PHILADELPHIA -- The decision made in this moment can be the difference between a win and a loss, but coach Doug Pederson knows that when the light is green, you go.
Facing a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line early in the second quarter and trailing by three, the Eagles' offense rumbled onto the field in a jumbo package with Trey Burton lined up as a fullback in front of LeGarrette Blount. Quarterback Nick Foles handed the ball to Blount, who took it off right tackle and into the end zone. The Eagles took a 6-3 lead. It was the only touchdown they'd score in a 15-10 win that punched their ticket to the NFC title game.
For those who have been following the Eagles closely all season, this was no surprise. They went for it on fourth down 26 times during the regular season -- second only to the Green Bay Packers (28) -- converting a league-high 17 attempts. That's a 65 percent success rate. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer rattled those numbers off the top of his head when speaking to reporters via conference call Wednesday, a sign that the Eagles' fourth-down prowess is on Minnesota's mind.
"They have been very aggressive, going for it on fourth-and-1 a lot of times, and then sometimes they'll be up by 20 points, it's fourth-and-6 and they'll go for it," he said. "So we have to be prepared at any point."
The situations in which the Eagles decide to strike might seem random, but in fact they are quite calculated. And they're often decided before the start of the game -- or even before the start of the season. The approach is driven by an analytics team so involved in the operation that two members of the department -- including coaching assistant/linebackers coach Ryan Paganetti, a Dartmouth grad with a degree in economics -- communicate with Pederson in-game.
The pair weighs in after just about every touchdown on whether to go for one or two; during the final two minutes of each half to discuss timeouts; and when the team gets into what is considered fourth-down territory, usually around midfield and beyond. Sometimes Pederson initiates the dialogue; other times, the men upstairs do.
"After [Pederson has] made the third-down call the phones can be silent for a few seconds, and one of the guys might chime in and say, 'Hey Coach, if this ends up short fourth-and-2' -- I'm using fake terminology -- 'it's green, go for it. The charts say go for it,'" explained offensive coordinator Frank Reich. "Or, 'Hey, if it's anything less than fourth-and-3, we're good. Other than that, it's your call, Coach.' Or, 'Anything more than fourth-and-10, no.'
"The analogy I think of is kind of like a stoplight. There's green, there's yellow and there's red, and then there's shades of green, there's shades of yellow and then there's shades of red. So some of them are, 'Hey, it's green. Yellow, proceed with caution' -- and that's how it operates."
Decided before the season
The results of the fourth-down bids have been overwhelmingly in favor of the Eagles. According to ESPN Stats & Information, they have scored a touchdown or field goal on 13 of the 18 drives in which they converted a fourth down, totaling 85 points (4.7 points per drive). The times they went for it on fourth down and didn't convert, the opposing team didn't score a single point on the subsequent drive.
There is plenty of credit to hand out for those numbers, including to the defense for routinely answering the bell, but a big slice goes to the analytics department -- overseen by vice president of football operations and strategy Alec Halaby -- for understanding situational odds and playing them to their favor.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has long had an analytics team in place; the desire for an optimal fourth-down strategy is not new. The difference is that the Eagles now have a more willing dance partner on the sideline in Pederson. Philadelphia has gone for it on fourth down more than any other team in the NFL since Pederson became head coach last season.
"A lot of teams -- ours is one -- where it's all [decided] is in the offseason, done with mathematics," Lurie said. "It's not based on any form of instinct. If it's going to be 50/50, 48/52, then a coach is going to have their instinctual predilection, right? But what we found is, there's been so many decisions over time that are too conservative for the odds of maximizing your chance to win at the opportunity. I mean, you've seen certain coaches that are deemed more aggressive because the math leads them there. That's all it is.
"When you do the math, you really want to try to be a lot more aggressive than the public would normally anticipate. So I think the smarter teams do it that way."
Pop quizzes for the defense
Analytics are being deployed on the defensive side of the ball as well. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz might come off as an old-school football guy, but he studied econometrics -- the application of statistical and mathematical techniques in solving problems -- at Georgetown, and is known to be very much data-driven in his approach to the job.
He passes his statistical findings on to his players, and demands they be able to recall it at a moment's notice.
"He'll ask you on the spot," defensive end Steven Means said. "He might be walking past you right now in the locker room and be like, 'Hey, what's the percentages when it's 11 personnel and [shot]gun?' And you gotta know, boom, '70 percent pass.' He uses that and it makes us more aware."
Defensive back Jaylen Watkins cited two-minute situations as the top example of how numbers are used to heighten understanding. Under Schwartz, players are required to know the maximum amount of plays left in the half or game based on time remaining, and the point where the opposition needs to advance the ball to be in field goal range -- a variable that changes week-to-week based on the leg strength of the kicker.
"That's how deep it gets with Schwartz," Watkins said.
With this knowledge, a player can miss the defensive call in the chaos of the moment and still be able to figure it out by looking at the clock and knowing what Schwartz would have them in. It also helps with knowing how to do your job on a particular play. Schwartz was able to reinforce the importance of this by showing his players the "Minneapolis Miracle" at the start of the week, and pointing out that Minnesota wouldn't have been able to get another play off if Stefon Diggs were simply tackled in bounds.
Not that the Eagles need much cleaning up in this area, seeing as they haven't allowed any points in the final two minutes of a game all season.
"I would say he's superior in getting his players involved in the analytics. I'm pretty sure every coach knows these situations, but he's more so into explaining as we're watching why he thinks this and why they have this, and you get an understanding of it," Watkins said of Schwartz. "So it makes you more involved as a player."
Schwartz downplayed the role of analytics a bit this week, noting that it means less than things like guys "playing with personality," tackling well and playing fast.
"Those things probably rank ahead of statistics and analytics for us," he said.
But they've given the Eagles an edge in some critical areas to this point. And when you get to this stage of the postseason and are facing the best teams in football, every edge helps.