Philadelphia's aggressive approach – both on and off the field – paid off with the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy
The NFL is in the midst of its own analytical reckoning, and it is behind the times.
Baseball’s analytics are complex and overarching, having changed the way we look at bullpens and infield shifts dramatically in just five years. The NBA is in the midst of a 3-pointer revolution. Even hockey teams have begun to realize the importance of shots on goal and possession time as a real driver of change.
The NFL, in contrast, put out an article on its official website about clubs sharing player-tracking data for the first time ever this offseason. And that article came with these two sentences: “Some teams have dedicated more resources to analyzing the data than others, and thus figure to get far more use out of the league-wide data. That has led to pushback in recent years from less-invested clubs about distributing any data because of the potential competitive impact.”
The NFL will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into its statistical revolution. This is a stubborn league run by people who have been, to take a phrase from Rotoworld’s Evan Silva, inside the “NFL cocoon” too long. And one of the big beacons of that movement will be Doug Pederson’s coaching job for the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles.
Pederson’s second year in Philadelphia showcased his growth as an advocate of aggressive coaching. Aggressive coaching -- the theory that teams should go for it on fourth-and-short (at the very least) much more often than they do -- has been around the collective consciousness of the NFL for a while. You’ve likely heard of Arkansas high school coach Kevin Kelley, who simply refuses to punt and has been featured in multiple publications because of it.
Football Outsiders tracks a stat that they call “Aggressiveness Index,” where the numbers center around 1.0 and generally describe how much more (or less) likely each coach is to go for it on fourth down compared to his peers. Pederson, at 1.64, was 64 percent more likely to go for it than most head coaches. Pederson wound up going for it on fourth-and-1 14 times in the regular season, or 61 percent of the Eagles’ total fourth-and-1 opportunities. Football Outsiders tracked 117 opportunities for Pederson to be aggressive in non-comeback situations, and he went for it 22 times. That rate of 18.8 percent led the league, and all of his coaching peers, by more than six percentage points. Mike Zimmer, Pederson’s coaching opponent in the NFC Championship Game, went for it on 1.9 percent of his opportunities.
In the Super Bowl, Pederson could have taken the easy, traditional line of thinking. He could have held to the ethos that the Eagles were only going to beat Tom Brady’s offense if they ran the ball, played conservatively and tried to shorten the game. He would have been forgiven by most for that point of view, especially given the fact that he was starting his backup quarterback, Nick Foles.
Instead, Pederson decided to push the pedal to the metal. The Eagles went for it on fourth-and-1 with 34 seconds left in the second quarter at the New England 1-yard line. It was a situation where many coaches would have kicked the field goal and taken the points to go up six. One Trey Burton pass to Foles later, and the Eagles were winning by 10. Down one point, with the ball in the middle of the fourth quarter, Pederson did something even more sacrilegious to the conservative coaching movement -- he went for it on fourth-and-1 in Philadelphia territory. By succeeding and keeping the drive alive, the Eagles not only were able to march and score, but they also were able to milk three extra minutes of game clock and two Patriots timeouts. New England got the ball back for the final time with just 1:05 left to play and no timeouts, and while they were successful in getting the ball down the field, they simply didn’t have enough time to mount a real run at the end zone.
Here it is worth pointing out that the Patriots may have lost the Super Bowl, but they did not actually lose this game. The Patriots never punted, and they scored 33 points on one of the best defenses in the NFL. Doug Pederson won that game more than New England lost it. In a very close contest, his aggressiveness seized the small advantages that helped create eight more points.
The other area that the Eagles took advantage of, and have ever since CEO Howie Roseman has been in place, is free agency. The old mantra of draft-and-develop is sacrosanct for many NFL teams, which are content not to spend money if they can avoid it. Some teams, in fact, are incentivized not to spend at all because of cap rollover rules. The Browns and 49ers, for example, had little reason to come into free agency and improve at the margins. They knew they’d be bad last season. But teams are still a little too hesitant to see what’s going on outside of their own rooms, and Roseman took advantage of this in 2016 and 2017, when he was freed from Chip Kelly’s oversight.
Because while the NFL’s salary cap has trickled up from the low-$100 millions into the mid-$100 millions over this decade, free-agency spending hasn’t exactly climbed with it. Big-name free-agent flops have conditioned teams against finding “quick” solutions. In 2016, Philadelphia brought in guard Brandon Brooks, linebacker Nigel Bradham and safety Rodney McLeod. Roseman doubled down on receivers in 2017, finding Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith on one-year deals, then re-signing Jeffery when he quickly proved a good fit in Philadelphia.
One-year prove-it deals are a bit of a thing with Roseman, who also handed them out to cornerback Patrick Robinson, defensive end Chris Long and guard Chance Warmack. Oh, and that whole thing about having Foles in the first place? You guessed it: Roseman. Everybody in the league was surprised when Foles got a two-year, $11 million deal after flopping in St. Louis. But Roseman had drafted him, believed in him, and got him back.
Roseman also worked the trade market for veteran help on contracts other teams were looking to shed. He dealt Jordan Matthews and a pick for Bills corner Ronald Darby and dealt a low-round pick for defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan when the Ravens were in an iffy salary cap predicament. At midseason, when the Dolphins grew tired of Jay Ajayi having opinions about their system, the Eagles took on his deal and believed in him. Roseman’s aggressive management style and the expanded salary cap worked hand in hand to give the Eagles a boost.
In total, 46 percent of the offensive snaps and 51 percent of the defensive snaps in the Super Bowl came from players Roseman traded for, signed or re-signed in just the last two calendar years. That slightly discounts the full amount of Roseman’s influence as he was on the payroll before Kelly, and he also played a role in acquiring players such as Brandon Graham, who was drafted in 2010. But it’s telling just how much of the Super Bowl-winning roster was out there and available for the right price. This is an approach the Patriots have leaned on for a long time, as they’re perennially evaluating the market and not afraid to shuffle the deck when they see something they perceive as better.
For Roseman, this was a personal redemption of sorts. The “Dream Team” Eagles that reeled in free agents like Nnamdi Asomugha and Jason Babin were a humongous disappointment. That team was one of the biggest drivers of the idea that free agency was where you went to find broken parts and old players who you could only hope would hold together. After all, if their original team didn’t want them, why should you?
The Eagles won the Super Bowl because they were aggressive. They evaluated the league, evaluated their personnel and plays and determined that they had a chance. Then, they did as much as they possibly could to act on that chance. They were underdogs the entire way, and perhaps rightfully so given that Foles was their starting quarterback.
But in the end, step one to knocking off the Patriots is believing you can knock off the Patriots. And every Super Bowl call and free-agent visit radiated that belief.
Stunningly, being aggressive turned out to be more effective than punting. Perhaps the rest of the NFL can, some day, reach that mindset, too.
-- Written by Rivers McCown for Athlon Sports
(Photos courtesy of www.philadelphiaeagles.com)