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Some Coaches Shy Away From Risk In The Playoffs. Not Andy Reid.

Late in the fourth quarter of the divisional playoff against the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid was faced with a decision: punt the ball and hope that his defense would hold, or attempt to seal the victory by going for it on fourth-and-inches. If Reid’s all-world quarterback Patrick Mahomes had not left the game earlier with a suspected concussion, the decision might have been easier. But Reid was saddled with backup QB Chad Henne, a 13-year veteran who had attempted just 43 passes in the past four years prior to coming off the bench in the game.

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Ahead by only 5 points and with a conference championship berth on the line, Reid didn’t punt. He didn’t ask Henne to attempt to lure the Browns defense offsides with a hard count only to call a timeout at the last second. He didn’t even opt for a quarterback sneak — one of the safer and more effective means of converting a fourth-down try. Instead, Reid lined his offense up in a shotgun formation and rolled Henne out to the right to pass, risking an incompletion and a turnover on the arm of a backup quarterback with no previous playoff experience.

In high-pressure spots like go-for-it opportunities in the playoffs,1 most coaches seem to wilt. From 2010 through the divisional round of this year, NFL coaches have gone for it 84 times out of the 395 postseason opportunities identified by The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin, a rate of 21.2 percent. That’s 0.8 points lower than the regular season rate of 22.0 percent. Even the best and most aggressive in the regular season seem to ratchet things down when the single-elimination tournament begins. But not Reid. He gets more aggressive.

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Reid is one of just six coaches who have led the same team since 2013, an elite cadre of coaches who have earned their longevity by winning. Of that group, Reid ranks third in fourth-down aggressiveness in the regular season (26.6 percent), with Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh pacing the field with a 43.4 percent go-for-it rate. But when the playoffs hit, Reid appears to transform into a hyper-aggressive wild man. Since becoming coach of the Chiefs, Reid has attempted to convert to a new set of downs in eight of his 14 playoff opportunities — more than double his regular-season rate.2

Mild-mannered Andy Reid goes Hulk in the playoffs

Regular vs. postseason go-for-it rates since 2013 for the six longest-tenured NFL head coaches

Regular season postseason
coach team Opps went go rate opps Went go rate DIFF
Andy Reid KC 139 37 26.6% 14 8 57.1% +30.5%
John Harbaugh BAL 99 43 43.4 14 6 42.9 -0.6
Pete Carroll SEA 182 39 21.4 26 5 19.2 -2.2
Mike Tomlin PIT 154 29 18.8 13 2 15.4 -3.4
Sean Payton NO 154 46 29.9 14 3 21.4 -8.4
Bill Belichick NE 188 48 25.5 37 5 13.5 -12.0

Through the 2020 divisional round.

Go-for-it opportunities are those in which the model believes there is a win probability edge to be gained of at least 0.5 percentage points by going for it on fourth down. Plays on which win probability was below 20 percent were removed on the assumption that they were desperation calls.

Source: nflfastR “go for it” model by Ben Baldwin

And while these sample sizes are small, the playoff moments in which they occur are not. These are highly consequential decisions, and if things go pear-shaped, there’s nowhere for a coach to hide. So it’s not surprising that four of the six coaches in Reid’s peer group fail to match their regular-season aggressiveness in the playoffs. What is surprising is that New England coach Bill Belichick — widely considered the best coach of his generation, and perhaps the best ever — leads the way in playoff cowardice. Belichick has tightened up hard in the postseason, attempting to convert to a new set of downs just five times in 37 opportunities.

[Our Guide To The NFL’s Conference Championships]

Maybe it’s easy to be aggressive when you have the best QB in the league and when fortune keeps smiling on you. But it’s harder to continue to push edges when faced with the pressure of elimination — and a vicious round of second-guessing by fans and media if you fail. And it’s another thing entirely to muster the courage to dial up fourth-down calls in the playoffs with a backup quarterback behind center. That’s remarkable. Andy Reid has proven that he has the will to do what most others in the league won’t, and he and the Chiefs keep on winning.

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  1. We define an opportunity as one in which the nflfastR model by Ben Baldwin believes that there is at least a 0.5 percentage point edge in win probability to be gained by going for it on fourth down compared with punting or kicking a field goal. We exclude plays on which a team’s win probability was below 20 percent on the assumption that they were desperation calls.

  2. Consider this our requisite small sample size caveat.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.