January 9, 2022. Las Vegas, NV. NBC’s Sunday Night Football. 4th and 1 at their own 18. Down by three in the 3rd quarter. A win would get the Chargers into the playoffs. A loss would send them home.
Brandon Staley never hesitated. He left his offense on the field to go for it. Justin Herbert handed off to Austin Ekeler, who didn’t even sniff the line of scrimmage before being swallowed up the by the Raiders defense. Staley was raked over the coals for a seemingly unnecessary gamble.
But … was it really a gamble? For every person who lamented the decision for its risk, there’s another person believing it was undoubtedly the right move.
Welcome to the debate over NFL Analytics.
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In his rookie year, Staley earned the reputation as the most analytics-driven head coach in the National Football League. For most of the year his decisions, especially on 4th down, worked. The Chargers set a single-season NFL record with 22 successful 4th down conversions (out of 34 attempts).
However, the failures were truly spectacular.
In a Thursday night game against the Chiefs, Staley gave up nine points with a trio of failed 4th down tries in comfortable field goal range. Then you have the season finale against the Raiders, giving the ball to Las Vegas in the Red Zone with a kicker in Daniel Carlson who, in two years, has never missed at Allegiant Stadium.
The Chargers lost both games in overtime. Winning even one of them would have put the Bolts into the playoffs. Three points would have changed the outcome both times. Staley took the brunt of the blame for both losses.
All that being said, anyone wondering if he’s going to be told to dial it back in 2022, the answer is a resounding no.
“I love the identity we play with,” says Chargers general manager Tom Telesco. “I know on the outside not everyone may agree with how we play but it’s who we are and I love it. It’s what we are and it’s how we’re going to play moving forward, so, you know what you get with us. We’re going to play aggressive.”
This begs the question: when does aggression turn into recklessness? Telesco says they haven’t reached that point. Yet.
“It’s not reckless. I really don’t see it as reckless. All these decisions, even though they’re made in real time, there’s research involved in it prior to the game. There’s also context involved in it, too. Brandon’s not a robot.”
The term “analytics” when it comes to the NFL is still lacking the clear definition that Major League Baseball has developed but utilizing data to make decisions is certainly not a new phenomenon.
“When I started in the league 26 years ago, we didn’t have as much information as we have now but we still used it. We called it “the numbers,” we didn’t use the buzzword analytics at the time,” says Telesco. “On the coaching side they’ve always used data to predict what teams are going to run and when they’re going to run it. That goes all the way back, probably, pre-Paul Brown (who revolutionized football in the 1950’s with the Cleveland Browns).”
The league is being inundated with data points, and not just on when to or not to go for it. Analytics are also used when putting together game plans, making draft picks, and signing free agents, but the most tangible examples are in-game decisions, and the national talking point is 4th down.
In 2021 NFL teams set a record with 793 attempted 4th down conversions. On most TV broadcasts a graphic will flash with numbers like league average conversion rate and that team’s conversion rate. That is incredibly simplistic.
The analytics formula takes into account a slew of variables including past performances of both the offense and defense on a particular down and distance, what personnel is on the field, home or away, time left in the game, weather, what the game’s expected outcome would be if they convert vs. punting or attempting a field goal, and several other factors to spit out the bottom line:
Win probability percentage.
The data is trying to figure out what the best course of action is. Would going for it here be better than punting and giving the ball back to Josh Allen at his own 25? Would trying a 50-yard field goal at Heinz Field be more advantageous than trying to keep a drive alive against T.J. Watt? These are all things “the numbers” take into account.
For example, the numbers say Staley’s decision to go for it against the Raiders, from a pre-snap vantage point, actually ADDED 5% win probability. The key words there are pre-snap.
Disciples of the analytics movement say the point is not in the play's result. The point is Staley put his team in the best possible position to win the game at the time the decision was made.
The trick when it comes to analytics seems to be understanding how to interpret and apply the avalanche of information.
“We all have similar numbers. The edge is in how you use them,” says Telesco. “It’s a probability-based decision-making process, is what it all comes down to. We’re trying to put ourselves in the best possible chance to make that decision rather than just, kinda, making it from your gut or what you think could happen. I want to see some data behind that to help us make that decision.”
Which brings us back to Staley. The Chargers say they’ve got the right guy in charge as professional football finds its way through the numbers revolution.
“You have to make quick, quick decisions in real time. I think he did a really excellent job with that this year and he’s got my support behind that.”
The website EdjSports is one of the more active and well-known analytics trackers. According to their rankings, Brandon Staley is one of the Top-5 coaches in the NFL. Last on that list? Mike Tomlin, a Super Bowl champ and the only man in history to not have a losing season for 15 straight years.
Therein lies the greatest unknown in the fledgling world of football analytics. While the numbers are based on performance of players, the performance of players varies from week to week and play to play. Following the numbers can be advantageous, but not in a vacuum. Here's the list of the teams that went for it on 4th down the most in 2021:
1) Detroit 41
2) Chicago 36
T3) Chargers 34
T3) Carolina 34
5) Washington 32
6) Jacksonville 31
7) NY Giants 30
T8) NY Jets 29
T8) Indianapolis 29
T8) Cleveland 29
T8) Arizona 29
Only the Cardinals made the playoffs. On the other end of the spectrum, we find something interesting. Here are the teams that went for it on 4th down between 15 and 20 times:
25) San Francisco 20
25) Cincinnati 20
27) LA Rams 19
27) Las Vegas 19
29) New England 17
30) Tampa Bay 16
31) Kansas City 15
32) Seattle 11
The Seahawks were an injury-riddled mess but the other seven teams all made the playoffs and four of them are playing for conference championships. Three of those teams have Super Bowl-winning coaches (Bill Belichick, Bruce Arians, and Andy Reid) and two have been to the title game (Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay).
Now, that’s not taking into account how many opportunities they passed on to go for it during the year but it does suggest that using a combination of analytics and gut instinct is the secret sauce for success.
The Chargers are expecting (dare I say gambling?) that Staley will find a way to marry the two as his career unfolds.