4th down coaching decisions could prove key in Super Bowl
PHILADELPHIA - If the Super Bowl comes down to a key fourth-down decision, that might bode well for the Philadelphia Eagles.
The analytically inclined Eagles have long been one of the NFL's most aggressive organizations when it comes to crucial fourth-down calls.
Those decisions helped fuel the team's first Super Bowl title five years ago under coach Doug Pederson and have helped Philadelphia get back to the title game this season under his successor Nick Sirianni thanks to two key fourth-down conversions in the first half of the NFC title game against San Francisco.
The Eagles have converted more fourth downs than any other team in the regular season and playoffs combined, despite playing from ahead more than any other team this season.
"We have confidence," Sirianni said. "When you go for it on fourth down, you put yourself in those scenarios all week. We have so many meetings about that, of what we’re going to do in these scenarios, calls we might call, what we would call if we’ve already called that and everything like that. You put yourself through those calls, but at the end of the day, you make the decision because you trust the people that are out there doing the job."
Sirianni ranked No. 1 this season the Football Outsiders' Critical Call Index, while his Kansas City counterpart Andy Reid ranked 28th.
The analytics company has one of the best models for determining when NFL teams should go and when they should kick on fourth downs, using its win probability model that relies on historical play-by-play data adjusted for variables such as the strength and weaknesses of both teams, injuries and other factors.
The Eagles have converted a league-best 25 fourth-down tries and an impressive clip of 71.4%. While much of that success has come in short-yardage situations where quarterback Jalen Hurts has thrived on sneaks that feature teammates giving him a legal push from behind — converting 27 of 31 runs on third or fourth-and-1 — the Eagles also have had success with more traditional plays.
Hurts converted a fourth-and-3 on a deep pass to DeVonta Smith on the opening drive last week against San Francisco to set up a touchdown — even though the play might have been overturned had the 49ers challenged it.
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"I’d say the biggest part about it is the trust the coaches have in the players and the players have in the coach," tight end Dallas Goedert said. "If we get on the other side of the field, we know it’s four-down territory. If we get into third-and-manageable, fourth-and-manageable, it’s just trusting the play call. ... The faith and the trust the coaches have in the players is pretty special."
Later in the first half, Sirianni made a riskier call when he went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 34 midway through the second quarter in a tie game.
While a stop there could have given San Francisco the ball in scoring position with a chance to take the lead before the half, Hurts converted the sneak. That led to another TD drive and Philadelphia never trailed the rest of the way.
"That aggressive style is what we like," running back Boston Scott said. "That’s kind of been the mindset here for a while. It’s always been an aggressive style and trusting the players."
The Eagles willingness to trust the numbers and be aggressive on fourth downs pre-dates Sirianni's arrival as head coach in 2021.
Pederson helped fuel the league-wide shift in decision making with the success he had going for it on fourth downs in Philadelphia's Super Bowl-winning 2017 season.
That proved crucial in the final game when Pederson's famous "Philly Special" call at the end of the first half led to a trick play TD pass from Trey Burton to quarterback Nick Foles and a fourth-and-1 conversion in Eagles territory helped spark the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
Reid has typically had a more old-school approach on fourth downs but has shown a willingness at times to trust his offense. He attempted a league-low one fourth down from his own territory all season — a successful fourth-and-1 from his 45 late in a tie game against Tennessee in Week 9.
While the Chiefs did convert a key fourth-and-1 late in the first half last Sunday against the Bengals when Patrick Mahomes threw a 14-yard TD pass to Travis Kelce, that's been more of the exception than the rule as Kansas City's 12 fourth-down tries were tied for the second fewest in the NFL in the regular season.