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Anthony Lynn’s Plan to Cancel the Apocalypse

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4th Down is where heroes are formed and monsters real and make-believe haunt all coaches

First—yes, this entire premise is centered around Anthony Lynn now looking like Idris Elba, sporting his new mustache. Second, if you aren’t yet acquainted, let me introduce you to the New York Times’ 4th Down Bot. It has assessed an incredible wealth of data to determine the likelihood of success for specific 4th down plays in NFL football. In general, these positions would be considered aggressive on the gridiron. However, after crunching the numbers, the ‘Bot has determined that odds would be on your side for you to go for it in any 1-yard situation. The same goes for most 2-yard situations. In fact, this algorithm shows us that field goals are an appropriate solution to certain situations, but near the middle of the field it behooves the offense to keep the ball on 4th down.

As you can see from the above image, NFL coaches don’t always lean on historical data when it comes to play-calling. They have about an 88% agreement rate with the 4th Down Bot (the majority of those, of course, are without second thought). There is very good reason to play it ‘safe’ on the field- “going for it” within your own 10 yard line would be considered incredibly bold (or, as bloggers would refer to it in the case of failure, incredibly stupid). The fact of the matter is that historical data would support a more aggressive attitude as a whole.

After crunching the numbers, were the Chargers of 2016 really gun-shy on 4th down?

Let’s look at the Chargers’ 2016 season to see how they fared in regards to their 4th down strategies VS. the ‘Bot’s opinions.

I went through each game’s plays, threw out plays that were no longer 4th downs due to penalties (offsides, etc.), and compared each decision to the 4th Down Bot’s analysis.

Keep in mind- this is simply an algorithm. It does NOT take into account 4th-down ‘Hail Mary’ throws (obviously this is a better alternative than punting), specific team strengths and weaknesses, or weather conditions. In full disclosure, I noticed that two of the included 4th down throws would’ve indeed been considered last likely drive Hail Mary-esque plays to get the 1st down or goal. Out of a surprisingly number-pleasing 100 plays, however, I decided to keep them as part of the count so that no human opinions on urgency could be misconstrued as bias.

A final note- the agreement totals listed below are simply measurements against historical likelihood of success. A team that has a 0% agreement (and thus, does differently than raw statistics would urge) could win a game, while a 100% agreement could lose (and did, 2 out of 3 times that happened!). The real purpose of the stats below is to help inform the reader of how the play-calling compared to what the raw stats dictate should’ve been the most-successful option.

Sun, Sep 11 @ Chiefs (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 5/8 (62.5% agreement)

Note: 2 of 3 Field Goal plays agreed with ‘Bot, one Field Goal-miss disagreed (should have run the ball).

Sun, Sep 18 Vs. Jaguars (WIN)

STAT TOTALS: 5/5 (100% agreement)

Note: 1 of 1 scoring Field Goal success was agreed.

Sun, Sep 25 @ Colts (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 4/6 (66.6% agreement)

Note: 2 of 3 Field Goal-attempt plays agreed with ‘Bot, one Field Goal-success disagreed (should have run the ball).

Sun, Oct 2 Vs. Saints (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 5/7 (71.4% agreement)

Note: 2 of 2 scoring-attempt plays agreed with ‘Bot. Both scored.

Sun, Oct 9 @Raiders (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 1/3 (33.3% agreement)

Note: Neither Field Goal attempt should have been made. The second attempt resulted in a fumble recovery.

Thu, Oct 13 Vs. Broncos (WIN)

STAT TOTALS: 5/10 (50.0% agreement)

Note: 3 of 4 Field Goal attempts agreed. One conversion run was agreed. All attempted field goals and conversions were successful.

Sun, Oct 23 @Falcons (WIN)

STAT TOTALS: 5/6 (83.3% agreement)

Note: 2 of 3 Field Goal-attempt plays agreed with ‘Bot, one passing play conversion was agreed (and successful).

Sun, Oct 30 @Broncos (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 8/9 (88.8% agreement)

Note: 1 Field Goal attempt (successful) agree; 2 passes (both incomplete) agreed.

Sun, Nov 6 Vs. Titans (WIN)

STAT TOTALS: 3/6 (50.0% agreement)

Note: 2 of 3 Field Goal attempts agreed (all successful).

Sun, Nov 13 Vs. Dolphins (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 5/5 (100.0% agreement)

Note: 1 of 1 Field Goal attempt agreed and was successful. An agreed punt resulted in a muffed catch recovered by Chargers.

Sun, Nov 27 @Texans (WIN)

STAT TOTALS: 4/6 (66.6% agreement)

Note: No field goal attempts made; none recommended. One agreed punt resulted in a fumble.

Sun, Dec 4 Vs. Buccaneers (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 4/4 (100.0% agreement)

Note: 1 of 1 Field Goal attempt agreed, but was unsuccessful.

Sun, Dec 11 @Panthers (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 4/5 (80.0% agreement)

Note: 1 Field Goal attempt (successful) agreed, but one pass (should be a punt) was intercepted deep in Chargers territory.

Sun, Dec 18 Vs. Raiders (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 5/7 (71.4% agreement)

Note: 1 Field Goal attempt (successful) agreed, but one pass (should be a punt) was intercepted deep in Chargers territory.

Sat, Dec 24 @Browns (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 6/9 (66.6% agreement)

Note: 2 of 3 attempted Field Goals agreed (one made, one blocked, one missed), and one run conversion agreed.

Sun, Jan 1 Vs. Chiefs (LOSS)

STAT TOTALS: 3/4 (75.0% agreement)

Note: 2 of 2 Field Goals (successful) and one run conversion agreed.

2016 Total agreement: 72/100 (72.0% agreement)

Average NFL coach agreement: 88/100 (88% agreement)

2016 4th Down Conversions made: 6 of 12 (50% success)

So what does all of this mean??

Mike McCoy is often vilified for his playcalling. His tenure in San Diego left much to be desired for most fans, and one of the biggest reasons was that his team seemed to play “not to lose” instead of playing to win. After crunching the numbers, we could harp on McCoy for his relatively conservative playcalling. He was less ‘gutsy’ than the average NFL coach, and the season’s large number of close losses could have been improved with just a handful of different decisions each week. HOWEVER- there are two important facts to consider before dropping the guillotine on McCoy’s legacy. First--while he disagreed with 4th down statistics more often than 23 of NFL coaches, that’s not a terribly significant difference. We’re talking about, at best, 10 plays that could’ve been differently managed to bring him back in line with the average. Second—after seeing the totals for successful conversions (50%), the odds really weren’t on his particular team’s side, regardless of the statistics for the rest of the NFL. A conversion’s success was, at best, a coin flip in 2016.

We mustn’t fear the monsters that are at our door. We’ve got to suit up and face the challenges head-on. Statistics, at the very least, are on our side!

But How Do We Cancel the Apocalypse??

If you haven’t seen the (awesome) sci-fi flick, Pacific Rim, a few of these references are quite lost on you. That’s okay- it’s basically about changing your tactics to beat back monstrous threats. Back to 2017, we have to look at Anthony Lynn’s team and recognize that it’s already quite different from last year’s. Although we’ve yet to see any plays yet, Lynn appears to have more of a shoot-from-the-hip attitude. With a more distinct emphasis on practicing conversions of 3 and 4 yards, statistics imply that this team could really soar. The real key to that, though, is actually attempting those conversions, not just kicking the ball and living to play a later series.

If Anthony Lynn can play a little more aggressively than we have seen in the past several years, statistics are certainly on his side. For my personal opinion- the longer that you keep the ball in Philip Rivers’ hands, the greater your chance of success. Utilizing all four downs in an intelligent and proven manner is the best way to convert these former close-losses to decisive wins.

-Goro “Calculator Envy” Saurus