Is Jason Garrett Too Aggressive? Actually, Stats Say He’s Not Aggressive Enough
One of the things which irks me most during the football season comes on Mondays after a loss, when all of the Dallas-area analysts come out of their holes and (usually) discuss why Jason Garrett’s “wild” and ultra-aggressive play-calling cost the Cowboys a victory. How can the ‘Boys win football games when their coach is going for it on 4th and 4?
I agree with the writers at ESPN, Dallas Morning News, and the other stupendous media outlets that the level of aggressiveness in Garrett’s play-calling and decision making needs to change. Specifically, Garrett needs to become (much) more aggressive.
One aspect of what is generally considered aggressive play-calling is going for it on fourth down, although this can be somewhat of a mislabel. In many situations, going for it on fourth down (say, 4th and 3 at the opponent’s 40-yard line) is far and away the correct call, so labeling it as ‘aggressive’ is a bit of a misnomer. It is aggressive only insofar as it flies in the face of “conventional” football wisdom. Don’t confuse being aggressive with being risky. In reality, punting the ball in such situations is almost always the true risky play.
I often discuss how Garrett’s unjustified fourth down punts cost Dallas points (and wins). I recently came across some numbers which show that Garrett is not only not as aggressive as people believe, but also that his decisions are decreasing the team’s win probability in a significant way.
Over at Football Outsiders, the 2011 Aggressiveness Index is up. There, you can see how often NFL coaches went for it on fourth down while in opponent’s territory this season. Garrett’s rank: 25th. . .not as aggressive as you thought, I am assuming.
Of course, game situations can alter coaching strategy, particularly with a somewhat limited sample size of fourth down attempts in a single season. Garrett isn’t off the hook just yet, though, as Advanced NFL Stats recently displayed some fourth down numbers as well. Unlike at Football Outsiders, ANS takes game situations into account. Brian Burke writes:
But because every situation is unique in terms of distance, time, and score, we can’t make any judgments about the aggressiveness or timidity of any coaches yet. The next table totals all the WP forfeited by each team on 4th downs when the numbers said go but the coach said kick. Also listed are the total number of 4th down go opportunities as well as the WP forfeited per opportunity. The higher the WP Forfeited number, the greater the sum of the 4th down errors.
According to the numbers, Garrett forfeited 0.74 wins in 2011 due to poor decision-making on fourth down–the seventh-worst mark in the league. The teams worse than Dallas are Arizona, Denver, Seattle, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Cleveland. . .hmmmm. Among the league leaders (i.e. best fourth down play-calling) were San Diego, Detroit, New England and Green Bay. . .another hmmmm.
On top of that, the Cowboys had only 36 fourth downs all year when they “should have” gone for it, making the win probability Garrett forfeited per opportunity (.021) the second-worst mark in the NFL. So for those who are claiming the Garrett and the Cowboys need to “cool it” with the aggressive play-calling. . .you’re simply mistaken. In all practical terms, Garrett was actually the second-most conservative coach (in terms of fourth down decisions) in the entire NFL in 2011.