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Punting Is Overrated

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And the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles now have the numbers to back it up.

NFL: Super Bowl LII-Philadelphia Eagles vs New England Patriots Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Second-year Eagles head coach Doug Pederson just faced off against the greatest football mind of a generation...in the Super Bowl...and won. He didn’t get that win just because of a distinct personnel advantage, or the referees making a bad call, or even because of a freakish, once-in-a-lifetime catch against a helmet. Pederson and the Eagles won because he never wavered from his own unique coaching philosophy - unrelenting, unapologetic aggression.

The Eagles went for it on fourth down a total of 29 times throughout the 2017 season, converting 20 of them (69%). For comparison’s sake, only seven teams in the entire league went for it on fourth down 20 or more times, and most of them were bad teams that were playing from behind in the majority of their games - the Browns, Broncos, Giants, Dolphins, Packers, and Raiders. Of those seven teams, the Eagles had by far the highest conversion rate (the next closest being Green Bay’s 54%) and by far the highest points per game (28.6).

What does this all mean to see an elite team going for it on fourth down just as often as bad teams that are usually behind? Well, in the Eagles’ case, it translates to a ton of points. Philly Voice has broken down every single fourth down play call from Pederson this past season, and in their estimation, the Eagles’ conversions added a total of 74 points to their season total and only “cost” them three points - a single field goal. That’s on average almost an extra five points per game for a team that won four of their games by five points or less. In a sport that can be so easily defined by one critical play at the right moment, those fourth down calls may have been the difference between the Eagles being chumps and being champs.

Just look at the Texans as an example. Bill O’Brien, with his annual quarterback carousel in full swing, went for it on fourth down a total of ten times in 2017. Only five teams “went for it” less than Houston. Even in the few games where rookie phenom Deshaun Watson was under center, O’Brien’s conservative fourth down mindset at the wrong moments potentially cost the Texans two marquee wins to start their young quarterback’s career. I am of course referring to the heartbreakers on the road in both New England and Seattle.

Against Seattle in particular, O’Brien was faced with a fourth and two situation from his own 28-yard line with 1:49 on the clock and holding a four-point lead. Seattle had not stopped Watson all day long. With just one first down, Houston could have iced the game. If they failed, Seattle would have been set up within field goal range and could have potentially gotten a quick score, of course, but situationally, was that such a bad thing? If the Seahawks scored within 30 to 40 seconds of game clock, that would have left the Texans with a minute left and two timeouts remaining. With that much time, Watson could have surely answered the bell and won the game all over again, considering how well Houston’s offense performed throughout the afternoon.

Instead, O’Brien punted the ball on fourth and two, the Seahawks milked the clock on an 80-yard touchdown drive that featured a couple big plays, and Watson was left with only 21 seconds to try to pull off an impossible game-winning drive.

Two yards...that’s all the Texans needed. Bill O’Brien had been calling aggressive plays for the entire game, and he put up 38 points on the Legion of Boom in the process. Yet when he really needed to be the most aggressive, O’Brien folded. Was he playing the percentages? Was he afraid of getting crucified in the media if it failed? Was he still doubting whether Watson could get those two yards?

Whatever O’Brien’s reasons were, Doug Pederson just emphatically refuted them on the biggest stage against the greatest coach of all time. The percentages told him to punt, and he didn’t care. The media was outraged by his fourth down failures in 2016, and he didn’t care. He had a backup quarterback under center, and he didn’t care. Pederson believed in his aggression, and it got him a ring.

Considering just how good this Texans’ offense was with Deshaun Watson at the helm, it’s about damn time that O’Brien learned to do the same.