How Philadelphia used analytics to win the Super Bowl

After beating New England in the Super Bowl, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson joined the Game Theory and Money podcast to talk analytics. I’ve transcribed his words here, with edits to make it more readable.

First, Pederson in general terms how he views analytics.

Our team has a lot of information and data that pertains to situational football. What’s amazing is that I do a study, and boom, I have 5 to 10 years of data. However much data I want to pull, I can get a relatively quick and accurate answer with some of the data.

And for me, it’s about deciphering what I want to use. What helps us win football games, and what helps us win the Super Bowl, when you’re going against a tremendous opponent in the New England Patriots. What advantages can I have through the numbers, whether it’s 4th downs, two point conversions, or whatever. It might even be on a player.

I can use that information in formulating game plans and making good sound decisions on game day.

The most interesting comment Pederson made was about how a fourth down decision affects win probability, a topic Brian Burke studied long ago.

I think where the numbers and analytics comes in is by field position, by down and distance, and win probability of the success rate of getting that fourth down.

I’m constantly being communicated with. I have a coach upstairs that’s giving me this information real time, game day. Hey coach, if we can get it to 4th and 2, 4th and 3, this is the success rate here in this situation.

Now ultimately, it’s my decision whether to go for it in those situations. But as our numbers have shown, I’ve elected to go for it on 4th down more than most.

The decision to go for it on 4th down isn’t only about analytics either:

Well, people say I’m an aggressive player caller. But there’s a lot of information that’s been studied prior to that decision, and a lot of these decisions are made before the game even starts.

Like the other night in the Super Bowl, I’m faced with that 4th and 1 at the minus 45 yard line. I elected to go for it with 5 minutes to go in the game. That to me was more about trusting your player than any analytic number.

Even though it was favorable to go for it, I trusted our guys in that situation, and I think it’s important to have that type of trust with your players.

He’s talking about going for it on 4th and 1 from their 45 yard line with 5:39 to go in the game. The Eagles converted a short pass from Nick Foles to Zach Ertz, and this drive ended with the go ahead touchdown that won the game.

I may be cherry picking the good situations in which analytics have worked out for an underdog like Philadelphia. However, the other big story in football analytics is how Cleveland’s experiment with numbers ended in a 0-16 record this season.

Philadelphia may ride Carson Wentz and numbers to multiple Super Bowl titles. Or Doug Pederson might get fired after the 2019 season. Either way, it’s important to take this snapshot of analytics at the end of the 2017 season.

You can listen to the full interview with Doug Pederson from 23:18 to 33:25 of this episode of Game Theory and Money.

Comments

  1. Carl Bruun says:

    Excellent article. I’ve been saying for years that teams should hire mathematical experts to assess and implement the most successful strategies for a given play, thereby eliminating the guesswork and hunches involved in those plays. NFL and collegiate coaches are conservative to a fault, and teams like the Eagles using enlightened analysis are ahead of the curve.

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