Super Bowl coaches lean conservative on 4th-down calls
The Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals got to the Super Bowl with help from a couple of coaching decisions by their conference title game opponents that backfired.
If the Super Bowl comes down to a crucial fourth-down choice by Rams coach Sean McVay or Bengals counterpart Zac Taylor, history shows the may opt for the conservative path.
After a regular season when teams set records for how often they went on fourth downs as more and more younger coaches embrace analytics, the two coaches who made it to the Super Bowl were more outliers.
Both the Rams and the Bengals finished in the bottom quarter of the league in fourth-down tries in the regular season.
“McVay has been sort of painted as the young up-and-comer coach. But he’s not a sort of traditional guy that embraces analytics,” said Frank Frigo, the co-founder of analytics company EdjSports. “He still kind of is a very much sort of an intuition guy when it comes to analytics. Taylor was really bad out of the shoot, but I think he’s improved a little bit.”
EdjSports ranked Taylor 21st and McVay 23rd out of 32 in its Critical Call Index. 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.
“Neither one of them are in the top tier,” Frigo said. “It’s hard for me to give the nod to either in that territory, quite honestly, going into the game right now.”
Fourth-down decisions have played big roles in past Super Bowl, with the Eagles using the fourth-down “Philly Special” at the end of the first half and another conversion on the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter to beat the Patriots four years ago.
Key calls on when to kick and when to go for it played a big role in the conference championships. The Chiefs’ decision to go for a touchdown with 5 seconds left in the first half instead of a field goal backfired when Tyreek Hill got tackled at the 2 and time ran out. That led to a second-half comeback win for the Bengals.
The biggest error last weekend, according to EdjSports, came when San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan opted to punt instead of going on fourth-and-2 from the Rams 40 while protecting a three-point lead in the fourth quarter. Los Angeles drove to the tying score and then won that game 20-17.
“That was a critical moment in the game,” Frigo said. “That may very well cost them the game, him puckering up there. Those kinds of decisions, especially in a tight game, those things can be pretty impactful.”
The EdjSports analysis said McVay’s fourth-down decisions cost the Rams about one-third of a game in win probability all season.
Los Angeles had a league-low five attempts when needing more than 1 yard — with one coming on a botched punt snap — and McVay opted to go in his own territory only twice all season, with one of the attempts coming on a fourth-and-1 from his 49.
His worst decision according to EdjSports came when he opted to punt on fourth-and-2 from the Rams 47 late in the first half of a Week 17 win at Baltimore.
Taylor’s decisions cost the Bengals more than a quarter of a win all season, according to EdjSports, with most of his best decisions coming when he went on fourth-and-short plays between the 40s.
Taylor’s best decision helped set the tone for the Bengals’ season in the opener when he went on fourth-and-1 in his own territory in the final minute of overtime. Joe Burrow converted with a big pass play to C.J. Uzomah and the Bengals beat the Vikings in OT.
The Bengals punted on fourth-and-3 in Vikings territory late in regulation that game, a decision that helped Minnesota drive to the tying score.
But the call by Taylor that EdjSports ranked as his worst was one of the rare instances when the numbers advised kicking and a coach went for it. With Cincinnati facing a fourth down from the 1 in a tie game with Kansas City and 57 seconds left, Taylor went — to keep the ball away from Patrick Mahomes.
The call decreased the Bengals’ win probability by 8.7 percentage points. Cincinnati converted on a penalty and drained the clock before winning it on a field goal. That move looked better a few weeks later when Mahomes needed just 13 seconds to drive Kansas City to a tying score in a playoff win over Buffalo.
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