PHILADELPHIA -- The analytics community loves the Philadelphia Eagles -- they helped popularize the use of quantitative analysis in the NFL, after all -- but in this case, their actions caused a split.
Following a Jordan Howard touchdown in the Week 4 game against the Green Bay Packers to take a seven-point lead, the Eagles elected to go for a 2-point attempt, and failed. Typically, it is viewed as a no-brainer to kick the extra point in that situation to go up eight, and most models suggest that is the right thing to do. But for the second time this young season, the Eagles opted to keep the offense on the field up seven (they converted a 2-point conversion in Week 1 versus Washington).
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"It does something for your psyche, and being down one score or maybe being down two is a lot different mindset for a playcaller and for an opposing team. So for us, I wanted to get the extra two points and try to go up nine," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said.
"I trust the guys that are doing studies and research for me, and I do what's best for us. I really don't pay much attention to what other teams are doing."
That has allowed the Eagles to emerge as the front-runners when it comes to "aggressiveness" on offense. Since Pederson took over as coach in 2016, Philadelphia is tops in the NFL in 2-point tries with 25, six more than the next-closest team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They have converted at a 68% clip in that span, more than 20 points above the league average.
It's a similar story on fourth-down attempts. Since 2016, the Eagles have gone for it on fourth down a league-high 83 times. There's a four-way tie for second with 67 attempts.
The Eagles have allowed math to be a leading force in this realm. Working in conjunction with the analytics department, Ryan Paganetti, who has a bachelor's in economics from Dartmouth and also serves as the team's assistant linebackers coach, has a direct line of communication to Pederson in-game, giving recommendations before every fourth-down and extra-point attempt scenario.
The math often says to keep the pedal on the floor, and Pederson has done just that, bucking traditional game-management practices in the process.
Other teams are following suit. The Baltimore Ravens, who bolstered their analytics department this offseason, are tops in the league in fourth-down attempts this season (nine) and are tied for first in 2-point conversion attempts with the Eagles (four). The Ravens had three 2-point conversion attempts against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3 alone (all of them failed) and went for it on fourth down four times, converting three.
"Every one of those [2-point conversion attempts were] clear analytical decisions to go for 2," coach John Harbaugh said. "We're not going into it blind. We got the numbers. We know what we're doing."
It is becoming a trend. Teams went for it 539 times on fourth down last season -- the most since 2009. Meanwhile, there were 130 2-point conversion tries in 2018 -- the most since at least 2001.
Teams create and are guided in part by win-probability models that show how each decision affects a team's chances of coming out on top. When it comes to going for a 2-point conversion when leading by seven points, the various models are split -- hence the division in the analytics community over the Eagles' new practice.
"The analytics suggest that kicking the extra point is the better decision in most cases like this," ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke said. "However, if your own team's expected success probability is significantly better than 50-50, going for 2 becomes a slightly better option.
"Additionally, if your own extra-point success probability is particularly low (less than 95%), then going for 2 would also make sense."
The Eagles' success rate has been well over 50%, while kicker Jake Elliott has an extra-point conversion rate of 94% since 2017, tipping the scales in favor of going for 2.
As you can see, there's a lot of data-crunching that goes on behind the scenes to fuel this approach. But that's not much of a concern for the players, who are less interested in how the engine is designed and more taken by the fact that they are allowed to floor it.
"I love it. I love it," Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said. "It doesn't surprise me in a game when Coach does that, just because he's been that way ever since I got here -- he's never changed. I don't think he ever will change, will always stay aggressive. I think as a quarterback and as an offense, I think that just speaks a lot of confidence into us."
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