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Why So Many NFL Coaches Are Such Conservative Play-Callers

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Head Coach Rex Ryan of the Buffalo Bills walks the sideline during the second half of a game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Ralph Wilson Stadium on October 18, 2015 in Orchard Park, New York. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Head Coach Rex Ryan of the Buffalo Bills walks the sideline during the second half of a game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Ralph Wilson Stadium on October 18, 2015 in Orchard Park, New York. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

 

You’ve seen it play out again and again and again on your television screen over the years: Your favorite NFL team, down to their final few minutes—and only a few points away from victory—punts instead of going for it. You scream wildly at your flatscreen. You use filthy language. But to no avail. Eventually, your team loses. And then, when your team doesn’t make it into the playoffs, its head coach gets the axe.

That same basic scenario took place when the Buffalo Bills flamed out this season, courtesy of its eccentric head coach Rex Ryan. In his postgame interview—the last one he’d give as Bills head coach; he was fired shortly thereafter—Ryan was quoted as saying that “any coach in America would have done the same thing.” And according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of NFL play-calling this season, Ryan’s actually spot on.

Why Coaches Are Conservative
A young fan holds up a pizza box with the words ‘Fire Rex!!’ written on it during the first half of the game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cleveland Browns on December 18, 2016, at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. Ryan has since been fired. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

 

The newspaper’s analysis took into account three types of game management strategies: fourth-down plays; general play-calling (like blitzing or passing on early downs); and special teams (two-point conversions and onside kicks). On the conservative side of things, the top coach in the fourth-down category was the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll. The latter two conservatively coached categories were lead by Tennessee’s Mike Mularkey and Tampa Bay’s Dirk Koetter in the No. 1/2 spots, respectively. And while the Seahawks have already clinched their division and the Bucs and Titans still have some hope of making the playoffs, the WSJ notes that eight of the top 10 most conservative coaches will be missing the playoffs this year.

Why Coaches Are So Conservative
Head Coach Ben McAdoo of the New York Giants looks on from the sidelines in the second half during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on December 4, 2016, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

 

On the other side of the coin, aggressiveness amongst coaches seems to be paying dividends. The four coaches that have been the most aggressive are all either headed to the playoffs already or are so close they can smell them. Those would be the New York Giants’ Ben McAdoo, the Detroit Lions’ Jim Caldwell, the Green Bay Packers’ Mike McCarthy, and the Atlanta Falcons’ Dan Quinn. This year alone, just eight percent of coaches have gone for two-point conversions, instead of the extra point. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, whose team just won the division and is playoff-bound, has led the league in two-point conversions the last two seasons.

For the Wall Street Journal‘s full analysis, including a table that shows all the most conservative and aggressive play-callers in the league, click here.