Super Bowl coaches lean conservative on 4th-down calls

The Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals got to the Super Bowl with help from a couple of coaching decisions by their conference title game opponents that backfired.

If the Super Bowl comes down to a crucial fourth-down choice by Rams coach Sean McVay or Bengals counterpart Zac Taylor, history shows the may opt for the conservative path.

After a regular season when teams set records for how often they went on fourth downs as more and more younger coaches embrace analytics, the two coaches who made it to the Super Bowl were more outliers.

Both the Rams and the Bengals finished in the bottom quarter of the league in fourth-down tries in the regular season.


“McVay has been sort of painted as the young up-and-comer coach. But he’s not a sort of traditional guy that embraces analytics,” said Frank Frigo, the co-founder of analytics company EdjSports. “He still kind of is a very much sort of an intuition guy when it comes to analytics. Taylor was really bad out of the shoot, but I think he’s improved a little bit.”

EdjSports ranked Taylor 21st and McVay 23rd out of 32 in its Critical Call Index. The analytics company has one of the best models for determining when NFL teams should go and when they should kick on fourth downs, using its win probability model that relies on historical play-by-play data adjusted for variables such as the strength and weaknesses of Both teams, injuries and other factors.

“Neither one of them are in the top tier,” Frigo said. “It’s hard for me to give the nod to either in that territory, quite honestly, going into the game right now.”

Fourth-down decisions have played big roles in the past Super Bowl, with the Eagles using the fourth-down “Philly Special” at the end of the first half and another conversion on the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter to beat the Patriots four years ago

Key calls on when to kick and when to go for it played a big role in the conference championships. The Chiefs’ decision to go for a touchdown with 5 seconds left in the first half instead of a field goal backfired when Tyreek Hill got tackled at the 2 and time ran out. That led to a second-half comeback win for the Bengals.

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