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Myth-busting: How aggressive IS Mike McCoy?

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An empirical take on Charger fans’ commonly held beliefs.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In life, we are prone to remembering emotionally charged moments as more numerous than they are in reality. Nowhere is this more common than in the realm of sports fandom. Certain events – be they especially positive or negative, get us charged up and we focus more on them than we do the less eventful plays that make up most of any game.

For Charger fans, one such hot button topic is the level of aggression of our beloved coach, Mike McCoy. In those 4th down, short yardage situations, Charger fans will tell you he’s one of the least gutsy coaches in the NFL. But we must ask, is this actually the reality? I set out to find just that.

Before we find that answer, we must examine the methodology. Firstly, how are we defining aggressiveness? We will not be comparing coaches’ decisions to those mathematically recommended by the 4th Down Bot, as even coaches who adhere most strictly to the math would come out with a failing grade. I also won’t be examining cases of 4th & short in one’s own territory, as no coach actually is consistently aggressive here and traditionally the idea of aggressive 4th down decisions is in regards to opponent territory punt/FG/convert decisions.

The most straight forward method is to examine the decisions of NFL coaches and compare them to some expected decision for each play (and see which coaches perform above expectations most often). To determine what decisions should be expected from NFL coaches, I referenced the following chart (a smaller piece of the 4th Down Bot’s "What NFL Coaches Do Most Often" table)

Expected

As you can see, each square tells you the expected 4th down decision for the corresponding yard line & yards-to-go (YTG). For convenience, I have also added the distance of a field goal attempted at each yard line. (In situations where going for the 1st down is expected, it is only possible to meet/fail-to-meet expectations, as the act of "going for it" is how one performs above expectations). The yard range was chosen to represent one from slightly longer than the longest NFL FG up until a FG just longer than the new extra point (at the 15-yard line). The chart has a cut-off of 3YTG, because past that it is not reasonable to expect NFL coaches to "go for it" (G4I) at any yard line.

I chose to examine data from 3 years, 2013-2015 (regular & post-seasons), to maximize the sample size. Even with a 3-year sample, the total instances for each subject are minimal – but because this is as much a gauge for the entire NFL as it is an examination of McCoy, we can still learn something about how NFL head coaches think. Using these 3 years of data, I split the aforementioned yard line & YTG scenarios into 3 groups:

  • 48 to 35-yard line
    • This section focuses on choosing to punt vs. choosing to G4I
    • The 35/34 yard line split was chosen because FG success rate starts noticeably dropping after 52 yards
    • While it was very rare, FG attempts in this range were counted as a ½ attempt over expectations (because while it was not a 1st down attempt, it was attempting to get points, which is preferable to punting). 34 to 16-yard line
    • The bulk of the range, this highlights attempting FGs vs attempting 1st down conversions 27 to 16-yard line
    • Are coaches more likely to be more conservative in this range, given that FGs of 45 yards or less are more likely to be converted than longer attempts (almost 5% higher success rate than the 34-16 yard line range as a whole)?
    • Once when behind 1-to-10 points
    • Once when winning by 1-or-more points (to see if winning resulted in more conservative decision making).
  • Each of these sets of data was gathered twice:

    One final note before moving on to the results, to streamline the process I chose to examine the results of teams rather than each individual coach – the data-mining process would have been much longer, and the sample-size for 1-year (or less) coaches would much lower than the already small 3-year groupings. Only 2 NFL teams did not have a coach last 2 years over the 3-year span (OAK & TEN) and 18 teams (Chargers included, obviously) had the same primary coach all 3 years, so I felt the results were still largely reflective of coaches.

    For quick reference, in each of the tables, the team names are color-coded according to how many years 1 coach served in the 3 years. Gold/dark yellow = same coach all 3 years, yellow = same coach 2 years, white = different coach each year. Total plays & "Over Expected per Play" are color coded for quick high/low recognition (especially because the number of teams in the ranking may make it seem like the values are further apart than they actually are). The green-highlighted FG column just represents the FGs that fell in the expected-punt zone, that I credited as half-over expected. And without further ado…

    48-35yd: Punt vs G4I

    48-35

    We can see in the first table that McCoy’s actually ranks quite favorably when trailing and making 4th down decisions in the "Punt or G4I" zone. His number of opportunities to make a decision was around the middle of the pack, and he attempted a conversion one time more than we should expect of an NFL coach. Again, this is not very "aggressive" on the ultimate scale, but given that it ranks him in the top 1/3 of the league, it’s impressive.

    When we shift our eyes to the second table, we see something that probably isn’t surprising to the majority of readers: when sitting on a lead, Mike McCoy is very conservative. In 5 opportunities he was expected to try 3 times, and he ended up punting four. He did attempt 1 FG for a +½, but it was not enough to pull his rating up from the lowest group.

    34-16yd: FG vs G4I

    34-16

    While McCoy is willing to take a risk to extend his team’s chances of scoring points, when he already has a fairly good chance of scoring at least 3 points, he happily settles. He failed to G4I on the 2 times he was expected to (in 5 total plays), ranking in the bottom group. When leading he also failed to meet expectations twice, but his number of total plays meant his rate was better than that of over 13 of his peers (ranking among the middle of the pack).

    When looking at both yard-groups, McCoy was like most coaches in that his positioning moved around. Only a few teams ranked similarly on respective charts (JAX low when winning, IND & to an extent NE low when behind, ARI & PHI high when winning (confirming Arians' "finish them off" reputation), and BAL & DET high when behind).

    48-16yd: Total Picture

    To maximize our sample size, let’s look at coaches’ decisions over the whole area in question

    48-16

    When trailing McCoy sits roughly in the 4th of 5 groups, having tried a conversion on only 3 of the 4 times it was expected. When winning, he falls near the top of the last group, never having gone for it (but not being expected to as much as some peers). Let’s leave this as…less than encouraging.

    27-16yd: Too tempting?

    27-16

    The outlier that is Baltimore aside, the first chart shows us that for any team (when behind) who had more than 1 expected conversion attempt, was in fact too tempted by a "guaranteed" 3 point FG. All of them finished with fewer attempts than expectations. McCoy finds himself in a similar situation when winning – not making any conversion attempts, but being in the same boat as a lot of coaches who just play it safe when some number of points are all but guaranteed. I wouldn’t penalize him too much here.

    BONUS!

    If you check the 4th Down Bot chart on what it mathematically recommends, you will notice that even the 4DB recommends kicking a FG on 4th&3 from the 21 to the 16-yard line. I was curious if any coaches showed "ultimate guts" by attempting a first down under these conditions. The short answer…barely. PIT & MIA both attempted it once when winning and no team/coach attempted it when behind 1-to-10. Many teams were never in the position to attempt this, you can see who in my spreadsheet linked to below.

    Final Thoughts

    As with most commonly held beliefs that are examined empirically, the answer here lies somewhere in the shades of gray. We can safely say McCoy is NOT an all-around aggressive coach. That said, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say his place is at the bottom of the barrel. I believe that he is someone whose 4th down aggressiveness is below average & that he could stand to consistently sit a tad higher.

    I will acknowledge the intangible variables he’s faced that could have affected his decision-making process (injuries, etc) – but I don’t like to deal heavily with variables you can’t directly measure (& demonstrate how they affect other actions). Not to mention that he is hardly the only coach in the league who has dealt with these. Personally, I find his conservative patterns of behavior to be less than encouraging – especially because I am not one to expect change when presented with a history of consistent behavior (that, and because it seems we’re wasting our all-star QB).

    All of that said, I want to reiterate the fact that almost all NFL coaches are ultimately conservative – the differences emerge when judging them on a relative scale. It will be at least 20 years (conservatively) before coaches start approaching a mathematically recommended course of action. Most of the narratives we hear (re. coaching aggression) are flimsy at best (ex: Bill Belichick – NWE ranks all over these lists). The heat of the moment makes us pine for more "aggression", but it is the thousands of other plays, the "grind", that are truly important. If you can execute consistently then, you won’t be banging your head against the wall when your coach doesn’t go for it on 4th & short.

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    I’d like to promote one of my favorite NFL stat tools – one that helped me with this piece, Pro Football Reference’s Game-Play Finder. I highly encourage you to check it out & play around with it (as well as the other tools their site offers. They truly are the king when it comes to traditional NFL stats).

    Full data in spreadsheets