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Sturm: Can Jason Garrett keep up with Doug Pederson?

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  • Sturm: Can Jason Garrett keep up with Doug Pederson?

    Can Jason Garrett keep up with Doug Pederson?





    By Bob Sturm Mar 5, 2018

    By now you have come to grips with the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl win last month. It really happened.

    Doug Pederson has led a franchise that was without a title to a Lombardi Trophy as a 2nd-year Head Coach. Therefore, he will be able to do all sorts of things that might not be “normal” for NFL head coaches moving forward. now seen through the lens of “Super Bowl Winner” and therefore relatively unaffected by ridicule from the media.

    But make no mistake: he was ridiculed plenty on his way to the Super Bowl. Pederson does things differently and it starts with what might be the very reason he won the Super Bowl. He wasn't afraid of 4th down.


    He is a very aggressive coach. In fact, he might be the most aggressive coach in the entire league. In 2016 he went for it on 4th downs more than any other coach, even though it was his first ever chance to be a head coach in the NFL (something that makes most coaches ultra conservative early so they can “fit in” with their fraternity). His team did not have a great 2016 and some used his 4th down decision making and various other strategic abnormalities to confirm that they thought he was a terrible hire and likely wouldn't survive 2017. To Pederson's credit, he doubled down in 2017 and decided to “go for it” even in more questionable spots. The Eagles were actually passed by Green Bay in aggressiveness on total 4th downs, but the Eagles still out-paced the rest of the field by a sizable margin. Pederson's 2-year total of 4th down attempts dwarfs every other franchise in the sport.

    The NY Times recently did a story – before the Super Bowl was played – about how Pederson uses deep statistical analysis to govern his tactical decisions during the game. EdjSports is the company that the Eagles and several other teams have hired to utilize their predictive tools to help make decisions in games. Those other teams use this company, but no team has decided to pull the trigger on the findings like Pederson and the Eagles have since he was hired in 2016. There was a paragraph in this piece that really jumped out at me when I first read it:

    …FOURTH DOWNS ARE EMBEDDED WITH OPPORTUNITY FOR THOSE KEEN TO EXPLOIT IT. FRIGO SAID THAT ON FOURTH DOWN ALONE, TEAMS ON AVERAGE GIVE UP ANYWHERE FROM TWO-THIRDS TO THREE-QUARTERS OF A WIN OVER A SEASON ON WHAT EDJ CLASSIFIES AS HIGH-CONFIDENCE MISTAKES — THAT IS, DECISIONS THAT EDJSPORTS’S MODEL HAS DEEMED WITH CERTAINTY TO BE AN ERROR. THE WORST OFFENDERS MIGHT LOSE AS MUCH AS A GAME AND A HALF.


    Wow. If I understand things correctly, the win total of a team may swing 1.5 wins per season based on simply knowing what makes sense and what doesn't on 4th downs alone. If you missed the playoffs by one game in 2017, perhaps that feels like a rather big deal.

    Given that Pederson has a counter-conventional idea of what to do on 4th downs and it seems to fly in the face of the man he faces when he plays Dallas twice a year, I find this to be a fascinating juxtaposition of Pederson and his Dallas adversary, Jason Garrett.

    Garrett, starting his 9th season at the helm of the Dallas Cowboys, has been called ultra-conservative and risk-averse for years. If you scan your memory banks about the riskiest decision he has ever made in a game, you will no doubt consider his “you don't lay up at the Masters” moment when Tony Romo hit Jason Witten on a 4th and 6 to help them beat Detroit in the 2014 Wildcard game. But, to explain why that play was such a big deal, consider that there was no other moment in the 2014 season when the Cowboys ran a play on 4th and more than 2 to go (save for a desperation throw in OT against Washington in Week 3).

    The Eagles shocked their own stadium (Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, too) back in Week 3 of this season when they ran a 4th and 8 play against the Giants in the 2nd Quarter of a game they were leading 7-0. Here is the play:



    As you can see, Carson Wentz was sacked. Eagles fans booed the decision, but that isn't the point. The point is that Doug Pederson decided this was a good risk to take and even when it failed, he kept doing it at other strategic points of 2017 – including the Super Bowl against the Patriots. In other words, he wasn't really into laying up at any tournament – and he wasn't going to rely on outcome-based logic.

    I asked Troy Aikman about his memories of the moment: “I still don’t think it’s the 'right' call, but overall he played aggressively on 4th down throughout the year,” Aikman said. “And you could certainly make the argument that had he not been so aggressive throughout the year (especially in the Super Bowl) they wouldn’t have gotten to the Super Bowl let alone win it!”

    “What Doug showed is his lack of concern for conventional thinking but more importantly his lack of concern about being second-guessed by the media. I’m convinced that MOST coaches make decisions based on what will provide the least amount of scrutiny from the media/public and not based on what THEY feel gives their team the best chance to win.”

    The Eagles ended up winning the game, but the next day, they had plenty of questions about their young coach ignoring conventional wisdom when it seemed reckless and unnecessary. Pederson had answers:

    That was a 4th and 8 in the 2nd Quarter of a game he was leading. To compare, Jason Garrett has coached 123 games at the helm for the Dallas Cowboys. Here is the entire list of 4th downs with 3 yards or more to go before the fourth quarter that Garrett has ordered in his entire tenure since 2010:


    courtesy profootballreference.com

    As you can see, we have 4 plays from scrimmage and 2 fake punts. The fake punts both have worked brilliantly (and would definitely count as aggressive ideas) but the plays from scrimmage include a play with :02 left in the half and 3 others where the team was down by at least 3 touchdowns. So, it appears the actual number of times in 123 games that Jason Garrett has ever tried a 4th and 3+ because he considered it a good risk and not an act of desperation appears to be zero.

    When your front office talks openly about modeling your team and strategies on a dynasty from the early 1990's, it will be difficult for observers to confuse you with someone who is looking forward for the next evolutionary change in football. Make no mistake: The 1990s Cowboys were dominant and historically amazing and should inspire your hopes for a replication. But, they also played in a time where personnel groupings almost never changed before 3rd downs, their Hall of Fame QB seldom took a snap from “shotgun”, and they bragged about how small the playbook was because nobody could stop what they were running. Can it work in 2018? Sure. But, your roster had better be dominant, something that's very challenging in a salary cap era where the goal is to ensure teams don't have that advantage.

    The very idea of building a running power in a league that has never run the ball less than it does now is a very interesting concept, and with it, trying to dominate with a coach who plays it “by the book” in nearly every situation. Also, keep in mind that “running the football” is not the discussion here. Philadelphia ran the ball virtually the exact same number of times this season as Dallas. The Cowboys ran the ball 30 times per game in 2017, the Eagles 29.6.
    Is the strategy to play “by the book” as it pertains to aggressiveness right? And if it is, does the coach have to affect those decisions that might swing his win total by 1-2 wins a year based on his willingness to look for chances to roll the dice?
    Before we elaborate on why this appears to be troublesome for a team that does not have an aggressive coach at all, we might want to define how we would measure a coach's aggressiveness.
    So, let's give it a shot.

    1. How does the coach handle 4th Downs? Does he only consider field goals or punts unless he is acting out of desperation?
    2. How does the coach handle 2-point conversions? Does he only try to “chase points” late in the game and when trailing?
    3. Does he utilize other tactical ideas early in games as a way to give his team an advantage through ambush?
    4. Does he maintain his aggressive nature regardless of personnel? Or does the slightest loss of a key piece cause the conservative approach to win most decisions?


    Football Outsiders – one of my favorite sites – has an “aggressiveness index” that they have maintained for several years. In 2017, Jason Garrett was in 8th place and Doug Pederson in 3rd by their measurements. I have had people show me this repeatedly as proof that Garrett is not trailing Pederson by much in this category. However, the methodology feels dated to me, as they use 3 primary categories to achieve their index beyond a “go for it”percentage: 4th and 1 situations, 4th and 2 situations, and the 37 to 31 yard-line range and whether you go for it there. To me, these situations feel like they don't show enough. In 2006, when they started this index, 4th and 2 might have seemed pretty risky, but in today's game, we have coaches trying 4th and 8 in the 2nd Quarter when they lead – something that doesn't even score on FO's index. I know Jason Garrett will trust his OL on any 4th and 1, but a 4th and 4 is treated as a desperation-only situation. If your system says Hugh Jackson and Doug Pederson are at the same level of aggressiveness, then I'm not totally satisfied with the methodology.

    To me, it feels like a coaching mindset that carries over to the team. In Philadelphia, they plan on using 4th down as an additional shot to move the offense in many cases. That trickles down to the players who know how the coach feels and that they should assume the 4th down is their comfort zone. It would seem that this might drop the collective pressure of a situation. “We always do this” seems like a better setting rather than, “this is out of our character” as it does with Jason Garrett. You know that we normally punt here.

    The Dallas Cowboys do have spectacular specialists, by the way. When healthy, Dan Bailey is one of the best kickers of any era and Chris Jones appears to be a wonderful punter. The Cowboys find sending on a specialist to do his job a safe idea and one they therefore rely on. The following findings suggest that at times, they might be a crutch.

    Pederson has found real value by looking at anything outside of his own 40-yard line (the -40 in coaching vernacular) to the opponents' 35-yard line (the +35) as the zone where value is most found. He will also go for it a lot in the scoring zone (+35 and in), but where he separates from the NFL norms is between the -40 and the +35. Take a look at this:

    The red line is the NFL average. The league has decided (partly because of Pederson's logic) that they should go for it more at this point of the field rising from 11% in Garrett's first year to 16% today. The Cowboys have been all over the road here, but it is interesting to see that Tony Romo's presence did not affect this at all. Surely, readers are saying, “he doesn't trust Dak Prescott to go for it, but he would with Romo!” Well, that just doesn't hold water. In Romo's final 2 years at the helm, where you would think a coach would wish to utilize a QB of his magnitude more in those spots, he actually used it far less than league average. Over the 7 year sample, the Cowboys were at 11%, the NFL at 13%, and the Eagles 24%.

    Of course, Doug Pederson just got the Philadelphia job in 2016. Chip Kelly was supposed to be this big risk-taking coach who was going to revolutionize a lot of things and it never really materialized. Was he worried about acceptance from the fraternity or the media scrutiny? It is tough to fully tell, but his decision making was exactly at league-average all 3 years he was in Philadelphia. I mean, to the decimal.

    Doug Pederson isn't about league-average. In fact, he led the league in 2016 and that wasn't good enough. In 26 chances between those two spots on the field where he had a chance to punt, he only let the punter on the field 12 times. Garrett had 27 chances in 2017 and punted a league-high 20 times (2 other times, Dan Bailey tried a long FG).

    The good news for Dallas is that they exceeded league-average in aggressiveness on a percentage basis. The bad news is that since they faced the situation so many times, they allowed Chris Jones to punt continuously from midfield in hopes of “pinning the opponent deep”. They have a great punter, so isn't that the best idea? No. It is the most conservative idea, but the best idea is to go for points which affect the win probabilities significantly more.

    In fact, let's slice it back to just +49 to +35 to show you what it looks like if you use midfield as the line of “risk”. It is just too crazy to consider risk in your own end, but how about the enemy's side of the field? Is Jason Garrett a little better there? And how does Doug Pederson see this opportunity differently?

    On 4th downs, with less than 5 to go, over midfield between the opponent's 49 and 35 in the first through third quarters of games in 2016-17:

    Dallas had 16 chances, punted 10 times, FG attempted 2 times, went for it 4 times.

    Philadelphia had 11 chances, punted 2 times, 0 FG attempted, went for it 9 times.

    The Cowboys kicked on 75% of these occasions (and led the NFL in punts in this area), the Eagles kicked on 18%.

    This is the very definition of conservatism versus aggressiveness.

    2-point conversions would also qualify as a way to look at this. In 2017, the Eagles attempted to “go for 2” on nine different occasions when the rest of the league averaged 2.35 times. Dallas took 3 attempts and ranked 12th. In 2016, the Eagles tried for 2 points on 6 occasions, and the Cowboys were at 2. This seems to agree with the overall findings on 4th downs and other strategic conversations. It doesn't seem that Jason Garrett is necessarily much worse than league average. In fact, it almost seems he uses league-average to figure out what he is supposed to do in many of these areas. Doug Pederson looks at league-average and sets it on fire.

    CONCLUSIONS
    Let's be clear: Doug Pederson is the toast of the league, not because of what he accomplished, but how he accomplished it. Fans and media now accept him as being “ahead of his time” and we should expect all that goes with that. One of the first-fruits of that harvest will undoubtedly be the shifting of the “groupthink” in the football world about 4th downs. Since someone has decided to break the model of what to do at midfield on 4th and 8 and then won the Super Bowl shortly thereafter, the public will not be so angry when their coach does the same thing and fails. That, of course, will also mean that the rest of the “copycat” league will shift their strategies and there is a good chance that the league averages on all of this will be completely different in 2018 and beyond. Any statistical advantage the Eagles enjoyed from this will now be copied and thus, the differences and advantages will surely diminish.

    Pederson isn't the first guy to try something outside the convention, by any stretch. But, he does seem like the first guy to routinely use “win probability” statistics to govern his decisions in the 1st half of games to this extent.

    Is Jason Garrett risk-averse or is he just a football coach who might need to update his software? In other words,
    did these findings prove he is the 32nd most aggressive coach in football? Not at all. He is right there at around league average with plenty of his like-minded individuals who all came through the same football schools and were raised on the “three things happen when you pass and two of them are bad” logic of the old school.

    I am not sure you could find a football person alive who would tell you the Eagles have substantially more talent than the Cowboys. Both rosters have fine pieces, but one side has just won the Super Bowl with its backup QB amidst a season of injuries and the other is bemoaning another year of shattered expectations. I don't think it is crazy to suggest that the tactics and decision making of the head coach might be a large part of the margin as we sit here today.

    It is an organizational mindset. The Eagles believed that 4th down is something you always utilize. The Cowboys should stop waiting for the Masters to make 4th down a weapon.

    It might be the key to actually getting to the Masters once in a while.
    2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

  • #2
    By now you have come to grips with the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl win last month.

    Speak for your god damn self!

    Comment


    • #3
      If Pederson winning the SuperBowl doesn’t underscore Garrett’s inferiority as a coach, nothing else wil. Pederson is everything Garrett is not.
      defense wins championships

      Comment


      • #4
        "Is Jason Garrett risk-averse or is he just a football coach who might need to update his software?"

        This says it best, he might need to upgrade his software.

        Comment


        • #5
          A head coach is being hired this offseason that will make an NFCC/AFCC in the next three years.

          Comment


          • #6
            Pederson won a Super Bowl.

            Garrett will win Super Bowls. Yes. Plural.

            Comment


            • #7
              I've listened to Bob's radio show more in the past year than I ever have, and I think he's way too hung up on this 4th and down and overall "aggressiveness" stuff. It seems to be his main complaint about Garrett.

              I say that's a very minor point. It's much more that he's a terrible overall clock manager, he doesn't put his players in their best positions to succeed, he doesn't judge talent very well, his schemes are outdated, and he simply isn't a particularly good overall football coach.

              Pederson won the Super Bowl much more because he got the most out of his players and he did a masterful job of maximizing Foles' play than because he went for it a lot on fourth down.
              2014=2009, 2015=2010?

              The Garrett Song

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