Mathletes: Eagles' analytics team has an in-game line to Doug Pederson
When Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson was asked about his head-scratching decision to go for it on fourth-and-8 late in the first half against the New York Giants on Sunday, he began his explanation with a revelation.
"Yeah, it was something I discussed with the guy that's helping me upstairs with some of the analytics," Pederson began.
Huh? He's talking to someone in the analytics department about critical football decisions in-game?
Yup. Two people, actually. Pederson named one of them at his day-after news conference -- coaching assistant/linebackers coach Ryan Paganetti, a Dartmouth grad with a degree in Economics who spent two years as an analyst for the team. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich told ESPN there is a second voice that can be heard over the game-day communications system when it comes to such matters -- director of football compliance Jon Ferrari.
The pair weighs in throughout the game, Reich said: after just about every touchdown on whether to go for one or two; during the final two minutes of each half to discuss timeouts, etc.; and when the team gets into what is considered fourth-down territory -- usually around midfield and beyond. Sometimes Pederson initiates the dialogue; other times, the men upstairs do.
Said Reich: "After [Pederson has] made the third-down call the phones can be silent for a few seconds, and one of the guys might chime in and say, 'Hey coach, if this ends up short fourth-and-2,' -- I'm using fake terminology -- 'it's green, go for it. The charts say go for it.' Or, 'Hey, if it's anything less than fourth-and-3, we're good. Other than that, it's your call, Coach.' Or, 'Anything more than fourth-and-10, no.'
"The analogy I think of is kind of like a stoplight. There's green, there's yellow and there's red, and then there's shades of green, there's shades of yellow and then there's shades of red. So some of them are, 'Hey, it's green'; 'yellow, proceed with caution,' -- and that's how it operates."
The fourth-and-8 from the Giants' 43-yard line fell into the yellow section.
"Just the little bit I heard, it's just what it was: 'Hey, here's the deal. Here's the situation ...' What were we, third-and-8? 'And if we end up at this yardage or less it's a definite go, if it's not within that then it's yellow,'" Reich said. "I'm not looking at the chart so I don't know was it bright yellow, was it really light yellow? I don't know the answer to that. That's what those guys are paid for."
Many observers saw the light as decidedly red. The Eagles were up 7-0 with 2:36 remaining in the second quarter. Given the Giants' ineffectiveness on offense to that point, it would have been difficult to envision them going the length of the field to score before the half if the Eagles successfully pinned them deep with a punt. But Pederson dialed up a pass play instead and Carson Wentz was sacked, giving New York possession around midfield. The Giants marched down to the goal line and had multiple chances to punch it in -- a Sterling Shepard touchdown was reversed after review -- but the Eagles' defense came through with a stand. Philadelphia ended up winning 27-24 on a last-second 61-yard Jake Elliott field goal. If the Giants get in the end zone there, the outcome is quite possibly different and Pederson is getting crushed for the decision. (He has been facing plenty of heat as is despite the thrilling win that moved his team to 2-1.)
Though that sequence almost proved costly, Pederson isn't likely to ease off the throttle if the data influencing the approach tells him not to. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said as much following a news conference before the start of the regular season.
"A lot of teams -- ours is one -- where it's all [decided] is in the offseason, done with mathematics. It's not based on any form of instinct. If it's going to be 50/50, 48/52, then a coach is going to have their instinctual predilection, right? But what we found is there's been so many decisions over time that are too conservative for the odds of maximizing your chance to win at the opportunity," Lurie said. "I mean, you've seen certain coaches that are deemed more aggressive because the math leads them there. That's all it is.
"So any decision, hopefully, any coach of ours makes is based on maximizing the chances to win. We've lived with television commentators and reporters and whatever for 20, 30, 40 years, who always kind of adopted what I would call a very conservative approach to those decisions. ... When you do the math, you really want to try to be a lot more aggressive than the public would normally anticipate. So I think the smarter teams do it that way."
Pederson makes the final call, but Lurie has made it clear he wants the math to drive the decision unless it's close, taking the "instinct" part largely out of it.
"Well, [analytics] is growing obviously because you always want to know certain things through the course of the game which helps as far as making some decisions maybe, but you also can't lose sight of your gut," said former head coach and current ESPN analyst Herm Edwards.
"You get the information, but as you feel the game you know what you're capable of doing, and you sense the momentum of the game, too. 'Where's the momentum at right now if I do this?' All these things become a factor. The numbers help you, but it's not like that's the be-all, end-all and go do it. That gets you in trouble, man. That can get you fired when you start telling people, 'I was listening to the numbers.' Really, coach? Look at what you see."
Pederson appeared to use both the numbers and his own inclination to arrive at the decision to go for it on fourth-and-8. According to the Eagles' numbers, teams have been successful from that distance at a 34 percent clip over the past 10 years. Given the field position, Philadelphia's data put the decision of whether to go for it or not at a coin flip, "so it was my decision ultimately," Pederson said.
The Eagles are believed to be one of about a dozen relaying analytical information to coaches during the game, up from about three or four a few years ago. The role will sometimes be handled by a coach or football operations assistant, with the analytics department providing them with the decision rules beforehand.
Using this approach, the Eagles went for it 27 times on fourth down in 2016, the most in the NFL. They converted 48 percent of the time, which ranked 17th. Chances are, they'll finish at the top in attempts once again thanks in part to the voices that are guiding Pederson in the middle of the action.
"Doug sets the tone. He lets the guys know during the week what he expects and how much he wants to hear and when he wants to hear it," said Reich. "And it's pretty natural. It doesn't feel complicated, it doesn't feel like it's too much; it feels very appropriate and very professional, and those guys know, boom, they speak in short sound bites. Here's the information, Coach. Boom. There's not a lot of touchy-feely conversation going on.
"It's helpful, I think it's a great tool. I'm glad I'm in an organization that takes it seriously and has the latest, most up-to-date information, and we can use that to help us win games."