Sean McVay explains his approach to analytics

Mike Florio
·5 min read

Near the end of their unexpected and (in the words of their head coach) embarrassing loss to the Jets, the Rams had a chance to play for overtime. Down 23-20, the Rams faced fourth and four from the New York 37 with four minutes to play.

The choice were simple: Try to tie the game up with a 55-yard field goal, or attempt to extend the drive by gaining four or more yards.

On Thursday, McVay was asked whether he considered the analytics-based conclusion that he increased the team’s chances of winning by two percent by going for it in that spot.

“You do you have an understanding of where the analytics fit in, but I think there’s a real feel for the flow of the game,” McVay explained. “The matchups, the kind of things that you’re anticipating from a defensive-coverage, fronts, what’s the down-and-distance and what’s the time left in the game. What’s the feel for the flow of the game? I just think that’s such a big part of it. Somebody asked me this and you talk about going into the New England game. If you said, ‘Hey, you’re going to get a fourth down and one of the first drives of the game, would you go for it?’ Well, the answer is easily yes when you see what the first six plays of that drive reflected. . . . There was a good feel and momentum. That was really what went into it. I think you definitely have that as a part of it, but I do think to say that’s the end all be all, I think it minimizes the work that we do throughout the course of the week and some of the things that take part in a game with 22 moving parts on every single snap. I’ll never have that just exclusively guide my decision-making. That doesn’t mean that’s the right approach, that’s just what I believe is the best. Certainly I know that’s not for everybody.”

McVay risks alienating those members of the analytics mob who advocate blind adherence to whatever the analytics suggest in every situation and condescend as Luddites anyone who would say, “Well, maybe we need to consider other factors, too.”

I believe analytics have a very important role in football, but it can never — and should never — supplant the judgment of the head coach, as crafted by all available factors and exercised in a specific moment of a game, based on every single thing that has happened from the opening kickoff onward. Formulas that broadly attach percentages of potential success to specific choices a coach faces are based on years and years of iterations and permutations. Even if blind adherence to a decision that increases the chances of winning games over the long haul by, for example, two percent, most coaches don’t have the benefit of the long haul to enjoy the consistent two-percent benefit.

Coaches need to win games in the short haul in order to have any chance at the long haul, and sometimes the idea that analytics says to go for it on fourth down with the game on the line in lieu of kicking the field goal and playing for overtime must take a back seat to the coach’s understanding of his team, of the opposing roster, of the opposing coaching staff, of the officials assigned to the game, of the weather, and of everything that coach ever has experienced in identical or remotely similar circumstances, has studied in other games involving other teams (possibly while watching 12 hours of Red Zone on a Sunday off, even though it’s only on for seven), and/or has stumbled across while playing Madden with his kids.

That’s not to say McVay ignored analytics. He doesn’t.

“We have a great analytics team that does an excellent job with those kinds of things,” McVay said. “I think what you try to do is keep up with what the landscape of the league is and just have an inventory that’s kind of in your mind that’s ongoing to just catalog things and get a feel for the flow of the game but also some of those decision-making [points]. It’s a small part of it, but in that instance the other day, to me, if you said, ‘What dictated and determined why we went for it?’ I felt like we had good momentum, I felt good about some of the different things that we could activate on fourth-and-four based on the coverage principles that we anticipated being able to get. Just knowing how that game had gone, you’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s go play for the win’ instead of just trying to kick a field goal that I do think Matt would hit. But that was just kind of the thought process there.”

Which that may explain the decision to go for it, the better question for McVay would be, when only needing four yards, why throw it down the field? Doug Farrar of USA Today recently explained that the only passes thrown in the entire game by Rams quarterback Jared Goff that covered more than 20 air yards came on third and four and fourth and four with the game on the line.

McVay opted to eschew a higher-percentage option on both plays. If Goff had connected with his intended receiver in either case and the Rams had continued the drive and won the game, McVay’s genius would have been reconfirmed. Instead, he selected plays that have folks scratching their heads — and that give the anti-Goff crowd more ammunition for their argument that he’s a glorified (and highly compensated) game manager who can’t win games with his arm.

In hindsight, McVay’s judgment was less than ideal. But he surely has a reason for it that he could sell persuasively, to anyone. Besides, if he’s the one who’s ultimately going to have to live with the consequences of his judgment, it’s his prerogative to exercise it.

Sean McVay explains his approach to analytics originally appeared on Pro Football Talk