NFL Offseason – Nick Sirianni was the most aggressive coach in the league on fourth downs in 2022, using sound analytics — and a nearly unstoppable fourth-down quarterback sneak — to significantly improve Philadelphia’s chances of winning games.
Sirianni was sixth in Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index in 2021 but climbed into the top spot this year. What stood out the most is that Sirianni went for it on 13 of 14 qualifying fourth-and-1 opportunities during the regular season, with the Eagles converting on 10 of these. (They were also 2-for-2 in the postseason.) Sirianni also stood out by going for it on six of 10 qualifying opportunities in “no man’s land” between the 34- and 39-yard-line where a head coach has to choose between a short punt, a long field goal, or a chance to convert on fourth down.
The next couple of coaches in Aggressiveness Index may be a surprise to you. Mike McDaniel was extremely aggressive in his first year with the Dolphins, finishing second in AI. McDaniel finished that high despite never going for it in eight qualifying fourth-and-2 opportunities! Arthur Smith of the Falcons finished third, a marked difference from the year before as his AI climbed from 0.89 in 2021 to 1.51 in 2022. The coaches after that are mostly the coaches that were on top of AI in previous years: Kliff Kingsbury fourth, Matt LaFleur fifth, Dan Campbell sixth, Sean McDermott seventh, and Kevin Stefanski eighth.
Robert Saleh of the Jets was the least aggressive coach in the league when compared to his peers, including a decision to go for it on only three of 12 qualifying fourth-and-1s. Other very conservative coaches included Mike Tomlin, who has always been very conservative, and Bill Belichick, whose career has been very strange in this area. As we’ve written about in the past, Belichick was one of the most aggressive coaches in the league year after year back when the league as a whole was much less aggressive. He inexplicably became much less aggressive on fourth downs around 2012, strange timing because it doesn’t fit the two most common explanations for why Belichick became less aggressive. It wasn’t timed to the failed fourth-and-2 against Indianapolis on a big Sunday night game in 2009, and it wasn’t timed to the departure of Tom Brady which of course made it harder for the Patriots to convert in any situation, much less fourth down.
Football Outsiders introduced the concept of Aggressiveness Index way back in Pro Football Prospectus 2006. The goal was to find a way to rank coaches based on their tendencies on fourth downs in a manner that was easy to understand but accounted for the different rates at which the average coach will choose to “go for it” in different situations. There are other methodologies now for measuring fourth-down aggressiveness, mostly based on win probability analysis: for example, results spit out by Ben Baldwin’s fourth-down simulator. Each methodology will have small differences in how it ranks the coaches, but Aggressiveness Index differs from the others by measuring coaches not against what they should do but against the actual decisions made by coaches themselves.
Aggressiveness Index numbers were designed to center around 1.0 and generally describe how much more (or less) likely each coach is to go for it on fourth down compared to his peers; for example, a coach with 1.20 AI is roughly 20 percent more likely to go for it than an average coach in equivalent situations.
You may remember that last year we re-did all the baselines for Aggressiveness Index. Head coaches in the NFL had become so much more aggressive since 2018 that the leaguewide Aggressiveness Index was up to 1.90 in 2021 and not a single head coach in the league came in below 1.0 that season. Based on changes in coach tendencies since 2018, our new baselines expect coaches to go for it more often on fourth-and-short, near the goal line, and near midfield.
Aggressiveness Index excludes obvious catch-up situations: third quarter, trailing by 15 or more points; fourth quarter, trailing by nine or more points; and in the last five minutes of the game, trailing by any amount. It also excludes the last 10 seconds of the first half, and it adjusts for when a play doesn’t actually record as fourth-and-short because of one of those bogus delay of game penalties that moves the punter back five yards. Only the regular season is included.
Here are the full Aggressiveness Index results for 2022 with the number of qualifying opportunities, gos, and expected gos.
You already knew about Brandon Staley’s backpedal from 2022, as he drops from our No. 1 coach in 2021 to the middle of the pack in 2022. Another head coach who dropped significantly was Ron Rivera, who was at 1.34 in 2021 but dropped to 0.78 in 2022.
Overall, aggressiveness in the NFL did decline slightly in 2022. Three coaches in 2021 had an AI higher than any coach in 2022, and four head coaches in 2022 had an AI lower than any coach in 2021.
Some additional notes on this year’s Aggressiveness Index:
- Although Philadelphia went for it most frequently in qualifying fourth-and-1s, Cleveland was the team that went for it most often in qualifying fourth-and-1s: 16 out of 20 opportunities.
- We’re still not at the point where any coach goes for it on every qualifying fourth-and-1, but we got close. Both Sirianni and Matt LaFleur (11 of 12) went for it on every qualifying fourth-and-1 except one.
- Kliff Kingsbury (5 of 10) and Brandon Staley (7 of 16) were notable for going for it on fourth-and-2.
- Sirianni and Doug Pederson (also 6 of 10) were the coaches who went for it the most in no man’s land (from the 34 to the 39) but LaFleur (5 of 7) had the highest rate in that area.
- Four coaches never went for it in no man’s land: Dennis Allen, Todd Bowles, Lovie Smith, and Sean McDermott (but with only one qualifying opportunity).
- Five coaches had at least six qualifying fourth-and-2s and never went for it: Mike McDaniel, as noted above, Bill Belichick, Ron Rivera, Lovie Smith, and Steve Wilks.
Thanks to Jim Armstrong, who came up with the idea of Aggressiveness Index and computes it for every season.