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Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Safe to say coaches not aggressive enough

By Mike Sando

The "Ground Chuck" nickname for Chuck Knox fit the former NFL coach's old-school reputation even if it sometimes misrepresented his approach to offensive football.

Quarterbacks John Hadl and Dave Krieg went to Pro Bowls with Knox as their head coach. Steve Largent retired as the NFL's all-time receiver and landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame largely for what he accomplished under Knox.

Not that I would question Knox's conservative reputation entirely. Football Outsiders ranked the former Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks coach 84th out of 84 qualifying coaches on its "Aggressiveness Index" showing fourth-down tendencies from 1991 through last season. Knox was least likely to go for it on fourth down outside situations when teams were obviously playing from behind.

Football Outsiders also produced a chart showing where coaches ranked in 2012 alone. The St. Louis Rams' Jeff Fisher and the Arizona Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt fell on the more aggressive side. The Seahawks' Pete Carroll, ranked 13th out of 84 coaches from 1991 to present, appeared to be less aggressive last season even though his team famously executed a fake punt while leading the Bills by 30 points.

The San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh was slightly less aggressive than average while Bruce Arians, now in his first season with Arizona, was further down the list while serving as the Indianapolis Colts' interim coach.

Sample size is key in these studies and I'm not sure one season tell us how these NFC West coaches approach fourth down.

Seattle went for it twice on fourth down while leading the Minnesota Vikings by 10 points in the final 3:09. The Seahawks converted on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 32 a few plays before converting on fourth-and-4 from the 15. Were those aggressive plays?

I have some ideas on this front and will pursue them in the future.

Research suggests coaches too frequently mistake punting or kicking field goals as "safer" decisions when going for it would actually make more sense. It can be a tough sell, like convincing a card player to disregard hunches no matter how much money is at stake or what happened in a similar situation previously.

These discussions will become more prevalent in football as the percentages become more commonly known. Coaches could have more direct access to that information as the NFL incorporates technology into its game-day experience. The NFL already plans for coaches to have playbooks on tablets beginning in 2014. How long before coaches have access to fourth-down calculators or other tools to aid in the decision-making process?

Aaron Schatz, who wrote the Football Outsiders piece, suggests there is considerable progress to be made on that front:
"One thing I have learned in talking to a lot of front office people who are interested in analytics is that there is very little correlation between how much analytical work is being done in a front office and how much the head coach's on-field decisions seem to reflect the general precepts that have developed in the football analytics community over the last decade.

"For most teams doing analytics, the impact is coming in draft and free-agency decisions, and the difference that analytics can make between one free-agent signing and another can be very subtle. Eventually we'll get to the point where a lot of head coaches have buy-in, but we aren't there yet, even on teams where the salary cap analyst is regularly reading Football Outsiders and fully understands Brian Burke's fourth-down calculator."