Before the Eagles’ playoff run began, PFT noted that Eagles coach Doug Pederson is the NFL’s most aggressive coach on fourth downs. As it turned out, that became a major theme of the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, as the Eagles went 2-for-2 on fourth downs, including a fourth-and-goal touchdown and a fourth-and-1 first down that set up the Eagles’ game-winning touchdown.
But now that everyone is praising Pederson for his fourth-down aggressiveness, it’s important to point out that Pederson isn’t just aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. He’s strategic about when to be aggressive and when to play it safe.
Former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky took to Twitter to question why Pederson is being praised for his aggressiveness after this year’s Super Bowl, while last year, then-Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was ripped for being overly aggressive while the Falcons blew a lead to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. As former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf replied, they’re completely different circumstances.
It’s important to understand the situations when Pederson likes to go for it on fourth down. The Eagles’ first fourth-down attempt was on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 34 seconds left in the first half. That’s a great time to go for it on fourth down because if it fails, the Patriots are left in bad field position without enough time to mount a long drive and score before halftime. The trick play Pederson called worked, but even if it hadn’t worked, the Patriots wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the stop and score before halftime.
The Eagles’ second fourth-down attempt was fourth-and-1 from their own 45-yard line, trailing 33-32 with 5:39 left in the fourth quarter. At that point in the game, going for it makes sense because if you punt the ball away, the Patriots’ offense might never give it back, or might score a touchdown to take an eight-point lead. On both of the Eagles’ fourth downs, Pederson’s aggressive decisions were sound.
But where Pederson’s decision making differed from last year’s Falcons was that Pederson was also smart about playing it safe when he had a late lead. The Falcons were criticized last year for passing too much and not running enough time off the clock when they had a big lead in the second half. That was a valid criticism. When the Eagles had the ball and the lead late in the game, however, Pederson played it safe: After Tom Brady‘s fumble, the Eagles got the ball at the Patriots’ 31-yard line with 2:09 remaining and a 38-33 lead. Pederson called three straight runs up the middle and then kicked a field goal on fourth down. Pederson could have been aggressive and called some passes in an attempt to pick up a game-sealing first down, but he didn’t want to risk an interception or stopping the clock with an incompletion, so he kept the ball on the ground.
There are times when aggressive play calling pays off, and times when conservative play calling pays off. What makes Pederson a successful coach is that he seems to lead the league at understanding the right time for both.