One of the longtime knocks on Pete Carroll over the past few seasons as Seattle Seahawks head coach is that, unlike many of his coaching peers in this increasingly analytics-driven world, he doesn’t go for it on 4th down a whole lot. It’s an offense-dominated NFL, the Seahawks have boasted top-10 offenses for an overwhelming majority of Pete’s tenure, yet we’ve seen our fair share of punts on 4th and 2 at the opposition’s 40.
In last year’s Football Outsiders Aggressiveness Index rankings, Pete ranked dead last among NFL head coaches in 4th down aggressiveness. This year he moved all the way up to 22nd, which is still in the bottom-half of the league but also it’s his highest ranking since at least 2018.
One thing to note with the Aggressiveness Index is that the Football Outsiders formula has undergone regular change, so direct AI number comparisons won’t be applicable. Last year there was a re-calibration to adjust for the fact that coaches are much more willing to go for it on 4th down than, say, the 2015 season (the last one before Doug Pederson got his first head coaching job). Let them explain it better than I can:
Aggressiveness Index numbers were designed to center around 1.0 and generally describe how much more (or less) likely each coach is to go for it on fourth down compared to his peers; for example, a coach with 1.20 AI is roughly 20 percent more likely to go for it than an average coach in equivalent situations.
You may remember that last year we re-did all the baselines for Aggressiveness Index. Head coaches in the NFL had become so much more aggressive since 2018 that the leaguewide Aggressiveness Index was up to 1.90 in 2021 and not a single head coach in the league came in below 1.0 that season. Based on changes in coach tendencies since 2018, our new baselines expect coaches to go for it more often on fourth-and-short, near the goal line, and near midfield.
Aggressiveness Index excludes obvious catch-up situations: third quarter, trailing by 15 or more points; fourth quarter, trailing by nine or more points; and in the last five minutes of the game, trailing by any amount. It also excludes the last 10 seconds of the first half, and it adjusts for when a play doesn’t actually record as fourth-and-short because of one of those bogus delay of game penalties that moves the punter back five yards. Only the regular season is included.
Using Ben Baldwin’s 4th down aggressiveness metric, Carroll ranked 12th in “go for it when they should” situations based on win probability gain, and within the win probability parameters of 20-100%. FO has more exclusions included in their metrics which would explain the discrepancy in the two statistics. Funnily enough if you go way back to the early Pete days, he ranks pretty high on the Aggressiveness Index, but the rest of the league evolved and he generally didn’t.
No one will confuse Pete for Nick Sirianni (who was 1st in the FO index) or Doug Pederson, but it certainly felt like Carroll was less conservative than in previous seasons, and the numbers prove exactly that. A couple of years back I suggested part of Pete’s hesitancy was watching his team be awful on 4th down, more specifically Russell Wilson somehow being the most sacked QB on 4th downs in the 1st-3rd quarter, then suddenly the entire offense is a machine in the 4th quarter. In 2022, the Seahawks were near the top of the league in 4th down conversion rate, and Geno Smith was not sacked one time on 13 dropbacks.
I’ll take incremental improvement over stubbornness any day of the week, and hopefully Pete continues the upward trajectory instead of falling back into old habits.