“I have spent my whole life scared. Frightened of things that could happen, might happen, might not happen. Fifty years I spent like that. Finding myself awake at 3 in the morning. But you know what? Ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine. And I came to realize is that fear that’s the worst of it. That’s the real enemy.” — Walter White in Breaking Bad
Doug Pederson gazed into his play sheet as Nick Foles walked over to the sideline.
“You want Philly Philly?” Foles asked.
The Eagles coach’s eyes snapped toward Foles.
“Yeah, let’s do it,” he said.
Then we witnessed, on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line, one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history — the Philly Special, a trick play in which the center snapped the ball to an undrafted rookie running back who tossed it to a third-string tight end who threw it to a backup quarterback in the end zone.
“That’s as aggressive as you can possibly be,” NBC announcer Al Michaels said.
But was it really?
If you’ve watched football all your life, then yes.
For as much as we talk about football’s complexities — the schemes, the coverages, the packages, the subpackages — the sport has been slow to evolve philosophically. The people in and around the game have seen what the spreadsheeters have done to baseball. They’re not about to turn their game over to a bunch of nerds who develop bots that make all the decisions. Football, you see, is a special game, a unique game. It is a game of emotion, a reflection of the indomitability of the human spirit.
It’s a reflection of the human spirit all right. The fallible, and sometimes stupid, human spirit. For decades we’ve watched football people make irrational decisions, and we’ve gone along with it, so much so that when a coach does what he should do, we question whether he should be doing it. In football, irrational is rational and rational is irrational.
All Pederson is doing is taking advantage of backward thinking, especially in fourth-down situations. Every team gets four downs to advance 10 yards and earn another set of downs, but most use only three, electing to punt or kick on fourth down. The 2017 Eagles had an idea that, until now, had been preposterous. What would happen if a team decided to — gasp! — use all four? The result: more points, more wins and a Super Bowl championship.
Pederson went for it on fourth and 1 last season more than any other coach, partly because he had more opportunities. Even so, his 61 percent go-for-it rate (14 of 23) was second to only the Saints’ Sean Payton (6 of 8), according to Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index, which excludes obvious catch-up situations. The Bucs had only two qualifying opportunities, and they went for it once.
There were some fourth-and-1 situations in which Pederson fell in line with convention. He was very conservative when the Eagles stalled inside their own territory, going for it only once. Once they crossed the 50, however, they went for it 13 of 15 times and converted 12 times. They went on to score a touchdown on eight of those drives, 10 if you count their conversions in the Super Bowl.
That mentality doesn’t just affect the play calls on fourth down. It changes everything. On third down, you’re no longer limited to passes at or beyond the first-down markers. Throw it short and get close. Or don’t throw it at all. You can run now. And the Eagles did. In the first three quarters, they ran more often on third down than all but two teams (Colts and Bills). Fourth down isn’t something to avoid; it’s something to embrace.
“If I only get one opportunity to be a head coach in this league,” Pederson said this week, “I definitely want to be as aggressive as I can and do things right by the players and make sure that I’m being smart No. 1 but at the same time giving them every opportunity to be successful on the football field.”
The strategy has done more than add points to the scoreboard. It has changed the way the team thinks. Players expect to go for it, and they expect to succeed. It has become a mind-set and part of the team’s DNA, Pederson said.
“The way we do anything in life is the way we do everything,” he said. “If I’m not putting our team in those situations, it’s hard for us to execute. It gives our guys confidence. They know that I’m going to stay aggressive that way.”
These aren’t gut decisions. They’re not even all that aggressive. Unconventional, yes, but not aggressive. It’s math, and the math says that coaches should almost always go for it on fourth and 1. More likely than not, their teams will convert. When coaches think they’re playing it safe, they’re actually risking more.
So why don’t they go for it more often?
“We’ve studied the analytics on it and the problem with looking at it like that — those are all looking at all fourth downs over the course of the season,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. “You might get three in a row, but if I don’t get it in this particular game, we might be losing, and I might be out of here.”
Fear. That’s why coaches don’t go for it. They know what they should do, but they fear a loss more than they value a gain, even when the gain is more likely. It’s irrational, but it’s also quintessentially human. And it’s why, despite the Eagles’ success, we probably won’t see a dramatic change in fourth-down strategy across the NFL.
Say someone presented you a choice between 1.) a 100 percent chance of receiving $50 and 2.) a 50 percent chance of receiving $100 and a 50 percent chance of receiving $0. Most people would choose Option 1.
That’s essentially the decision coaches are making, except with much more favorable odds of success. The above scenario is at the heart of prospect theory, introduced by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979. In a series of experiments, the psychologists found that people’s responses to losses are stronger than their responses to gains. “This asymmetry between the power of positive and negative expectations or experiences has an evolutionary history,” Kahneman wrote in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. “Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce.”
Leading up to the Super Bowl, we heard much about how difficult it was going to be for Pederson to outsmart Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Belichick, too, had a fourth-and-1 decision. He took the conventional, risk-averse approach, choosing to settle for a field goal from the Philadelphia 9-yard line.
After a bad snap and hold, Stephen Gostkowski’s kick hit the left upright. No good.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.