What are the traits that make up the best NFL coaches? They have to be well organized and disciplined. Coaches need to know a lot about the game but also able to manage personalities. They also have to know when to call the right play.
One metric you can use to measure a head coach’s effectiveness is how aggressive he is. One study recently looked into this metric and named one coach in particular as the single most aggressive coach. But who was that coach, and what does it even mean to be aggressive in terms of NFL coaching?
How to determine “football aggressiveness”
The website Football Outsiders has a term they refer to as “football aggressiveness.” It’s meant to apply to the coach’s specific tendencies on fourth down.
The site developed an “Aggressiveness Index” that uses the number 1.0 as its center. Any deviation from that number, positively or negatively, describes how likely or unlikely a coach is to go for it on fourth down depending on their history. The example the site uses is that a coach with an AI of 1.20 is 20% more likely to attempt a fourth-down conversation than a coach with an AI of 1.0.
According to the site, all coaches should be more aggressive on fourth down based on the percentages. But one coach stands above the rest as being bolder when it comes to going for it on fourth down.
Why have NFL coaches gotten more aggressive in recent years?
The decision whether or not to go for it on fourth down is often a critical one for NFL coaches. Make it, and you prolong a drive that would have otherwise ended. Miss it, and you risk giving the other team improved field position that would have been offset by a punt.
In 2019, the number of overall fourth-down conversion attempts went way up. It was almost 50% higher than the expected rate based on past attempt totals. Coaches have gotten much less shy about going for it on fourth down. Why is that, exactly?
It’s a numbers game. One Washington Post analysis of coaches’ fourth-down tendencies showed that coaches typically overvalue field position and undervalue having possession of the ball. In the past, coaches viewed not punting as risky. But what they didn’t consider was that punting is just as risky because you’re giving the ball back to the opponent, giving them the opportunity they need to score.
Going for it on fourth-down puts a premium on holding onto the ball. That’s the best way to keep the other team from scoring — not giving them the chance to.
Who is the most aggressive coach in the NFL?
With the league’s coaches adopting a new mindset on fourth downs, who is the one coach who shows more football aggressiveness than any of them? That would be John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens.
In 2019, Harbaugh’s AI was a whopping 3.95. Harbaugh stands head and shoulders above his colleagues in terms of boldness when it comes to going for it on fourth down. The next closest coach was former Green Bay Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy, who had an AI of 2.63 in 2018.
Does this help Harbaugh and the Ravens? It’s difficult to tell exactly what kind of effect it has. But the Ravens were the best regular-season team in football last year. That’s not to say the two stats are directly correlated. But having a head coach with an effective offense who shows confidence in them at every opportunity probably didn’t hurt their chances of being a great team.