How aggressive can a football coach really be? In a recent Football Outsiders report, they were able to use a series of methods to assess NFL head coaches in specific situations in regards to how aggressive they coached their team. An easy example is with the 4th and 1 situation on your own 43-yard line, how often did the coach go for it, as opposed to punting. Take a look at the details of how the results were achieved:
The goal was to find a way to rank coaches based on their tendencies on fourth downs in a manner that was easy to understand but accounted for the different rates at which the average coach will choose to "go for it" in different situations. Although no NFL coach is as aggressive as the data suggests he should be, we discovered there is quite a wide range of fourth-down tendencies among coaches.
Aggressiveness Index numbers center around 1.0 and generally describe how much more (or less) likely each coach is to go for it on fourth down compared to his peers; for example, a coach with 1.20 AI is roughly 20 percent more likely to go for it than an average coach in equivalent situations. The Aggressiveness Index excludes obvious catch-up situations: third quarter, trailing by 15 or more points; fourth quarter, trailing by nine or more points; and in the last five minutes of the game, trailing by any amount. AI was expanded two years ago to include plays when the offense is on its own side of the field, excluding those obvious catch-up situations. A slightly newer version of AI we are using now also adjusts to judge coaches on all fourth-and-short opportunities, even when the play doesn't actually record as fourth-and-short because of one of those bogus delay of game penalties that moves the punter back five yards.
Now that we have that out of the way, where did Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin rank among the 32 NFL coaches who made the tough decisions in 2014?
Mike Tomlin ranked 11th among all 2014 NFL coaches on the Aggressiveness Index. His overall score was a 1.10. On 4th down plays from the 31-37 yard line, Tomlin went for the first down only once out of 4 times. On 4th and 2 plays, Tomlin decided to go for it only 1 time out of 9 opportunities. On 4th and 1 plays, Tomlin had this team go for the first down three times out of 12. His overall percentages were out of 88 opportunities in 2014, Tomlin went for it 6 times.
The index has more to it than just whether coaches go for it on 4th down plays, but also where they risk the possession. If the coach decides to risk going for a first down on their own 37 yard line on 4th and short would have a higher index rating than someone risking the 4th and short on the opponent's 40-yard line.
So, if Tomlin is 11th among all head coaches, who is considered the most aggressive? Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints was the most aggressive coach with Marc Trestman of the Chicago Bears and Jim Caldwell of the Detroit Lions rounding out the top three. In terms of the AFC North, John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens ranked 4th on the scale, Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine ranked 8th while Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis finished 12th.
Does a coach being aggressive in such decision making situations really matter? After all, the Saints and Bears, who's coaches were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on this scale, failed to make the postseason. Many factors come into play when coaches have to make these key decisions: knowing your players, the overall situation of the game and the amount of risk involved.
Looking back at Tomlin's history as a coach, he has picked his spots in terms of being aggressive, and because of this Tomlin finishing in the middle of the pack seems to be just about right for the Steelers' head coach.