If the Super Bowl comes down to a fourth-down decision from one of the two coaches, the numbers point to Kansas City’s Andy Reid being more likely to make the correct decision than Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians.
Reid has gone from a coach who was frequently criticized for being overly cautious at crucial points of games into one who has become effectively aggressive with key calls that helped win last season’s Super Bowl, as well as a playoff game earlier this season.
“He’s taken it to the next level because he’s open minded and embraced analytics. He was willing as an old-school coach to say I can improve, and he’s been rewarded by that,” said Frank Frigo, a co-founder of EdjSports, an analytics company that has one of the best models for determining when NFL teams should go for it and when they should kick on fourth downs.
“Big picture, over the course of the season, someone like Reid fares a lot better than Arians. … In a tight Super Bowl, that could make a big difference.”
Reid’s decisions already made a difference this postseason with his most memorable call coming in the divisional round against Cleveland. Reid opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 while protecting a late lead and was rewarded when backup quarterback Chad Henne completed a pass to seal the victory.
Reid overall was ranked as the sixth best coach this season in EdjSports’ Critical Call Index which grades the decision making by coaches during the season. He had the best call of the entire season by the model, with his decision in Week 2 to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Chargers 46 in overtime, increasing Kansas City’s win probability by 20.4 percentage points.
EdjSports analyst Ian O’Connor said Reid sometimes tends to be conservative early in games as evidenced by kicking a field goal from the 1 and punting on fourth-and-1 on the first two drives of a regular-season win against Tampa Bay, but is willing to take chances when the game is on the line.
“There’s a time and a place for everything and you just try to have a feel on that as best you can,” Reid said.
Reid’s fourth-down approach was a far cry from Arians. EdjSports ranked Arians 30th among all coaches, estimating that his decisions cost the Buccaneers about half of a win in terms of win probability over the season.
Arians’ decision-making doesn’t necessarily follow a discernible pattern. He went for it on a fourth-and-1 deep in his own territory earlier this season against Chicago but also has opted to settle for field goals or punts in situations when going for it would be much more beneficial.
“It’s kind of hit or miss with Arians. You don’t know what he’s going to do,” O’Connor said. “It’s kind of a wild card. You just don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Arians did make a key decision earlier this postseason that helped the Bucs reach the Super Bowl. With 13 seconds left in the first half of the NFC title game, Arians went for it on fourth-and-4 from the Green Bay 45.
Tampa Bay converted that play and then scored on a 39-yard pass from Tom Brady to Scotty Miller on the next play to take a 21-10 halftime lead.
“We didn’t come here to not take chances to win the game,” Arians said.
That hasn’t always been Arians approach as he has kicked a league-high six field goals on fourth-and-1 this season, including one that contributed to a regular season loss to Chicago and another in the divisional against New Orleans.”
“That could really be a factor in this game,” Frigo said. “You just don’t know when this situations will come up.”
Reid’s decision making helped the Chiefs win the Super Bowl last year with his best decision coming when he went for it in the opening drive on fourth-and-1 from the 5, leading to the first TD of the game. That increased Kansas City’s win probability by 4.7 percentage points, according to EdjSports’ model.
Kyle Shanahan cost the 49ers more than 10 percentage points of win probability when he opted for a field goal and punt on two fourth downs in the second half.