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Mike Smith, thinking about kicking or punting.

Mike Smith, thinking about kicking or punting.

With just under five minutes left in last Sunday’s game against the Giants and his team trailing 27-20, Mike Smith went for it on 4th and 1 from his own 29 yard line. As was the case on repeated 4th down attempts the last time his team visited MetLife Stadium to face the Giants, the decision to be aggressive did not work out well. Matt Ryan was sacked for a nine-yard loss that effectively ended the game. If his previous behavior is any guide, Smith may learn the wrong lesson from that outcome and choose not to go for it again when the next similar opportunity arises. Smith illustrates better than any other coach the potential for fourth down failure to lead to future fourth down timidity.

Before those two failed Ryan fourth down sneaks against the Giants in that 2011 playoff game, Smith actually was one of the more enlightened coaches on fourth down strategy. From 2008-2011, Smith was the third-most aggressive coach of the last twenty years, at least according to Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index. Dating Smith’s turning point is a little tough. He got burned going for it in Week 10 of the 2011 regular season, when he tried a sneak on 4th and inches from his own 29 in overtime against the Saints. He punted in a couple of situations where he usually went for it late in the 2011 season, but then was aggressive closer in against the Giants. By the 2012 regular season, Smith hadn’t just abandoned his prior tendency for aggressive strategy. He entirely reversed it. In 2012, he was the least aggressive coach in football, only going for it once in 91 qualifying fourth-down tries. He was similarly passive in 2013. His fourth down decision last Sunday was surprising given that trend.

To see Smith’s evolution on fourth down strategy, consider his decisions on 4th and 3 or less when between the opponent’s 10- and 40-yard lines. To consider only situations where there was a real choice while keeping things as simple as possible, I look only at first-half decisions along with third-quarter decisions where the margin was ten points or less. [click to continue…]

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Fourth Down Conservatism Rules Week 3

The top-scorer on Harbaugh's fantasy team

The top-scorer on Harbaugh's fantasy team.

It’s become trendy in this space and many others for stats folks to rail against bad 4th down decisions. It’s even trendier to do it when those conservative decisions backfire, leading to losses. But analyzing any decision — and especially decisions about whether to go for it or kick on 4th down — should not be done with the benefit of hindsight. So today, I’m going to rail against John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, and Mike McCoy, who made some awfully timid 4th down decisions but won on Sunday. And while one could argue that they won because of those decisions, the better argument, I believe, is that they won in spite of them.

Trailing by 4 with 5:03 remaining, the Ravens kick a Field Goal on the 3-yard line

Harbaugh is no stranger to meek 4th down decision making; in fact, he’s no stranger to this particular brand of conservative coaching. Last year, he sent out the kicker when, trailing by 6 points with just over four minutes remaining in the game, the Ravens faced a 4th and 5 from the 6 yard line. Both Jason Lisk and I wrote about the silliness of this decision, which resulted in a Buffalo 23-20 victory.

Facing similar circumstances — a 4-point lead and an extra minute remaining makes it less objectionable to kick the field goal, but being on the 3-yard line makes it even worse — Harbaugh again sent out Justin Tucker to take the points.  That decision cost the Ravens 0.22 expected wins; according to Advanced Football Analytics, the decision to kick a field goal instead of going for it dropped Baltimore’s win probability from 54% to 32%.

As Mike Tanier facetiously wrote, this just set up the ultimate Ravens end game: one bomb from Joe Flacco and one kick by Tucker is all the team would need to win.  Sure enough, Flacco hit Steve Smith for a 32-yard catch, and Tucker kicked the chip shot for the win.  The Ravens wound up having two additional possessions: after Tucker made it a 1-point game, the Browns and Ravens traded 3-and-outs, and the Browns went 3-and-out again before giving Baltimore one final possession with 1:58 remaining.

At the time of the decision to send Tucker out for a field goal, Brian Hoyer was 19 of 22 for 290 yards and a touchdown. He wound up throwing incomplete on his last three passes of the day. But if not for two Cleveland three-and-outs — the only two of the day — Harbaugh’s decision to cost his team 22 points of win probability would be generating much more backlash today. [click to continue…]

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Belichick has an eye on the point spread.

Belichick has an eye on the point spread.

Last week at Five Thirty Eight, Nate Silver noted that San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has produced an excellent record against the spread. He also checked in football’s version of Pop, Bill Belichick, and came to the same conclusion: Belichick hasn’t just been great, but he’s been great against the spread, too.

My database on point spreads goes back to 1978, so I went ahead and calculated the Against-The-Spread record of each head coach over the last 36 seasons. According to my numbers, Belichick has “covered” or won 40 more games against the spread than he’s lost, the most over this period.1  The table below shows the 122 men who  have coached at least 50 games or who were active in 2013.

Here’s how to read Belichick’s line: He has been coaching since 1991 (coaches who began before 1978 are included, but only their post-1977 seasons are counted (and only if they coached 50+ games since 1978)) and was last coaching in 2013. Over that time, he has coached in 332 games, including the post-season. His record against the spread is 182-142-8, which gives him a 0.562 winning percentage (ignoring ties).2 His real record is 218-114-0, which gives him a 0.657 winning percentage (again, including the playoffs). The table is sorted by the last category, which represents the difference beteween his number of wins against the spread and his number of losses against the spread. [click to continue…]

  1. My numbers differ slightly from Silver’s, although that’s not surprising. There is always some variation in point spread data, which is, of course, not official. []
  2. When calculating regular winning percentage, we treat ties as half-wins and half-losses.  In his article, Silver excluded ties from calculating ATS winning percentages. I don’t know what’s customary, but Silver’s method makes sense: in the event of a “push” all money is simply returns. []
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The Most Pass-Happy Coaches in NFL History

Belichick checks to see where he is on the list.

Belichick checks to see where he is on the list.

Yesterday, I looked at the most pass-happy active head coaches and offensive coordinators in the NFL. If you’ve been a loyal reader of my previous posts on Game Scripts, you understand the methodology I’ve used today to grade each coaches. The quick summary is I’ve come up with the term “Game Scripts” to determine the average points margin over each of the 3600 seconds in each game; from there, I also came up with Game Scripts scores for each season.  If you then take each coach’s pass/run ratio, adjust for the league average pass/run ratio, and then adjust for Game Scripts, then you can determine each coach’s passing identity.  I’ve done this for every season since 1940.

The table below lists the 252 coaches I have in my database who have been either a head coach or an offensive coordinator for at least four seasons. I suggest using the search box to find your favorite coaches, but as always, all columns are sortable, too. In the table below, the number of HC/OC seasons includes all seasons, but the games, wins, losses, ties, winning percentage, and wins over .500 columns all include only the coach’s records as a head coach. The Game Script column shows each coach’s average Game Scripts average over each season, while the “P/R” column does the same for pass/run ratio.  The next three columns are all indexes centered around 100. The “SCRIPT” column is the Game Scripts rating, the “PASS” column is the Pass/Run Ratio rating, and the Pass Identity column is a combination of the two columns. (You can read some of the other Game Scripts articles for more explanation).  Based on his time in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers, Joe Philbin comes in as the most pass-happy coach, but that number seems likely to decline the longer he coaches. George Seifert built his reputation as the defensive coordinator for the 49ers, but having Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jerry Rice turned him into a pass-friendly coach. As for the next two men on the list, modern NFL fans need no further explanation.
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The Schottenheimer Index

Marty checking to make sure the pilot light is out.

Marty inquires as to whether Felix Wright's pilot light is out.

Last week, Neil brought us the latest iteration of the Manning Index, showing which quarterbacks have overachieved in the playoffs relative to expectation (based off of the Vegas line). I’m going to do the same today for coaches. A couple of introductory notes:

Neil described the exact methodology in his quarterbacks post, so I won’t waste time repeating it. However, I wanted to look at coaches over an even longer period, and 1950 sounded like a good cut-off.1 Since we don’t have point-spread data for games from 1950 to 19772, I simply used the projected point spread based on the differential between each team’s SRS ratings and by awarding the home team three points. So for pre-1977 games, coaches are credited with wins over expectation based on the SRS, and for post-1977, for wins over expectation based on the Vegas line. Here are the results.
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  1. Note that coaches, like Paul Brown, who coached before 1950 are included, but their pre-1950 stats are not. []
  2. One other piece of fine print: for the Super Bowls, I used the actual Vegas lines, since those are readily available. []
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Who should win Coach of the Year in the NFL?

Let’s get this out of the way. Bruce Arians, or an Arians/Pagano ballot, is going to win Coach of the Year. Period. But who should win it?

Coach of the Year is one of the most difficult awards to predict each year. The award often goes to the coach who most outperforms expectations rather than the coach who does the best coaching job, which is how you end up in situations where Dick Jauron and Jim Haslett were named the best coaches in 2001 and 2000, respectively.

There are no standards or guidelines to help voters determine the Coach of the Year, so every voter is left to his own devices. Today, I’m going to run down my rankings of the top 8 coaches of 2012.

8. John Fox, Denver Broncos

Having Peyton Manning makes coaching easy, but Fox still deserves credit for guiding the Broncos to an excellent season. Denver is going to finish the year on an 11-game winning streak and the Broncos are in the top five in points allowed, yards allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, and rushing yards per carry allowed. Fox has helped turn Von Miller into one of the best two defensive players in the NFL and his hiring of Jack Del Rio to coach the defense has worked beautifully. And while Manning is having a phenomenal year, let’s not forget that it was only three months ago that people were questioning his arm strength and the Broncos were 2-3. Many coaches are doing wonderfully with less, but Fox deserves credit for helping lead Denver to the 2 seed in the AFC.

7. Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans

Gary Kubiak

Gary Kubiak wishes COTY voting took place after the end of November.

It was only three weeks ago that the Texans were 11-1 and the class of the NFL. I wrote earlier this season that Kubiak’s done an excellent job resurrecting his coaching career, and much of that remains true. He’s built this team for half a decade, and he oversaw the additions of J.J. Watt and Wade Phillips to the defense to complement Kubiak’s formidable offense. The Texans are likely going to earn the top seed in the A.F.C., an impressive accomplishment considering Matt Schaub isn’t on the same tier of a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Even with a little luster off the team right now, Texans fans could hardly ask for more than home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

So why isn’t Kubiak ranked higher? I’m not sure the Texans are as good as their record and they’ve had a relatively easy schedule. Kubiak’s done an excellent job, but he also hasn’t had to face as much adversity as some other coaches this year. Houston is now one of the most talent-laden rosters in the league, and that makes Kubiak’s success just slightly less impressive.

6. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers

The Packers are 11-4 — they’d have the same record as the Texans if not for the Golden Taint play — despite facing a more difficult schedule than Houston. As is seemingly an annual tradition, the Packers have placed a large number of starters on injured reserve, including right tackle Bryan Bulaga, linebackers Nick Perry, D.J. Smith, and Desmond Bishop, and Cedric Benson (along with two other running backs). Charles Woodson has only played in 7 games, James Starks and Alex Green have been banged up most of the year, and injuries have limited Greg Jennings to just 246 receiving yards this year.

Alex Green is the leading rusher with 464 yards, and he’s plodded to the tune of 3.4 yards per carry, narrowly trailing what Benson (3.5) and Starks (3.6) have produced. An anemic running game, a banged up offensive line, and injuries at receiver and tight end have resulted in Aaron Rodgers having a down season and having taken 46 sacks. Clay Matthews has missed four games and he still has 8.5 more sacks than anyone else on defense.

Yet after all that, the Packers are in line for the #2 seed in the NFC. McCarthy’s team is ranked 7th in both points and points allowed, and Green Bay has responded well in the face of adversity this season. After the painful loss to the Seahawks, would other coaches have been able to keep this team focused? After an emotional loss to the Chuckstrong Colts, you didn’t hear about grumbling in the locker room: instead, Green Bay won five straight games. Since a 38-10 shellacking against the Giants, where they looked lost, the Packers have won four in a row. If McCarthy isn’t a household name, that’s just because he’s the most underrated coach in the NFL. Despite facing numerous setbacks this season, he’s got the Packers right where everyone expected they would be.

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New England has had one of the most creative and flexible offenses for the last decade. From 2002 to 2011, the Patriots offense was always good but it was rarely predictable. On paper, the Patriots arguably have their best and deepest set of skill position players in franchise history. But with the addition of Brandon Lloyd to a group that includes Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, many are wondering what the breakdown will be in the passing game in 2012. Let’s not forget that Tom Brady passed for the second most yards in NFL history last year and then the team signed Josh McDaniels’ favorite Brandon Lloyd.

Before speculating on the 2012 season, we need to look at how the Patriots passing game has operated in the past. The chart below shows a breakdown of targets in the New England passing game for each of the past ten years by position:

Some thoughts:

  • Kevin Faulk used to get around 55 targets per season, but New England has essentially fazed the running back out of the passing game. I doubt that is by design, but more a reflection of New England’s failure to find the right replacement at the position. Note that New England signed ex-Florida Gator running back and Olympic silver medalist Jeff Demps last week, although he is unlikely to make an immediate impact.
  • From ’02 to ’05, the Patriots had a pretty consistent offense. Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch, and David Givens each spent time as the main receiver, and in ’02, ’04 and ’05, wide receivers as a group saw 63-64% of the Patriots’ targets. In ’03, Brown had fallen off while Givens and Patten weren’t main cogs in the offense, but otherwise, New England’s offensive philosophy didn’t vary. Then, after the 2005 season, the Patriots traded Deion Branch, who had seen 23% of the team’s targets in that season. The ’06 Patriots responded by throwing more to Ben Watson, which ultimately proved not to be the answer.
  • In 2006, Reche Caldwell led the team in targets, which prompted the Patriots to add Randy Moss and Wes Welker in the following off-season. Whereas the targets for the WR1 and WR2 had been declining from ’04 to ’06, in 2007, Moss and Welker received over 50% of the team’s targets, and the tight ends and running backs became less integral. In 2008, even without Brady, little changed with Matt Cassel running the offense, with the most notable decline being the lack of targets for the fourth, fifth and sixth wide receivers. 2009 resembled 2007, as Brady got the Sam Aikens and Joey Galloways of the world involved. By that time, the Patriots were running a full spread offense, and had almost entirely forgotten about the tight end. But much of that was out of necessity: Ben Watson was in his final year with the team and the Patriots wanted more speed on the field; New England had signed Chris Baker to be the backup tight end, but the long-time Jet had little left in his tank.
  • In that context, perhaps it isn’t surprising that New England added Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 draft. Moss had worn out his welcome, and New England struggled to find a true replacement. The Patriots turned to their young tight ends, along with Danny Woodhead, but still were weak at wide receiver as Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman were not competent as backup wide receivers. In the off-season, the Patriots signed Chad Ochocinco, which turned out to be a disaster. Outside of the WR1 and WR2, the other wide receivers and the running backs averaged 39% of the team’s targets from ’02 to ’10; in 2011, that number dropped to 18%, the first time that group failed to have at least 31% of the team’s targets. In ’03, for example, the backup WRs and the RBs had nearly 50% of the targets, but the talent was there: David Givens, Bethel Johnson, David Patten, Kevin Faulk, Larry Centers and Antowain Smith weren’t stars, but were competent in their roles. Last year, Ochocinco, Edelman and Tiquan Underwood added almost nothing, while only Woodhead was a threat in the passing game among the running backs.

So what can we expect for 2011? BenJarvus Green-Ellis is gone, but New England doesn’t seem likely to give Shane Vereen many more targets. I think we can safely conclude that the Patriots won’t be depending on their running backs to gain yards through the air in 2012. But I do think the Patriots want more from their wide receivers, and the signing of Brandon Lloyd should increase the production of both the WR2 and the WR3, which is where Branch will now be. Assuming he isn’t cut, I doubt Branch is fazed out completely — Ochocinco saw only 5% of the Patriots targets last year, but usually New England will target their third wide receiver around 10% of the time. With so many mouths to feed, Welker is likely to see a small decline in attention. If we put Welker at 23%, Lloyd at 19%, Branch at 9% and the other wide receivers at 3%, that would mean Brady would target his receivers on 54% of his passes. Giving the running backs 10% — the same number as last season — would leave 36% for the tight ends. We’ll probably see both Gronkowski and Hernandez each up with 18% of the targets, as Brady hasn’t shown a significant preference for either player.

Assuming strong production per target, it’s certainly possible for Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez to all have monster years in 2011 *and* for Brandon Lloyd to improve on Branch’s numbers and for Branch to improve on Ochocinco’s performance. Of course, all of this assumes — or signals — that Tom Brady is going to have a monster year if things go according to plan. But to expect Brady to improve on last year’s numbers may be asking too much.

For fantasy purposes, the bigger question might be about the size of the pie rather than about its breakdown. If New England’s defense is better, the Patriots could certainly end up passing less this year. Brady may be more effective per pass, and could put up lofty touchdown numbers, but without a high number of attempts (aided by a bad defense) it’s unlikely we see Brady set his sights on 5,000 yards again. I think the Patriots offense can handle the addition of Brandon Lloyd, and think it’s clear that Belichick wants to incorporate that vertical threat on the outside into his offense. And let’s not forget, the offensive line is as unsettled as it’s been in years. From a fantasy perspective, though, it will be important not to chase last year’s numbers too much.

If Welker and Gronkowski each lose 10% of their targets, and then the Patriots also throw 5% less frequently, those small slices can add up. Welker with 100 catches is a lot less valuable than Welker with 122 catches. I don’t think any of the stars in New England bust, but if that defense can approach league average levels, all of the Patriots stars may end up failing to live up to their fantasy draft status. I suspect that Brady finds the open receiver and doesn’t lock on any of his targets, leaving Gronkowski, Welker, Lloyd and Hernandez with very similar receiving yards totals. Gronkowski should lead in touchdowns and Welker in receptions, but otherwise good luck predicting which player Brady will lock in on in any given week. One mark that could possibly fall: New England might be the first team to have four 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.

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[Note: I’m scheduled to appear on The Bobby Curran Show on ESPN 1420 at just after 2:00 today. If you’re interested, you can listen here.]

Not Dick LeBeau.

Rex Ryan is the Tim Tebow of coaches: whatever he says tends to get magnified. I was sitting a few feet from Ryan when he made his latest controversial comment. Keyshawn Johnson asked Ryan if having a former head coach in Tony Sparano now coaching the offense would allow him to focus more on the defense. Ryan said it would, although Ryan previously vowed to also be more involved with the offense. The next question asked about Ryan’s confidence, and he said he had a lot of confidence in himself and his coaching staff. He went on:

Now, I wasn’t even in the defensive meeting last night, but I have complete faith and trust in the coaches we have. As I said, it’s easy for me to say I’m the best defensive coach in football. Now that’s saying something, because Dick LeBeau’s pretty (darn) good, Bill Belichick is pretty good. But that’s the way I’ve always believed. And you know what, I believe it because of the guys I coach with, there’s no doubt about that, and the guys that I’ve coached. That’s the truth, and that’s how I feel. I’m going to be more involved over there, calling games or whatever. Obviously, Mike Pettine, that’s my right hand guy, he’s always been my right hand guy and that’s the way it’s always going to be.

Not that inflammatory, is it? In any event, Ryan also issued a call to the media on Saturday, and if you’ve ever read this blog, you know he got my attention with what he said:

I’m still waiting to see somebody put the stats up there, because I know I’m crazy, but go ahead and just put them out there one day, since I’ve been a coordinator and head coach, I dunno where I’d rank…I really don’t even know the answer…Now watch Dick LeBeau get me.

Well, Rex, I’ll put the stats out there for you. Presumably we want to compare Ryan to all current head coaches (with defensive backgrounds) and defensive coordinators in the league. There are only 25 defensive coordinators to examine, as sevens teams do not have coordinators with any relevant track record. Both Missouri teams are actually without defensive coordinators this year: In Kansas City, Romeo Crennel will be head coach and defensive coordinator, while in St. Louis, the Rams are going with a committee approach to replace the suspended Gregg Williams. In addition, five men will be first-time defensive coordinators in 2012: Matt Patricia in New England, Kevin Coyle in Miami, Alan Williams in Minnesota, Jason Tarver in Oakland and John Pagano in San Diego.
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Coaching records in close games

Now just hold on. I never said you are what your record in close games says you are.

Which coaches have the best records in close games? That’s a complicated question that either means everything or nothing, depending on whom you ask. But putting aside what it means, what are the actual results?

I defined a close game as one where a team was trailing or leading by three points entering the 4th quarter since 1940.1

The table below shows the coaching records in close games for all coaches who were head coaches in at least 20 close games. You can use the search box below to search for any individual coach. Note that coaches who coached prior to 1940 are included, but only their performances in games beginning in 1940 are listed below.

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  1. Originally, I looked at all games that were within one score, but that proven to be even more unfair to the trailing teams. Teams trailing by one score entering the 4th quarter have won only 30% of all games since 1940. Conversely, teams trailing by 3 points have won 39% of the time. []
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