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Defensive backgrounds do not beget conservative head coaches

Scared money don’t make money

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The narrative that a defensive-minded head coach will automatically be more conservative needs to die.

As he has for years, Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott continues to rank highly in fourth-down aggressiveness, according to Ben Baldwin of The Athletic. Baldwin’s “should they go for it” model is based on a gain in win probability of at least one percentage point through a fourth-down try from scrimmage when the existing win probability is greater than 20% (essentially, while the game is still considered to be moderately winnable).

So far in 2022, McDermott’s the only head coach in the NFL who has made the call to go for it 100% of the time the model has suggested it, with the second-place coach (Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals) being over 20 percentage points lower at sub-80%.

Further evaluation of the chart leads to some data that serves as a stark contrast to what has become a prevailing assumption: that head coaches with a defensive background are intrinsically less aggressive than their offensive-minded counterparts. McDermott, a defensive coordinator by trade, shows up at the top of this chart as previously mentioned, but the bottom half of this list is populated by offensive-slanted head coaches Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs), Josh McDaniels (Las Vegas Raiders), Arthur Smith (Atlanta Falcons), Nathaniel Hackett (Denver Broncos), Frank Reich (Indianapolis Colts), Mike McCarthy (Dallas Cowboys), Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco 49ers), Mike McDaniel (Miami Dolphins), and former Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll (New York Giants). Nine of the bottom 16 coaches come from an offensive background. Eight of the top 16 head coaches on this chart are offensive-minded head coaches. There is no correlation between the side of the ball that a coach cuts his teeth to the aggressiveness level he possesses when it comes to fourth-down decisions.

A review of previous years’ data will reveal similar data trends. Let’s look at 2020:

Once again, nine of the bottom 16 team were coached by offensive-minded head coaches.

Even anecdotally, Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley has gained notoriety in the NFL community for his aggressive approach to fourth-down decision making—and comes from a defensive background. Similarly, people who follow the Tennessee Titans will tell you about Mike Vrabel (a previous defensive coordinator) and his aggressiveness.

Coaches come in all shapes and sizes with all sorts of different philosophies. The idea that one with a defensive background is automatically conservative in fourth-down decision making isn’t backed up by data.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!