Is Joe Gibbs Scared?
As someone who has watched way too much Redskins football this fall, I couldn't help but notice when Tony Dungy went for it on 4th-and-1 from the Bengals 45 last night. The Colts failed to convert. Somehow, the world failed to end.
I was thinking about this issue after reading Michael "Moneyball" Lewis's ESPN the Mag story about gutless NFL coaches who ignore objective data that argue in favor of more frequent fourth-down attempts. Lewis's story plays off a long and mathy paper by a Cal econ professor, David Romer, which analyzed the relative advantages of going for it on fourth down or being a wuss (i.e., kicking). You can read his paper here; it's a PDF file, and there are lots of charts with squiggly lines.
The point is, Romer found that coaches are actually hurting their chances to win by taking field goals attempts over fourth downs tries in certain situations, and so ESPN asked coaches what they made of all this. Several of them made funny jokes about pointy headed professors. Lewis concludes that their behavior is actually part of some desire to fit in with the coaching fraternity, a desire not to stand out.
(As a sidenote, Al Saunders was actually one of the more thoughtful coach voices in the story: "Coaches would rather feel as though they subconsciously play not to lose," he said. "They don't want to do something out of the ordinary to lose. It's easier to do what's expected and safe.)
Anyhow, with certain talk radio people hooting about the issue, and with ESPN's friends at Football Outsiders providing some cool numbers comparing NFL coaches, I looked at the Skins on fourth down this season.
The Football Outsiders people only look at fourth downs in opponents' territory, and they disregard fourth downs in certain late-game losing-or-tied situations, and so I did too. What I found was that, disregarding those situations, the Redskins have gone for it on fourth down three times in 40 chances this year. That's a rate of 7.5 percent, which likely would place Gibbs among the least aggressive coaches in the league this year. (The FO guys looked at a decade's worth of such situations; Bill Parcells went for it in 20 percent of such chances, and Bill Belichick went for it in 18 percent of chances. The least aggressive NFL coach, Nick Saban, went for it just four percent of the time.)
And in the juiciest situations--fourth-and-three-or-less in the other team's territory--the Skins have gone for it once in eight possible chances this season. On fourth-and-six-or-less in the other team's territory, the Skins have gone for it twice in 21 tries. This is Carmelo-at-the-Garden-after-throwing-a-haymaker timidity. This is James-Lang-when-facing-a-microphone fear. This is Stephen-A.-Smith-when-Amtrak-only-has-seats-left-in-the-quiet-car terror.
The FO guys also do a more extensive "aggressiveness index," which they published in the Pro Football Prospectus before the season and updated through week 12 in the Mag.
Again, before this year started, Gibbs has an AI rating of .75 (ratings are centered around 1.0), which ranks 47th out of 74 coaches who coached at least one season between 1997 and 2006. And trust me, you'd rather have your coach hanging out at the top than the bottom; the top five in the ESPN the Mag list includes Parcells, Belichick, Cowher, Schottenheimer and Shanahan; the bottom five is Nick Saban, Sean Payton, Gary Kubiak, Rod Marinelli and Scott Linehan.
But, in fairness, the Skins' overall fourth-down attempts have been very similar throughout Gibbs's comeback; they had 11 attempts in 2004, 11 attempts in 2005 and currently have 11 this season. In all three years that was in the bottom third of the league. I can't think of a great reason to throw your philosophy out the window because of a bad record; this "nothing to lose" stuff does nothing for me. If they really have "nothing to lose," why wouldn't they cut the punter and go for it on every fourth down?
All of which means, when fourth down for the Redskins arrives, you can go ahead and walk towards the fridge to get that extra hunk of cave-aged Appenzeller and a little dab of Dalmatian fig spread, cuz ain't nothing happening.
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