Following Doug Pederson’s first season as Philadelphia Eagles head coach, he did a little self-scouting. For a team that started off 3-0 but then lost nine of 11 games, it was clear a few things needed fixing.
But the avuncular Pederson, whom many deemed too milquetoast — and maybe too Andy Reid-ish — wanted to make sure he was going about things the right way. Not everyone watching, with the Eagles drifting to a last-place finish, was convinced that would happen.
“Right after my first season, I just went back and studied the play calls, I studied how I called games, how I coached games, how I studied and prepared to get myself ready to play,” Pederson said. “I think that’s a big advantage, to be able to do that after the first year of calling plays for the entire year.”
Pederson’s biggest takeaway? His extreme aggression in Year One was anything but reckless. Pederson felt it was essential to who he was as a coach.
Perhaps the play calls he summoned in those situations needed tweaking. But the man who became famous for promising his players ice cream after team meetings wasn’t about to stop going for it on fourth downs and making other bold in-game decisions. He was a stone-cold assassin at heart, it turned out.
“My philosophy was, this opportunity is only going to come around probably once, and I’m going to make the most of it,” Pederson said. “I’m going to do what’s right by our football team. I’m going to make sure our guys are in position to be successful. I’m not going to do anything crazy or anything like that.”
What he found, after dissecting each of the Eagles’ 2016 fourth-down decisions in close games, was that stepping on the gas — even when many other coaches would never be so brave — was the right approach. Pederson went through each call, with the help of Eagles vice president of football operations and strategy Alec Halaby and team analyst Ryan Paganetti, and deemed that 95 percent of them were good calls in the moment.
Pederson was not, like the old Bob Dylan song, taking a When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose approach to games. If anything, the Dylan lyric that might have resonated most with Pederson could have been He not busy being born is busy dying. Boiled down, why wait to reinvent yourself? Time’s a-wastin’ in this league.
“I just feel like, if I don’t trust the guys — if I don’t trust the team, the players — how are they gonna deal with me as a coach? I put a lot of ownership on the team this past season. I also put some ownership on myself in making sure I was going to retain that aggressiveness throughout the entire season,” Pederson said.
It worked. The Eagles’ 2017 season ended in a thrilling run to a Super Bowl title, despite starting QB and MVP candidate Carson Wentz suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 14. Pederson remained aggressive with backup Nick Foles, staying true to the philosophy he had embraced.
The bottom line of the Super Bowl LII victory over the New England Patriots, long known as a hyper-aggressive team themselves, was the Eagles converting two key fourth downs — the first on the goal-to-go “Philly Special,” a throwback TD pass to Foles, who last caught a pass in a game as a sophomore at Arizona.
The NFL is a league comprised of impressionists. Coaches steal plays from successful coaches. Executives try to poach good assistants from good teams and turn them into head coaches. Weak teams often try to emulate the approaches and strategies strong teams take. "Copycat league" … surely you’ve heard that phrase once or a thousand times over the years.
But is the Eagles’ aggressiveness an adaptation that other teams suddenly will embrace more willingly? Trends indicate that strategic aggression is slowly being accepted more roundly but that there’s still work to be done in changing the stubborn minds of the punt-on-4th-and-short devotees.
In the AFC championship, the Jacksonville Jaguars led the Patriots, 14-10, in the third quarter. They opted to kick a 54-yard field goal on 4th-and-4, turning a one-score game into a … one-score game. Another field goal made it 20-10, Jacksonville. After a Patriots turnover, the Jaguars had them on the ropes. But the Jaguars, who used the fourth overall draft pick last year on hammerhead RB Leonard Fournette, and who had converted all four third-and-short plays in the game up to that point, opted to punt on 4th-and-1 from their own 42 with 12 minutes left.
That’s when Tom Brady cut them, leading two TD drives down the stretch to win. Pederson knew he couldn’t take the same approach vs. Brady in the Super Bowl. Two years earlier, in his final game calling plays for the Kansas City Chiefs before taking the Eagles' job, Pederson called a sluggish array of short passes when he was down by two scores in New England. He ater said, “We did not want to give Tom Brady the ball back,” in defending that strategy in his introductory press conference with the Eagles.
Pederson hasn’t had to answer that question since. In 35 games (including playoffs) as head coach, the Eagles have converted 33-of-56 fourth-down attempts — and they actually went for it slightly more frequently in Year One than in Year Two. His predecessor, Chip Kelly — once known as “Big Balls Kelly” — only went for it on 43 fourth downs in his 48 games as Eagles head coach.
Pederson’s former colleagues couldn’t help but take notice.
“It was fun for me to see that because what you get to see when someone does that is [that] it can work,” new Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy told PFW. “There's always the ‘hindsight is 20-20 [viewpoint],' and when it doesn't work, you're the worst coach in the world, so you've got to have that balance.”
Nagy knows that all too well. Like Pederson, his final Chiefs play-calling experience resulted in an unsettling playoff loss. The situations were different, but that didn’t stop critics from calling out Nagy — who took ownership of it — and Reid for the way they let an 18-point lead slip away at home to the Tennessee Titans.
It wouldn’t be stunning to see Nagy use his own failure, as well as witnessing Pederson’s transformation, as valuable teaching lessons for the rebuild in Chicago.
“To see [Pederson] be aggressive and have the fourth-down mentality, where he's really sending a message to his team and the opponent that, ‘Hey, I believe in my guys, and we're going to dictate to you guys what's going to go on here,’ ” Nagy said.
Nagy spent eight years on the same staffs as Pederson, working for Reid — first with the Eagles and then with the Kansas City Chiefs. Reid actually became one of the more aggressive coaches late in his Eagles tenure after being painfully conservative early on in Philadelphia. Pederson was elevated to Reid’s top lieutenant in Kansas City and took that aggressiveness to a new level when he got his head-coaching shot.
Two years into it, Pederson already has sprouted his own coaching tree. The Indianapolis Colts hired Frank Reich (after they were spurned by the Patriots’ Josh McDaniels) as their new head coach, after he spent two seasons as Pederson’s offensive coordinator. Both McDaniels and Reid served under coaches who often bucked conservative trends with their in-game decision-making, so Colts GM Chris Ballard’s two choices might have had more to do with each other than they appeared at first blush.
Bill Belichick learned from Bill Parcells, among the more aggressive coaches of his time, and McDaniels — say what you will about his success there — showed a healthy level of aggression in his year-plus as head coach of the Denver Broncos. And, even if Reich isn’t quite the dice roller Pederson has been, it’s hard to think that influence won’t rub off in some ways with the 56-year-old’s play-calling style in his first crack at being a head coach.
“That was one of the great things of the last two years of experience that I had coaching under Doug Pederson,” Reich said. “First of all, the relationship that he and I had, [we] just really connected both personally and professionally. And just watching how he was so incredibly aggressive on fourth downs, and in every way in play calling, that was good for me to see.”
Perhaps aggressiveness must be defined in multiple ways. Is it going for it on fourth-and-short near midfield? Throwing early and often in games? Calling unexpected gadget plays (e.g. “Philly Special”)? Blitzing relentlessly on defense? Surprise onside kicks before the fourth quarter? Two-point conversions in the same situations, as Pederson did — and failed — in the Super Bowl?
Perhaps it’s all of the above.
However you define it, the Colts clearly were seeking a sea change in Chuck Pagano’s replacement, and they're hoping Reich can tap into some of Pederson’s spinal fluid when it comes to reversing what might have been one of the most conservative and least consummative teams in recent memory.
The numbers are almost unbelievable. The Colts were not your average 4-12 team. They only trailed at halftime in six games. Somehow, they lost seven of the nine games in which they led at halftime — an ungodly series of results. They also were leading in the fourth quarter in nine games but became the only team in the past 20 years, according to NFL data analyst Warren Sharp, to do so and finish a season with four or fewer victories.
When the Colts gained leads, they became completely predictable and passive. They used heavy personnel and ran way more than not on first and second downs. Granted, Andrew Luck was hurt all year, and the team lacked reliable passing threats. But it’s no shock going into a shell late in close games hurt them. The Colts were outscored 139-49 in fourth quarters and overtimes.
In addition, Pagano was absolutely not a go-for-it guy last season. The Colts attempted 17 fourth-down conversions (making eight), but most came in situations where they had no choice but to go for it. According to Football Outsiders, Pagano only went for it on 1-of-18 opportunities on 4th-and-1 or 4th-and-2 last season — and that one time came late in the year, when his fate was probably already sealed. That had to figure into the Colts’ thinking of firing Pagano and eventually hiring Reich.
“I’ve always considered myself a pretty good play caller and a pretty aggressive play caller,” Reich said. “I got that from, first, when I was with Tom Moore [on the Colts from 2008 to 2011). You ask Peyton about what’s the best thing about Tom Moore as a play caller, he would say it’s his aggressive play calling.
“So to see that again in Doug was a good reminder to me how we need to take it here to this team.”
That should be music to Colts fans ears. The same can be said for Nagy with Bears fans, who endured three years of losing under John Fox, a man who once infamously said that “a punt is not a bad play.” Football Outsiders designed a metric called the Aggressiveness Index, measuring how daring coaches are in fourth-down situations in close games, and Fox’s willingness to go for it in 2017 was even lower than Pagano's.
The Bears didn’t hire Nagy to be wantonly reckless just for the sake of aggressiveness. But it’s clear Bears GM Ryan Pace at least placed some notable value in finding a more progressive approach. Sean McVay, who ranked ninth in FO’s Aggressiveness Index, did just that in completely turning around the Los Angeles Rams’ fortunes in his first year as a 31-year-old head coach.
“I think when you're looking for traits in a head coach, there could be 30 different things that you're looking for,” Pace said. “I think the fact that [Nagy is] aggressive by nature is a very attractive trait. We want that style of play.
“You can't be afraid to take chances, and occasionally there is risk involved, but if you want to be great in anything we do, that's part of your decision-making process.”
Nagy called his style “calculated aggression,” and he knows it isn’t just about making hare-brained decisions on fourth downs — it involves establishing a style of play that’s befitting the Bears’ talent and knowing when throughout games to take chances.
“It's going to mean the pace of play, it's going to mean downfield throws … we're going to test you,” Nagy explained.
Simply going for it on every fourth down isn’t a feasible strategy. Clearly the numbers are skewed for being down big in games, but teams that went for it three or more times in a game since the start of the 2015 season were 19-103. Teams that went for it four or more times in a game in that span were 3-34.
The two most aggressive fourth-down coaches last season on FO’s list were the Miami Dolphins’ Adam Gase and the Oakland Raiders’ Jack Del Rio. Both coaches had more team success in 2016 when they went for it at a lower rate. And on the other end of the chart, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and the Minnesota Vikings’ Mike Zimmer — coaches of the conferences’ No. 2 playoff seeds — were the lowest-rated full-time head coaches.
You can’t tell the story of the Eagles’ 2017 season and their aggressiveness without explaining what happened when it backfired. After their offense's nine failed fourth-down attempts, the Eagles’ defense responded by allowing an incredible zero points on the ensuing possessions.
Aggression looks pretty darned good when there are no direct consequences for short-term failures.