Where Bill Belichick ranks among NFL’s most aggressive coaches

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Where Bill Belichick ranks among NFL’s most aggressive coaches originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

To go for it, or not to go for it.

That’s one of the biggest conundrums NFL head coaches face week in and week out. 

While players garner most of the attention on Sundays, head coaches are thrust right into the spotlight when it’s time to decide whether to send out the special teams unit or leave the offense on the field for fourth down. And the decision that’s ultimately made could turn them into a legend (See: Doug Pederson, Philly Special) or scapegoat (See: Matt LaFleur, taking the ball out of MVP Aaron Rodgers’ hands with the Packers’ 2020 season on the line).

So which NFL head coaches are more, and less, willing to risk it on fourth down?

Football Outsiders recently released a ranking of the league’s riskiest head coaches from last season based on the site’s aggressiveness index, which describes “how much more (or less) likely each coach is to go for it on fourth down compared to his peers.” The metric excludes certain losing fourth-down situations (like when a team is trailing in the final five minutes of a game) and only accounts for regular-season games. Aggressiveness index is based around the number 1.0, so a 1.2 score would mean a coach is “roughly 20 percent more likely to go for it than an average coach historically would in equivalent situations.”

Overall, aggressiveness on fourth downs has been on the rise in recent years. The NFL’s aggressiveness index was 1.60 in 2020, up from 1.46 in 2019 and 1.03 in 2017.

The most aggressive coach in 2020 was one who went 8-8 and missed the playoffs: Kliff Kingsbury. The Arizona Cardinals head coach had an aggressiveness index of 3.12, which was actually the second-highest ever recorded, trailing only John Harbaugh’s 3.95 mark in 2019. The second-year head coach scored so highly due to the amount of times Arizona attempted to convert a fourth down in unexpected situations. Despite having just 6.73 expected attempts, Kingsbury’s Cards went for it a league-high 21 times out of 98 qualifying fourth downs, according to Football Outsiders’ data.

Trailing Kingsbury was ex-Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. The former Super Bowl-winning head coach’s 2.64 aggressiveness index score was the third-highest of all time. But that aggressiveness didn’t help translate into a ton of success, as the Eagles went 4-11-1 and Pederson was fired after the season.

Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski was the most aggressive first-year head coach, finishing third overall with a 2.38 mark while leading the Browns to their first playoff berth since 2002.

Here’s a look at the full top 10:

1. Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals: 3.12 aggressiveness index

2. Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles: 2.64

3. Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns: 2.38

4. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens: 2.28

5. Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers: 2.08

6. Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars: 1.95

7. Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans: 1.95

8. Jon Gruden, Las Vegas Raiders: 1.93

9. Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers: 1.89

10. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings: 1.79

The two coaches who reached Super Bowl LV finished in the middle of the pack, with Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid in 13th (1.62) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians posting a below-league-average score in 14th (1.56).

Bill Belichick wasn’t far behind Reid and Arians, landing 17th overall with an aggressiveness index of 1.51. The New England Patriots had 4.63 expected attempts out of their 78 qualifying fourth-down opportunities and went for it seven times. That 9% attempted conversion rate was the seventh-lowest in the NFL. But Belichick was actually the most aggressive (or the least risk-averse) AFC East head coach, beating out Sean McDermott (1.49), Adam Gase (1.25) and Brian Flores (0.86).

Bringing up the rear was Vic Fangio of the Denver Broncos with an aggressiveness index of 0.54. The Broncos had 5.54 expected attempts, but only went for it on three out of 84 qualifying fourth-down opportunities, good for an NFL-worst rate of 3.6%. Miami’s Brian Flores (0.86) joined Fangio as the only other coach with a score under 1.00. The Dolphins head coach dropped from ninth in aggressiveness index in 2019 all the way to 31st last season.