Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter says there are two choices on fourth down: Play the percentages, or play it safe. And he usually chooses to play it safe.
The Buccaneers kicked on every fourth down in Sunday’s win over the Saints, and when Koetter was asked about that afterward, he acknowledged that the analytics have shown that going for it on fourth down is often the wise move. But in the next breath, Koetter said he doesn’t want to risk going for it on fourth down at the wrong time, perhaps costing his team a game and himself a job.
“The percentages say you should go for it almost every time,” Koetter said. “We’ve studied the analytics on it and the problem with looking at it like that – those are all looking at all fourth downs over the course of the season. You might get three in a row, but if I don’t get it in this particular game, we might be losing, and I might be out of here. We’ve got a plan for every game. We have a plan for the season and then we do an analytical plan based on the team we’re playing. There’s analytic number that tell you what to do on every play, but this game isn’t played by computers. It’s combination there – you’ve got to make decisions in real time and not look back.”
It’s true that a coach who goes for it on fourth down more often might make three in a row and then get stopped on a key fourth down that costs his team a game, and if that happens the coach will be criticized and maybe even fired. But a coach refuses to go for it on fourth down also risks losing, being criticized and fired. In NFL coaching, your job is always on the line. You might as well fight for your job with every weapon available to you, and one of those weapons is analytics, which have consistently shown that going for it more often on fourth down is wise.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson understands that. Pederson has embraced analytics and was the NFL’s most aggressive coach on fourth down last year during the regular season, and continued his analytical approach in winning the Super Bowl.
Pederson’s success ought to be a lesson to other coaches about going for it on fourth down, but some coaches are stubborn. Shortly before Koetter was promoted from the Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator to head coach, he scoffed at analytics, saying, “I don’t need a freaking piece of paper with a bunch of numbers on there” to make his decisions. That mindset may be changing thanks to Pederson’s success, but it’s changing slowly.