big contract would force some other salary-cap maneuvers, but the Bengals would be wise to keep him from the Chiefs or Dolphins.

Jets acquire: OG Ben Cleveland (signed through 2024)
Ravens acquire: WR Denzel Mims (signed through 2023)

The Jets have two receivers seeking trades. Both have been told no, but Mims isn’t active on gamedays, whereas Elijah Moore leads the Jets in routes run. Cleveland made four starts as a rookie last season, but hasn’t taken an offensive snap this season. With Alijah Vera-Tucker having moved from guard to right tackle, Cleveland gives the Jets some interior depth if fill-in Nate Herbig falters. These two front offices are friendly.

College football game (to scout) of the week

No. 9 UCLA (6-0) at No. 10 Oregon (5-1), 3:30 p.m., Saturday, FOX

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet is averaging 123 rushing yards over five games, which ranks No. 8 in the nation. The Michigan transfer is having a second straight strong season in the Pac-12 after leading the conference with seven 100-yard rushing games in 2021.

Charbonnet will be in the sights of Oregon inside linebacker Noah Sewell, the younger brother of Lions offensive tackle Penei Sewell. Like Penei, Noah is expected to be a first-round pick, though likely not as high as No. 7 because of position value. Sewell, who was the Chuck Bednarik Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, has 24 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery in six games.

Parting thoughts

1. Colts owner Jim Irsay’s public revelation that he thinks there is “merit” to forcing Commanders owner Daniel Snyder to sell the franchise – and that there could be enough ownership support to reach the 24 votes necessary to force the move soon – was the bombshell of this week’s owners’ meeting.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell later urged all judgments on Snyder to be reserved until the latest full investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct, hostile working conditions and financial improprieties is complete. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told ESPN he was unaware Irsay was going to speak out, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones added, “We’ve all agreed we wouldn’t comment.”

But one non-ownership source who has been in those meetings laughed at the idea that Irsay would go rogue without most owners (maybe excluding Haslam) and specifically Goodell knowing exactly what he left the conference room and met the cameras to say.

“The rest of the world is on need-to-know basis,” said a second person who previously had a seat at the table in similar meetings. “Roger knows the answers.”

Melvin Gordon III #25 of the Denver Broncos runs for yards during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on October 17, 2022.
Melvin Gordon’s usage under Broncos Nathaniel Hackett points to a head coach without firm command of his team.
Getty Images

2. The latest troubling sign about Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett – his clock mismanagement already required the hiring of a consultant – comes via Melvin Gordon. The veteran running back started last week’s game, but played just nine of 55 offensive snaps, compared to 27 and 21, respectively, for backups Latavius Murray and Mike Boone.

After voicing after the game that he “could’ve made a difference” in a loss to the Chargers, but didn’t know why he was benched, Gordon met with Hackett. Sure enough, Hackett announced Gordon as the starter Sunday against the Jets.

Unless it’s another ceremonial start before giving way to the backups, this inconsistent reversal from Hackett suggests a lack of conviction in his evaluations. If the fumble-prone Gordon (four on 66 touches) could not be trusted in a 19-16 overtime loss, what has changed in six days that he is back atop the depth chart? Even with the respect Gordon commands in a locker room, players become leery of leadership when they sense waffling.

3. The Buccaneers are going to win the Super Bowl, right? It just seems that has to be the case with so much seemingly going wrong for Tom Brady.

He is potentially getting divorced from wife Gisele Bundchen, as first reported by Page Six. He is losing his cool and screaming at his offensive linemen on the sideline. He is apologizing for a “poor choice of words” that upset military members after he compared football season to “deployment” on the “Let’s Go! with Tom Brady, Larry Fitzgerald and Jim Gray” podcast.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) gives signals at the line of scrimmage during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022.
If this season is the end for the legendary Tom Brady, it’s a sad one so far.
AP

If you thought Brady losing a home playoff game to the Rams to end last season before a short-lived retirement was the saddest possible way for the GOAT to go out, you were wrong. I certainly was.

Brady’s had the magic touch for two-plus decades, so the only way that coming back to the NFL this season looks like the right call is if the Buccaneers rally from a 3-3 start to win the Super Bowl and Brady’s eighth ring.

After NBC Sports’ Chris Simms speculated Brady might just walk away midseason due to his “weird” behavior and “personal issues,” Brady said there is “no retirement in my future.” Consider this just the latest reminder how few great quarterbacks write the fairy-tale ending. Just ask the Packers’ Brett Favre, Giants’ Eli Manning and Steelers’ Beth Roethlisberger, all of whom felt forced out sooner than they wanted.

Brady’s situation might actually be more reminiscent of his longtime rival Peyton Manning, who went out as a champion in 2015, but hardly resembled himself by then.



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