Sean McVay explains his approach to analytics

New York Jets v Los Angeles Rams
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Near the end of their unexpected and (in the words of their head coach) embarrassing loss to the Jets, the Rams had a chance to play for overtime. Down 23-20, the Rams faced fourth and four from the New York 37 with four minutes to play.

The choice were simple: Try to tie the game up with a 55-yard field goal, or attempt to extend the drive by gaining four or more yards.

On Thursday, McVay was asked whether he considered the analytics-based conclusion that he increased the team’s chances of winning by two percent by going for it in that spot.

“You do you have an understanding of where the analytics fit in, but I think there’s a real feel for the flow of the game,” McVay explained. “The matchups, the kind of things that you’re anticipating from a defensive-coverage, fronts, what’s the down-and-distance and what’s the time left in the game. What’s the feel for the flow of the game? I just think that’s such a big part of it. Somebody asked me this and you talk about going into the New England game. If you said, ‘Hey, you’re going to get a fourth down and one of the first drives of the game, would you go for it?’ Well, the answer is easily yes when you see what the first six plays of that drive reflected. . . . There was a good feel and momentum. That was really what went into it. I think you definitely have that as a part of it, but I do think to say that’s the end all be all, I think it minimizes the work that we do throughout the course of the week and some of the things that take part in a game with 22 moving parts on every single snap. I’ll never have that just exclusively guide my decision-making. That doesn’t mean that’s the right approach, that’s just what I believe is the best. Certainly I know that’s not for everybody.”

McVay risks alienating those members of the analytics mob who advocate blind adherence to whatever the analytics suggest in every situation and condescend as Luddites anyone who would say, “Well, maybe we need to consider other factors, too.”

I believe analytics have a very important role in football, but it can never — and should never — supplant the judgment of the head coach, as crafted by all available factors and exercised in a specific moment of a game, based on every single thing that has happened from the opening kickoff onward. Formulas that broadly attach percentages of potential success to specific choices a coach faces are based on years and years of iterations and permutations. Even if blind adherence to a decision that increases the chances of winning games over the long haul by, for example, two percent, most coaches don’t have the benefit of the long haul to enjoy the consistent two-percent benefit.

Coaches need to win games in the short haul in order to have any chance at the long haul, and sometimes the idea that analytics says to go for it on fourth down with the game on the line in lieu of kicking the field goal and playing for overtime must take a back seat to the coach’s understanding of his team, of the opposing roster, of the opposing coaching staff, of the officials assigned to the game, of the weather, and of everything that coach ever has experienced in identical or remotely similar circumstances, has studied in other games involving other teams (possibly while watching 12 hours of Red Zone on a Sunday off, even though it’s only on for seven), and/or has stumbled across while playing Madden with his kids.

That’s not to say McVay ignored analytics. He doesn’t.

“We have a great analytics team that does an excellent job with those kinds of things,” McVay said. “I think what you try to do is keep up with what the landscape of the league is and just have an inventory that’s kind of in your mind that’s ongoing to just catalog things and get a feel for the flow of the game but also some of those decision-making [points]. It’s a small part of it, but in that instance the other day, to me, if you said, ‘What dictated and determined why we went for it?’ I felt like we had good momentum, I felt good about some of the different things that we could activate on fourth-and-four based on the coverage principles that we anticipated being able to get. Just knowing how that game had gone, you’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s go play for the win’ instead of just trying to kick a field goal that I do think Matt would hit. But that was just kind of the thought process there.”

Which that may explain the decision to go for it, the better question for McVay would be, when only needing four yards, why throw it down the field? Doug Farrar of USA Today recently explained that the only passes thrown in the entire game by Rams quarterback Jared Goff that covered more than 20 air yards came on third and four and fourth and four with the game on the line.

McVay opted to eschew a higher-percentage option on both plays. If Goff had connected with his intended receiver in either case and the Rams had continued the drive and won the game, McVay’s genius would have been reconfirmed. Instead, he selected plays that have folks scratching their heads — and that give the anti-Goff crowd more ammunition for their argument that he’s a glorified (and highly compensated) game manager who can’t win games with his arm.

In hindsight, McVay’s judgment was less than ideal. But he surely has a reason for it that he could sell persuasively, to anyone. Besides, if he’s the one who’s ultimately going to have to live with the consequences of his judgment, it’s his prerogative to exercise it.

9 responses to “Sean McVay explains his approach to analytics

  1. If everyone followed analytics 100%, every team would finish 8-8. Every coach has access to all the information. They pay coaches millions to figure out when to use it and when not to. I’d say McVay is one of the sharpest coaches, so I’d do more listening than I do talking when interacting with this coach.

  2. I’m a big fan of the Rams and those two long passes on 3rd and 4th down for first Akers and then Everett made me so mad. You can not rely on Everett to win a jump ball in a situation like that. How many times has Goff put up a perfect jump ball and how many times has Everett even won a jump ball? I watch a lot of Rams and I can tell you, that it is not many.

  3. No play is 100%. If a good call occasionally doesn’t work out it doesn’t mean it’s a mistake.

  4. Suppose your opponent has an all world cornerback who’s shut down everyone he’s guarded all season and you’ve avoided throwing in his direction as much as possible. Now you’ve got fourth and four with the game on the line. You could go for it or try a field goal to tie with three minutes on the clock. The all world corner has turned his ankle on the previous play and is on the sideline getting medical attention. In comes a rookie cornerback who has rarely played this season. What does “analytics” say about whether you go at the rookie for the first down rather than try a field goal?

  5. Football is so hard to quantify because you can have 10 guys doing the right thing in the right play and one can screw it all up, with a bad result. Or maybe one of the other team’s 11 guys screws up also resulting in a good result. Without taking in the totality of each individual, the offensive scheme vs defensive scheme (and THEIR 11 guys) its still a crap shoot.

    Without a feel for the flow of the game, analytics is just a SWAG. And a good job for those who can find it….

  6. Thanks mookie34, you beat me too it, there are just too many variables in football for analytics to work in any kind of reliable manner, I’ll take a good football coach over a coach that goes with analytics any day of the week.

  7. For once, he had two timeouts in hand at the end of the game and had possession in the opponent’s territory but felt the need to hurry his avatar of a quarterback to make a big play.

    As a fan, I’m at a loss trying to understand McVay’s game management. The offense is seldom in any kind of rhythm and seems to be living a new adventure on every new down.

    The infrequent successes of his offense this year, like the Woods big gain jet sweep in this game, it seem to me, only serve to prop up his belief in his failing system. The bloom is off the rose, for the most part.

    A very frustrating offense to watch.

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