“A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” - William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Maybe death is a little overboard with thirteen games left in the season, but you get the point. This is, of course, in reference to Doug Pederson’s decision to go for glory on 4th & 8, down 27-24, from his own 22-yard line with 2:25 remaining.
The play didn’t work for a number of reasons. First, the Lions doubled Zach Ertz as they had done in several important and late game situations. This isn’t new, the Dallas Cowboys paid special attention to Ertz in Week 14 last year which contributed to the Eagles’ slow start in that game. It’s pretty obvious he’s the go-to man in these situations because he’s so reliable, not to mention the depleted wide receiver group.
Second, the Lions also double Mack Hollins. Guarding him was replacement cornerback Mike Ford, who the Lions let play with outside leverage while cutting the crossing route with safety Quandre Diggs. That’s two options immediately eliminated. Then you’ve got a pocket that shrinks on Carson Wentz and with no clear open options, Wentz takes off.
With the linebackers typically in that space cleared out Wentz may have made it if not for the hustle from Devon Kennard. Instead he’s two yards short, and many who were cheering the aggressiveness from Pederson pre-snap began suffering from a serious case of buyer’s remorse. Those that didn’t agree with the call to begin with now had ammo to criticize Pederson, but these are all result-based reactions.
The decision to go for it there was a sound one, if you trust the math. Under Pederson, the Eagles just about always defer to the analytics that go into these decisions. In fact, one company that consulted the Eagles during their 2017 Super Bowl run which specializes in what they call “Game Winning Chance” fully supported the decision from Pederson.
It’s actually our #1 BEST call of the week. Despite not converting it was the right call by 12.5% win probability. pic.twitter.com/DY2ys8pXRQ— EdjSports (@edjsports) September 23, 2019
Those are the types of percentages being pumped into Pederson’s headset during the game, or at least some form of “green light, yellow light, red light” boiled down representation of them. In this case, the analytics told Pederson you have the green light and he hit the gas.
I spoke with EdjAnalytics co-founder Frank Frigo about the Eagles’ implementation of analytics to guide their fourth-down decision-making back in the summer of 2018.
“I do think the Eagles were a considerable anomaly this year in terms of how they treated these kinds of decisions.. They had really a buy-in from the top of the organization down to all the way throughout I think to say, ‘if it’s mathematically defensible, let’s do it, let’s not worry about the conversation in the post-game press conference, let’s do the right thing.’” - Frank Frigo
Speaking about it after the game, Pederson had this to say...
“Situational right there, just goin’ ahead and goin’ for it with the three timeouts. I could use them on defense obviously. We knew they were probably going to run the ball in that situation and got ‘em to kick the field goal. And it worked in our favor but we didn’t capitalize on the other end.” - Doug Pederson
There are other factors that go into this specific decision against the Lions. Their conservatism, namely Matt Patricia’s typically cautious approach, is well documented. For example, only one coach punted inside enemy territory on 4th & 6 or less last year than Patricia. He also shifted the Lions from a pass heavy team to a run first team, something that Pederson mentioned factoring into his call. He expected two runs and the Lions gave him two runs. The Eagles clamped down and stuffed both for no gain.
There’s also the matter of time outs. With all three at his disposal, plus a two-minute warning looming, the Eagles had plenty of ammo to extend their next drive if need be. Ultimately, they only had to burn one time out before the field goal attempt due to an incomplete pass on 3rd & 10.
The end result is the Eagles lost. There’s no glossing over that. Pederson took a gamble, it failed, but they got what they expected and more directly after that failure. Perhaps that’s being too result-based on my part, but the message here is you can’t have it both ways. You can’t laud the Eagles for implementing analytics in their decision-making on the way to a Super Bowl and then turn your back on the same process when it doesn’t pan out.
Besides, we’ve been down this road before. In another Week 3 game back in 2017, Pederson faced a similar situation against the New York Giants. Up seven points in the 2nd quarter, facing 4th & 8, Pederson got aggressive. It failed. When polled, BGN readers weren’t so nice about there thoughts about the decision, giving it a 69% “no” vote. Pederson defended the decision in his press conference after the game and that same mentality and trust in the numbers yielded fantastic results for the rest of the season. He was right then, and he’s right this time.
There are plenty of things to criticize in this home loss to the Lions. Pederson’s decision to trust the numbers, trust his offense, and trust his defense isn’t one of them.