Greg Schiano's horribly conservative decision making routinely hurts the Buccaneers


Going for it on fourth down is easy, but not for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

According to Football Outsiders, Greg Schiano was the 28th least aggressive coach last season. Yes, the coach who rushes kneeldowns, talks about playing every down and wants to instill toughness beyond anything refuses to take risks when it comes to fourth down, preferring to lean on punter Michael Koenen and kicker Connor Barth over Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson. The Buccaneers invested heavily in their offensive line apparently to not use them, while their 6'5" quarterback who has historically been pretty damn good at sneaks stands on the sidelines.

For all Schiano's talk of playing until the final whistle and rushing kneeldowns in the process, he's leaving a lot of actual football on the field. Towards the end of last season I tracked 14 instances of conservative playcalling that cost the Buccaneers. Given the fact that all but two of the Bucs' losses came by one score a few different decisions here and there could easily have made the difference between a win and a loss -- and between a 7-9 record and a playoff appearance at its most extreme.

Poker's lesson

The arguments for going for it on fourth down are old and not that complicated. Keeping possession is valuable (part of the reasons why turnovers are bad), so why would you voluntarily hand the ball back to the opponent instead of giving yourself a good shot of keeping possession? Add in the fact that failing to get a fourth down isn't disastrous, the benefit of gaining 30 yards or so in field position but losing possession is very limited (especially with the Bucs' porous pass defense of last season) and field goals aren't automatic and you have a clear case for regularly going for it on fourth down.

That case is so clear that many different and varied studies have appeared all saying essentially the same thing: coaches should go for it on fourth down much, much more often. There is very widespread consensus on this subject, and really any analyst who has looked at the numbers will tell you the same thing: coaches are much too conservative.

So why are NFL coaches still so enamored with feet on fourth down (I mean, aside from Rex Ryan)? Brian Burke has a few good theories, but it all boils down to one simple fact: humans are inherently risk averse and prefer to be conservative over taking aggressive chances. That's entirely logical, given the historical circumstances of many peoples, but it's not all that useful in the NFL. Anyone who played poker could observe this conservative tendency as the game was changing from the exceedingly passive and conservative 1990s to the (hyper)aggressive game it has become today, dominated by young players who understand the mathematics that call for aggression -- and hence, enjoy success. Football isn't poker, but in this specific area the two are pretty similar.

A sad, conservative history of Buc football

If there's one thing every football analyst with even a smidgen of affinity for statistics can agree upon it's that NFL coaches are much too conservative on fourth down. They routinely punt on fourth-and-short in opponent territory, gaining just a few yards where maintaining possession can be much more valuable. This tendency is pretty confusing: looking at the list of most aggressive decision makers, Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, Sean Payton, Jimmy Johnson, Marty Schottenheimer and even Tony Dungy rank in the top 20. Aside from Payton, all of those coaches actually have a defensive background, too.

The Buccaneers, though, have long since been saddled with conservative coaches. Jon Gruden and Raheem Morris rank among the 10 most conservative decision makers in the NFL, with Gruden's conservative streak only outdone by Jack Pardee and Chuck Knox -- not exactly people you want to emulate, there. And Schiano's current rate of fourth-down decision making would see him ranked 77th of 85 qualifying coaches. A decade of conservative pussyfooting isn't enough for the Bucs, huh?

Now, none of this makes Greg Schiano a bad coach. This is only a tiny part of coaching a team, but it is something that is easily fixed. It's also the most visible part of on-field decision making, which makes it a lightning rod for fans. Most importantly, though: it's an easy problem to fix. Just start going for it on fourth down more often. It doesn't require extensive film study or a new scheme or a new coaching staff. It just requires Greg Schiano to slightly adjust his mindset.

Fixing the problem should be easy

Someone should sit Greg Schiano down, go over the theory and practice for going for it on fourth down, show him the extensive evidence (both practical and theoretical) that going for it on fourth down is a good thing. Or at least show him that the rate at which he goes for it on fourth down is beyond ridiculous and is actively hurting his team. It would cost him a couple of hours at most, and explaining common situations in which going for it is almost always good (fourth-and-goal, between the opponent's 40- and 50-yard line, fourth-and-short on the opponent's side of the field) would give Schiano immediate working knowledge to improve the Buccaneers' chances of winning games.

It's not all that complicated. Yet somehow, teams continually mess it up. The Buccaneers more so than any other team.

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