Great post Brother Steve – this article validates my years-long battle against conservative coaching. I was positive the Patriots would be in the top 10 as this is one part of Belichick’s coaching I profoundly agree with – his 4th down aggressiveness (of course I’d be confident too if I knew what defense the other team was in). Nothing irks me more than the massive wuss factor coaches so often exhibit when it’s 4th and a few yards and they settle for a field goal or punt (especially when the punt then goes into the end zone or is shanked out at the 35).
As reader Joe points out in his comment, talented writer Gregg Easterbrook at ESPN does talk about this often. I’ve been a regular reader of his columns for several years now in small part because we seem to have the same view on this 4th down issue. There are many reasons why being more aggressive on 4th down can be an advantage and it’s a mystery to me why more coaches don’t recognize this:
- it builds offensive confidence
- it can be a huge momentum shifter
- it gets the players and fans pumped up
- it’s somewhat easy to catch the other team off guard because few coaches do this
- it gets the players’ hearts beating a bit faster – and it helps some players get more absorbed into the game
- it’s more of a positive if a 1st down is obtained than it is negative if it isn’t (unless you Brett Bielema it and go for it from your own 18 yard line – but for the record, I do like Bielema’s overall aggressiveness)
One thing in the article Steve linked to that I noticed was that most of the coaches descending from the Mike Holmgren school of coaching are ranked poorly here. Holmgren, Gruden, Reid, Childress, Marinelli (sort of) are all ranked poorly and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I liked Mike Holmgren as the Packers coach because he won and he’s proven over the years, he’s a great coach who knows what he’s doing. And these other coaches have had their share of success too. But one massive problem I always had with Holmgren (and even more so with Mike Sherman) was the conservative play-calling, especially on 4th down. There were times I could have sworn, Holmgren preferred a field goal and called plays to get field goals instead of pushing further to try to get touchdowns. He would call these dead-end 3rd down plays to set up field goals (something Sherman copied – think Noah Herron on a draw on 3rd and 14). Way too much emphasis seemed to be placed on field position without also accounting properly for the flow of the game.
Now, again, it’s hard to make an argument against someone who had so much success here, but like Reid and Gruden, Holmgren wasn’t/isn’t a flawless coach. When Holmgren was here, we didn’t win because he was aggressive. His conservative offensive style worked fairly well for 4 main reasons: we had good kickers; the team was incredibly good at detailed execution (players back then seemed to know exactly what to do when – they were well put-together and a very well-balanced team); Favre was phenomenal; and finally one might argue that risk-taking was simply not needed because we dominated teams so much usually from the start of games (though I disagree here because risk-taking can always help). Still, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think sometimes back then, the team was just so good that it even overcame Holmgren’s conservatism. In fact, I’d argue that considering the perfect execution his players were capable of, Holmgren’s 4th down percentage back then could have been astronomical had he chosen to be more aggressive.
I’ll say it again, Bill Belichick is the master of keeping other teams off balance with interesting play-calls and aggressiveness on 4th downs. Some of his decisions to go for it on 4th and 5 from the opponents’ 20 yard line, for example, are ripped because most coaches think “take the easy 3 points”. But it is this kind of mindset that can really drive the dagger into the heart of the other team. It is this kind of bucking of convention that can work in the favor of better teams (and for the bad teams, they don’t have much to lose so why not try it?). As the Patriots exemplify, 4th down aggressiveness is actually an important part of the killer instinct coaches need to have to elevate their team to the championship level – if coaches are too afraid to take chances, it can send a ripple of doubt into the minds of his players. And doubt is not a common trait of champions.