Dallas Cowboys: McCarthy’s 4th down aggressiveness is a good thing

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys are wise to be aggressive on 4th down, it’s the actual play calls that leave something to be desired.

The Dallas Cowboys have experienced a few high profile play fails this season that has drawn the ire of the fanbase. While we clearly need to condemn the reason these plays failed, we needn’t disparage the aggressiveness itself.

It’s often said, any play that works is a good call, and as such, any play that fails is probably a bad call. This overly simplistic assessment is understandable but clearly flawed and not very useful for future decision-making.

The rise of sports analytics has given the world win probabilities and by running through basic win probabilities teams are no longer forced to go with “their gut.” Or even worse, make the same decisions because “that’s the way they’ve always done it.”

Over the past few years we’ve learned teams are far too passive in their 4th down decision making and by playing not to lose, they’re statistically hurting the team. Dallas Cowboys fans lived with this for years under coach Garrett. Garrett, always eager to kick a field goal or punt away, has been one of the most passive decision-makers in the league.

So when Mike McCarthy came to town and started actually looking at facts and figures to determine the level of aggressiveness he’d use on 4th downs, Cowboys fans were aghast.

Many Cowboys fans had grown accustomed to Garrett’s statistically foolish 4th down calls over the years. By unfairly weighing the potential risk, without taking into account the potential for reward, he missed out on the big picture.

But if we take the time to consult win-probabilities and EPA, we can see what’s the smart play based on odds. We can also see many of the traditional decisions from before are wildly unsupported by the numbers.

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For instance, kicking field goals from the goal line had long been common place, despite the fact that by the numbers, it’s one of poorest decisions a coach can make. Even if you fail in your 4th down attempt on the 1 yard line, you still have the expected points advantage (meaning you are still more likely to score points than your opponent, who just took over inside their own 5-yard line).

So when Mike McCarthy rolls in and starts making aggressive calls on 4th downs, many times (but not always) the numbers support his decisions. His aggressiveness is helping the Cowboys by following the odds. Are the risks greater? of course! But so are the rewards. Both must be considered and that’s really what analytics does.

Where he fails is in his deployment of said aggressiveness. Going for it on 4th down is often smart, but doing it with a fake punt isn’t, necessarily. Think back to that Atlanta game before Dak Prescott was lost. The Dallas Cowboys fake punted twice. They told the NFL’s best offense to sit on the bench and asked their special teams to get the job done.

Our numbers guru here at Sport DFW, Danny Hill, pointed out some more of those poor calls last week. He stated,

"“The coaches cannot claim to lean on analytics when they continue to ignore the most successful strategies in situations.”"

Deciding to go for it is only one step in the decision-making process. You still have to call the right play. Benching you star QB so a punter can throw a pass to a DB isn’t the right call. Passing on 4th and 0.5 isn’t the right call when a QB sneak is almost unstoppable.

All in all, we should be happy to have a coach who’s playing the odds and not afraid to make tough decisions (that inevitably come with criticisms). But we need to be critical how that aggressiveness is deployed.

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Mike McCarthy’s aggressiveness on 4th downs deserves our support and admiration. It’s the decisions afterwards that we need to be critical of.

  • Published on 12/06/2020 at 12:01 PM
  • Last updated at 12/07/2020 at 12:56 PM