Going for it: Aggressive-minded NFL follows in wake of Eagles' success

Teams have gone for it on fourth down 200 times, which is the second-most fourth-down conversions through Week 7 since at least 1991. Jamie Gilliam/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had the same reaction as many across the country when Doug Pederson put two fingers in the air instead of one late against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5, his team trailing by eight.

"I was a bit slack-jawed, like, 'What are we doing?'" Schwartz said. "I wasn't privy to those discussions and things like that with the analytics [people], and being sort of old-school it's like, ‘What? No, no, kick the [extra point].’ And then after the game, somebody was explaining to me the statistics behind it, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I get it.’"

New York Giants coach Pat Shurmur had the light-bulb moment, too, and took the same tack during the fourth quarter of Monday's game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Dating back to 2002, there had been only one instance of a team going for two while down eight points. Then it happened twice in three weeks.

It's just further evidence of a sea change occurring across the NFL where teams are ratcheting up their level of aggressiveness, brought on by a perfect storm of circumstance that includes a rise in analytics, the enforcement of rules that (further) benefit the offense, and an Eagles Super Bowl run that was defined by an attacking, out-of-the box approach.

According to ESPN Stats & Information and Elias research:

  • There have been 59 two-point conversion attempts so far this season, which is the most through Week 7 since the rule was instituted in 1994.

  • Teams have gone for two points in the first half 12 times, the most through Week 7 since at least 2001. The previous high in that span was seven.

  • Fourth-down tries are also on the rise. Teams have gone for it on fourth down 200 times. That's the second-most fourth-down conversion attempts through Week 7 since at least 1991.

And despite this being the second-highest rate of fourth-down tries since at least 1991, the league is converting fourth downs 53.5 percent of the time this season, which is the best rate through Week 7 since 2012.

Schwartz pointed to the way the game is being officiated and the rise in data analysis as the two primary factors that have further emboldened offenses. Illegal contact calls have skyrocketed. There were 37 such calls entering Week 8 compared with 38 all of last season. Defensive holding is also up. Combine that with an offense's ability to commit "legal pass interference" within a yard of the line of scrimmage, and you can see why teams might be more aggressive in short-yardage situations. Scoring has soared across the league as well thanks in large part to the stringent way in which defensive penalties are being enforced.

"I think teams are probably studying that [two-point conversion decision] a little bit more, doing analytics on it and trusting their guys, the scheme." Doug Pederson

Then there's the math. Through a heightened focus on analytics, teams are finding that some conventional methods actually hurt their chances of coming out on top, and are adjusting accordingly.

Take Pederson's decision, and then Shurmur's to go for two down eight. As ESPN Analytics ace Seth Walder broke down, going for two in that situation gives you a much better chance of winning, assuming the team does get an additional touchdown. If you succeed on the first attempt, you need only to kick the extra point to win by one. And if you fail, you still have another bite at the apple, which would send the game into overtime. The risk is that you'll fail on both tries, but on balance it’s worth the gamble. Going for two, like Shurmur and Pederson did, gives a team about a 60 percent chance to win, assuming another score. Following convention and kicking two extra points leaves a team with about a 45 percent chance to actually win the game.

"That's a pretty simple calculation right there," Pederson said.

This kind of data isn't all that new, but those providing it are starting to be taken more seriously, thanks in part to the Eagles' analytics-fueled run to the Super Bowl last season.

In his book, "Fearless: How an Underdog Becomes a Champion," Pederson was critical of the Jacksonville Jaguars' conservative approach at the end of the half during the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots last season. With 55 seconds on the clock and two timeouts in their pocket, the Jaguars took a knee and rested on their 14-10 lead rather than going for the jugular.

"I was there thinking, 'You've got to be kidding me right now.' It made me mad because Jacksonville had New England right where they wanted them. I was screaming at the TV in my office. When they knelt right before halftime, inside I was like, 'I'll never do that.' It fueled me," Pederson wrote. "I thought, 'If they lose this game, this is why.'"

The Patriots posted 14 points in the fourth quarter to sneak past the Jaguars 24-20 and punch their ticket to Super Bowl LII. True to his internal monologue, Pederson kept his foot on the gas in the title game against the Pats, even dialing up a trick play on fourth-and-goal, "Philly Special," that turned into an instant legend in Philadelphia.

Asked about Pederson's sharp assessment of his decision-making back in August, Marrone jabbed back by referencing a book he said he recently read, titled: "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F---: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life."

The two coaches square off this week as the Eagles and Jaguars play in London.

When it comes to adapting a more aggressive mindset, it appears Marrone -- and many of his counterparts across the league -- actually do give a f---. His Jags have gone for it on fourth down nine times through seven games, tied for second most in the league behind a group of teams that includes, naturally, the Eagles. Jacksonville went for it only 13 times all last season. It's not just fourth downs. Marrone caught massive heat for going for two against the New York Jets in the closing moments of a 31-12 Jacksonville win.

Beyond pointing to his chart and injuries, part of his explanation was, "I'm one of those guys, I never try to take anything for granted in an NFL game."

Pederson is one of the more forward-facing coaches when it comes to the embrace of analytics. He revealed last season that he has two voices from the department in his headset on game days to help inform his decision-making when it comes to, among other things, going for two-point conversions and fourth-down situations. The Eagles went for it on fourth down 26 times during the regular season in 2017 -- second only to the Green Bay Packers (28) -- converting a league-high 17 attempts. This season, they are unsurprisingly tied for first in both fourth-down attempts (10) and conversions (7). It's also not surprising that the Indianapolis Colts, led by former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, are right on Pederson's heels with nine fourth-down attempts. Reich said his time in Philly taught him to go for it on fourth "without flinching, going without even thinking about it."

Fortune has not always favored the bold this season. Reich's decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 from his own 43-yard line in overtime cost the Colts in a Week 4 loss to the Houston Texans.

"I'll address it now: I'm not playing to tie," Reich said. "I'll do that 10 times out of 10. That's just the way it's got to roll."

On Sunday, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel went for two following a TD with 31 seconds remaining that drew the Titans within one of the Los Angeles Chargers. The conversion try failed, as did Shurmur's while following in the footsteps of Pederson the following night.

And not everyone is buying the all-in approach. New York Jets coach Todd Bowles has a reputation for being very conservative in this area. He faced criticism for a Week 4 loss to Jacksonville in which he kicked a field goal on fourth-and-8 from the Jaguars' 20 while trailing by 22 points. Even Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, who otherwise is viewed as a pedal-to-the-floor type of coach, has decided to stick with extra points despite early success going for two when his kicker was injured, saying that's what the team is "comfortable" with.

But overall, aggressiveness is way up. The New Orleans Saints went for it five times on fourth down Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, including four times on the opening drive alone.

“Those third-and-one-half, fourth-and-one-half yards are tough for me to concede," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "That's the honest truth, it’s tough for me [not to go for it].”

It's becoming so commonplace that teams are being forced to diagram more two-point conversion plays.

"Back when I was coordinating the Browns in ’15 -- I mean that wasn’t very long ago, but in football years that’s awhile -- I think we carried probably two plays and now we have five," said Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was the Eagles' QB coach last season. "And the other thing we have is a safe two-point play, because when they changed the rule that you can return it now for two points, we have a situation to where say you’re up a few scores, but the chart says instead of going up a third score you want to go for two. We have a safe two-point play that has certain guys covering in certain areas of the field where we know the ball's going to be thrown. It’s not a full field read for the quarterback, just in case something bad happens."

The numbers are telling organizations to hit the throttle, and the Eagles' run of a year ago put theory into practice. It appears the floodgates are now opening in turn.

"I think teams are probably studying that a little bit more, doing analytics on it and trusting their guys, the scheme," Pederson said. "I think you're just seeing teams -- it's kind of like the passing game. There are a lot of yards, a lot of touchdowns right now in the league, and it seems like fourth downs are also quite prevalent. Teams are trying to take advantage of it."

Kevin Seifert and NFL Nation contributed to this post.