By Michael Donovan
No team in the risk-averse NFL has reaped more benefits from taking a chance on 4th down than the Eagles.
It offense gained a first down when going for it on fourth down an NFL-high 17 times in 2017. The Eagles were the only team in the NFL to average more than one successful fourth-down conversion per game.
The Birds’ 26 fourth-down conversion attempts were the second-most in the NFL and an extraordinary number for a good team:
Usually, the teams that go for it on fourth down a lot are the teams that have to go for it on fourth down a lot because they’re trailing late in games.
Of the 15 NFL teams that went for it on fourth down at least 16 times (an average of at least once per game), the Eagles were the only ones that made the playoffs.
Teams that are successful on fourth down are usually good teams overall: Of the Top 5 teams in fourth-down conversion rate, four of them — the Saints, Jaguars, Eagles and Patriots — are among the eight teams still alive in the playoffs. The fifth, the Ravens, narrowly missed the playoffs when their defense gave up a touchdown on fourth down in the final minute of the regular season.
Doug Pederson’s aggressiveness on fourth down demonstrates that he has studied the analytics movement, which has consistently found that teams are more successful when they go for it on fourth down more often. And Pederson knows he has the backing of his boss on that front: Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said in September that the Eagles have crunched the numbers and found that going for it on fourth down pays off.
“When you do the math you really want to try to be more aggressive than the public would normally anticipate. I think the smarter teams do it that way,” Lurie said. “And you can fail. When you have a 42 percent to 58 and you chose the 58 and . . . you may lose it, [critics say], ‘Oh, how could you make that decision?’ Well, because it gave you the best chance to win.”
Pederson has found that real-world decision making matches the math: Going for it on fourth down pays off.