Everything was going so well.
The Cincinnati Bengals held a 21-7 lead deep into the third quarter of their 2021 season opener against the Minnesota Vikings when Bengals head coach Zac Taylor made one of the most controversial calls of his young career.
Joe Burrow and the offense went back to the line of scrimmage at their 30-yard line and to the surprise of most Bengals fans, snapped the ball when the play clock started to run out. Joe Mixon took the handoff and slipped before failing to crack the line to gain, turning the ball over on downs.
We all know what happened next, Minnesota scored on the next drive, ended up tying the score and forcing overtime where the Bengals came out victorious. Sunday was Cincinnati's first OT victory since another 27-24 triumph over the Seattle Seahawks in 2015.
Most fans didn't love the call, and that's natural when the correct process breeds a poor result, but the Bengals' faithful better get used to these all-out fourth-down calls. The modern NFL requires it, and the league will gladly leave Taylor and Co. behind if they don't continue adapting.
Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season was a masterclass in modern coaching and catching up to the times. NFL teams went for fourth-down conversions 51 times this past weekend, the highest single-week total in modern league history, up from 37 in Week 1 last year, 26 in 2019, and 22 in 2018. Jessie Bates and the rest of the Bengals defense need to be ready for short fields; it's how the best teams win in the modern NFL.
Dive deeper into the actual calls, and you'll find the league's best coaches making decisions that no one could've believed in 2010. Sean Payton's Saints went for it twice on their first drive against Green Bay, helping them control possession and keep Aaron Rodgers off the field in a 38-3 beatdown. The Broncos only notched 0.5% extra win probability by going on a fourth-and-7 against the Giants in the first quarter, yet their conversion added 9.5% to their winning chances.
The Browns followed this formula perfectly and still lost to the Chiefs, defining how difficult it is to topple Patrick Mahomes, especially on the road. Cleveland went for a fourth-and-3 and a fourth-and-1 on their opening two drives, turning two field goals into two touchdowns, and was a rogue punter away from pulling off the biggest upset of the weekend.
The computers have won, folks. If your team isn't going for it as aggressively as possible, your coach is tying one hand behind their back every week. In Week 1 three years ago, teams attempted a fourth-down conversion just eight times before the fourth quarter. This year, that number shot up to 33.
Zooming in on the failed fourth down that flipped "momentum" back to the Vikings. Taylor made the correct decision. Adding a 2% win probability by not punting was a clear choice for Bengals football data analyst Sam Francis or whoever gave Taylor the scenarios.
"We've got to be aggressive. We can't let them fall in our lap and come to us. You've got to go take it," Taylor said on Monday. "If you specifically look at that play in our minus territory, we scored three touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. Let's go get a fourth touchdown and make this thing 28-7. Let's go win this thing 42-7 and blow it wide open."
Coaching scared is coaching to fail, and Taylor is making sure he pulls out all the stops. According to Ben Baldwin, the Bengals ranked in the top ten of "Go-Rate" under Marvin Lewis dating back to 2014. Most fans considered Lewis conservative over his 17 seasons in Cincinnati, and that's an understatement compared to Taylor.
Lewis went for it 30% (24-80 plays) of the time in recommended situations by Baldwin's model. Over his first two years, Taylor has gone for it 53% (9-17 plays) of the time on recommended plays. Imagine what that aggressive decision-making from Taylor could reap with more than 11 games of competent quarterback play?
"In that moment, it's kind of a tossup," Taylor told Bengals.com. "Fourth-and-1 is considered go-for-it even if you're all the way back there. It's just whether or not you feel you need to do it or not. A lot of times when you're doing something like that, you have to be consistent over the course of time. So we went for it on fourth-and-1 going in (earlier in the game), and we scored a touchdown a couple of plays later, where if you decided to kick a field goal, there's a four-point swing right there. But we're going to get it. Fourth and-1. Score a touchdown, and you know what? We didn't get it when we were backed up, and they go and scored a touchdown."
The best part about Sunday's decision-making was Taylor not falling for recency bias. Football plays are like roulette tables; never try to base your next decision on what just happened. Trust the process, and Taylor did just that when he gave the fourth down reigns to Burrow in overtime.
The second-year franchise icon switched into Y-leak, found the player who caught his first career passing touchdown in C.J. Uzomah, and Evan McPherson tied the ribbon on his banner debut with a game-winning field goal.
"There are some lonely moments sometimes when it doesn't work out," Taylor said. "You have to stick by your guns and continue to be aggressive, and that's the way we want to play football."
The moral here is to evaluate the process, not the result, as this team continues its aggressive mindset. Taylor made it clear to his locker room that they aren't sitting on their hands when facing tough decisions. The Bengals are trying to shock the world by making the playoffs in 2021; to do it, they'll have to keep bucking conventional wisdom.
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