The CV was hardly compelling. Four years as a high school head coach. Three years as offensive coordinator (where the head coach had playcalling responsibilities). A handful of seasons as a quality control assistant and quarterbacks’ coach. Compared to offensive gurus Adam Gase and Ben McAdoo, who had enjoyed tremendous success in 2015 with almost exclusive control over their units, Doug Pederson’s credentials appeared underwhelming. A coaching and playing career that included stints in Philadelphia, added to some awkward interviews, gave the impression owner Jeffrey Lurie was making a conservative selection as the Eagles’ next head coach.
Rewind ten years, and Doug Pederson was probably already committing to an approach that was anything but conservative. The seeds of what ultimately formed a considerable part of a Super Bowl winning strategy were already germinating. Although the two never met in a full competitive scrimmage, Calvary Baptist Academy would travel the short distance from northern Louisiana to Arkansas at times for passing camps and 7-on-7 tournaments against their neighbouring state champs. Pulaski Academy, just a short three hour drive down the I-30, were revolutionising the game under new Athletic Director Kevin Kelley. Using analytics to support his approach, Kelley eliminated kicking almost entirely from his playbook. The new brand can hardly be called “Football”, yet it has won the high school 7 of the past 15 state championships. Pulaski’s head coach never punts, attempting to convert every fourth down. While Pederson isn’t quite as gung-ho, relentless fourth down aggression drastically enhanced their Super Bowl chances.
The numbers are all in favour. Back in 2005, economist David Romer published a statistical analysis (Do Firms Maximise? Evidence from Pro Football) outlining the benefits of aggression on fourth down, illustrating that teams were overly cautious on their final down, in opponents’ territory in particular. Legendary Eagles beat reporter, amateur cartoonist, and master troll Jimmy Kempski outlined the success of “going for it” in 2017. All but one of Doug Pederson’s fourth down decisions (those not related to managing clock) fall into two criteria outlined by Romer as traditionally missed opportunities. According to his methodology, offenses are better off staying on the field for 4th and 8 or less inside the opponents’ 45, and 4th and 11 or less inside the opponents’ 33 yard line. As touchbacks become more likely, and teams verge on scoring position, the benefits of punting are greatly reduced. Doug Pederson recognised a logical loophole, and exploited it ruthlessly.
A significant element to the success of the approach is psychological. Failing to prevent a conversion on fourth down, after the high of a third down stop, is mentally draining for defenses. The statistics support that assertion, even if it is hard to quantify. Excluding the 4th downs attempted inside the 10 yard line, the Eagles converted 44% of drives in which they succeeded on 4th down into a touchdown. In comparison, they managed only 35% on average. They scored eight touchdowns, compared to only two field goal attempts. Conversions also provide a boost to the offense, “It was do or die and they did. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that on more than half our touchdown drives, we converted a fourth down”1. The demoralising/motivating effect is significant. Similarly, Kelley notes how “once in field position when we made a conversion on 4th down. From the same spot on the field where we had a first down after a 4th conversion vs any other time we cut the number of plays it took to score in about half.” Furthermore, the plays themselves, if successful, often result in touchdowns as defenses overcommit to preventing a first down. Shot plays are highly effective in the 20 to 40 yard range, and especially so on 4th and short or medium.
It’s not just fourth down either. Breaking tendencies can be a game changer on other downs too. The Eagles ran the ball on 3rd and 3 or more on 29 occasions in 2017, converting 10 first downs. The team also set up some short yardage fourth yardage conversions by using the run game on third down to minimise risk. By being aggressive on fourth down, the Eagles actively changed the way defenses behaved on third. As Kelley puts it, “when third and seven is a running down … and defenses don’t know whether to use dime packages or nickel packages, the offense does even better”1. Opponents can no longer just defend the sticks and get off the field. Carson Wentz’s absurd numbers on third down last season were well documented, but credit should also go to the coaching staff’s approach to fourth down. It is part of the reason the offense stayed on course despite their franchise quarterback’s injury.
Many of these techniques were used by Chip Kelly at Oregon. They probably made him an attractive candidate to the progressive top brass in Philadelphia, who recognised an opportunity to exploit impending rule changes like the extra point being moved back (boosting the value of 2 point attempts, another Kelly trademark, exponentially). Yet Kelly was never as aggressive in the pros as he was with the Ducks. More importantly, perhaps, he never managed to connect with his players. Kelley remembers the impression Pederson made in that regard, even a decade ago, “I did think that even then I loved his demeanor with the team. He had a no nonsense approach, good discipline, but knew when to relax and have good interaction with his players on a personal level. I think so many coaches at every level miss out on that, even in the NFL. The psychological part of the game is almost as critical as the teaching and Xs and Os.” By revolutionising 4th down strategy, composing great gameplans with input from his staff, and just good old fashioned compassionate leadership Doug Pederson delivered the Lombardi Trophy.
Huge thank you to Kevin Kelley for taking the time to talk football and Doug Pederson with me, expect his methods to come flooding into the game as teams begin copying his, and the Eagles, methods. Kickoffs might be the next to go, as touchbacks continue to creep toward midfield. You can follow Kelley on twitter @coachkelley1. He has also written the foreword to Warren Sharp’s new “2018 Football Preview” which can be found here – sharpfootballanalysis.com/purchase.php .
1 Scorecasting – the hidden influences behind how sports are played and games are won. Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. John Wertheim, chapter: 2, pp: 37.