“Third and manageable” sounds great, but there’s a competitive advantage in being aggressive on second down. This is especially true when coming off a first down incompletion, as coaches have shown a tendency to lean run in those situations.
For example, after a first down incompletion, the five teams with the highest success rates in 2017 had a plus-60% pass rate. Yet some still buck the data and go with their gut, opting for the comfort of cowardice. The Philadelphia Eagles, shockingly, were a run heavy team in those situations that year. That was until they reached the playoffs, which Warren Sharp detailed for Bleeding Green Nation last offseason.
“Many teams are scared to go pass-pass-pass-punt, and thinks it looks bad on their play calling ability. Last year during the regular season (ignoring 4th quarter plays), the Eagles went 54% run on 2nd & 10 following a 1st & 10 pass with no gain (most often an incomplete pass on 1st and 10). The league average was 50% run.
When the Eagles passed on 2nd & 10 following a 1st & 10 pass, they produced a 42% success rate and averaged 8.3 YPA, well above the league average of 7.0 YPA. But when they ran the ball, it was a mere 26% success rate for a league average 4.7 YPC. In large part because they ran the ball often, their overall success rate on 2nd & 10 following a 1st and 10 pass was only 33%, below the league average of 38%.
The Eagles changed in the postseason, going 83% pass and producing the best success rate of any playoff team on these 2nd & 10 play calls (83%).”
The reason I cite this evolution in the Eagles’ offense is because we saw a similar shift from a similar analytic in 2018. I charted every play following a first down that didn’t gain five yards or more and found that the Eagles were aggressive in their decision-making on second down. Rather than trying to grind the ground game to create a “third and manageable”, the Eagles preferred to let it fly.
I broke these findings into three groups. First half of the season, second half of the season (conveniently located after a bye), and the playoffs. What we see is yet another hard shift in come playoff time with the data likely driving the decision-making process.
Note: Explosive passes are plays of 20+ yards, explosive runs are plays of 10+ yards.
Even without being able to count Dallas Goedert’s 75-yard touchdown in Week 14, the Eagles saw a larger degree of success in the second half of the season through the air. They increased their yards per play by nearly two yards and got more big plays by being aggressive. Their biggest expected points added (EPA) boon came in Week 10 against the Dallas Cowboys when Corey Clement was stuffed for no gain on first down.
The decline in the run game in these situations could play a role in the philosophical shift. As the charts show, the Eagles lopped off 9% of their success rate from the first half to the second half of the season. They also struggled on first down, going from 6th best in runs of negative or zero yards on 1st & 10 to 23rd worst in the second half. In the playoffs, the run game did nothing to dig the offense out of a hole when behind the chains.
Now, here’s the problem with the playoffs… first off, it’s a smaller sample size, containing roughly thirty plays. Second, they faced the 11th and 1st ranked DVOA defenses in the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears respectively. Not having any tomato cans to smash could certainly play with the numbers.
While yards per play were +9.13 with passing, a massive difference, there was too much boom-bust to their air attack. Explosive rates stayed stable, but the success rate plummeted and turnovers heavily outweighed touchdowns. All but one of Nick Foles’ four playoff interceptions came on second down and behind the sticks. Those three turnovers equal the total of interceptions for all sixteen regular season games.
Even with mixed results, the Eagles’ coaching staff should be given credit. They’ve shown time after time the ability to adapt to what their analytics show them throughout the life of a season. They then apply those lessons and supercharge them in the playoffs. It’s always done with an eye towards aggression, an admirable trait in a league filled with stubborn dinosaurs.