Super Bowl 58: Who will be more aggressive on fourth down? Andy Reid or Kyle Shanahan?
Dan Campbell’s fourth-down decision-making in the NFC Championship Game dominated the media landscape after his Detroit Lions blew a 24-7 lead and watched the San Francisco 49ers punch their ticket to Super Bowl 58.
While Campbell didn’t make all the correct decisions that day, over the entire season he did a great job of maximizing his team’s win expectancy. If you don’t follow that process or have trouble understanding it, it’s very similar to playing blackjack in a casino. And since the Super Bowl is in Las Vegas, it’s fitting to use that comparison.
When to hit, when to stay, when to double, all those decisions maximize your ability to get as close as you can to 21 and win a hand in blackjack. That’s what Campbell was trying to do on those critical fourth downs. He was playing the odds. But instead of doubling his money that day, he got stuck with some bad beats — like he was sitting there with a pair of queens (20), before the dealer, showing a six, flips a 10 and gets dealt a five to hit an improbable 21.
So why am I bringing up Campbell and the Lions when they’re on the golf course this week?
Because there likely will be at least one big fourth-down decision Sunday, and if we learned anything from the Campbell situation, it’s that what 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid choose to do will likely be under intense scrutiny — especially if their decision ends up being the wrong one. That made me think about how these coaches have performed this year and the last few years on fourth downs. And since this is a rematch of Super Bowl 54, we even get a little insight into how these two perform when the lights are the brightest.
Let’s examine the data. The fourth-down model I’ll be referencing comes from rbsdm.com. The decisions counted for this data will be decisions that changed their teams’ win probability by at least 1 percent while the in-game win probability fell between 20 and 95 percent. Any decision that sees an increase lower than 1 percent is considered a “toss-up” by the model and will not be used.
First, the 49ers were so dominant this season that they managed only eight fourth-down decisions where the model believed they should go for it. The next-lowest team was the New York Jets at 15. The Chiefs, on the other hand, had 30 opportunities to go for it. I decided to go back to the 2022 season to collect a larger sample to see how often each coach is going to go for it when the model sees value in doing so.
Fourth-down decisions: 2022-23 seasons
|Go for it opportunities
|Go For It
The 49ers still have a small sample size, but Shanahan actually grades out better than Reid. Honestly, that surprised me a bit. My perception is that Shanahan is much more conservative than Reid — though I believe both coaches to be conservative, and the data supports that — but it’s actually Reid who is more conservative, and he has the best quarterback on the planet. But maybe that doesn’t tell the whole story.
When looking at only the playoffs the last two years — small sample-size warning — Kyle Shanahan has had three attempts where the model says to go for it, and Shanahan failed to go for it all three times.
On the other side of the field, Reid has gone for it three times in seven attempts. So in the playoffs, Reid seems to get a little more aggressive while Shanahan has shown no aggression at all. The sample size might be too small to put any stock into a conclusion, but I do find it interesting, and it does track when looking at the decisions made in Super Bowl 54 when Shanahan and Reid faced off.
According to the rbsdm.com model, both coaches made one incorrect decision in Super Bowl 54. Shanahan decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-2 on the Chiefs’ 24-yard line with 9:54 left in the third quarter, tied 10-10.
Reid decided to punt on fourth-and-3 on his own 33-yard line with 14:05 left in the first quarter, tied 0-0. That early in the game, I don’t think Reid’s decision is one where many coaches go for it, so I don’t think his decision is that bad compared to his peers. Shanahan, on the other hand, chose to play it safe, and his team ended up losing in the end. So for those of you still upset Campbell rolled the dice on those fourth downs, it’s entirely possible to lose a game if you kick field goals rather than go for touchdowns.
Now let’s quickly examine when these coaches actually went for it in Super Bowl 54.
Shanahan went for it on fourth-and-10 on the Chiefs’ 49-yard line with 1:33 left in the game, trailing 24-20. This is a decision almost every coach in the NFL is likely choosing, so while it did add 8.3 percent of win probability, I’m not sure it’s a decision indicative of Shanahan trying to maximize win probability.
Reid’s decision was much more interesting and predictive of what he’d do in the future, in my opinion. Reid went for it on fourth-and-1 on the 49ers’ 5-yard line with 1:57 left in the first quarter, trailing 3-0. The decision was seen as a 4.2 percent increase in win probability. Reid chose not to take the points and ended up scoring a touchdown on that drive.
The numbers clearly state Shanahan has been the more “aggressive” fourth-down decision-maker over Reid these past two years. However, during the the playoffs, Reid has upped his aggressiveness while Shanahan has gotten more conservative. Does this tell us what decisions are going to be made on Super Bowl Sunday? Of course not. But if I’m putting my chips “all-in,” it’s going to be on Reid allowing Patrick Mahomes to make a play on fourth down to maximize win probability on the sport’s biggest stage.
(Photos of Reid and Shanahan: Ryan Kang and Christian Petersen / Getty Images)