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Fourth-down analysis: Bills coach Sean McDermott fell on 'safer' side

Sean McDermott landed on the conservative side of the coaching spectrum when it came to fourth-down decisions during his rookie season as leader of the Buffalo Bills.

In fairness, the 2017 Bills season offered too small of a sample size to put McDermott in the Dick Jauron class of playing-not-to-lose Bills coaches.

Nevertheless, McDermott ranked 22nd on the "Aggressiveness Index" put out annually by Football Outsiders. The Aggressiveness Index rates how often a head coach goes for it on both fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2 situations and factors in the rate when those situations happen from the opposition's 31- to 39-yard lines.

In reality, there were just two glaringly questionable fourth-down decisions by McDermott.

The biggest came with 13:08 left in the game at New England, with the Patriots ahead, 23-16. Facing a fourth and 1 from the Pats' 32, McDermott opted to try a 50-yard field goal, which failed. New England scored a TD on the ensuing possession, blowing the game open.

McDermott more or less acknowledged regret over that call.

"Yeah I mean, those are situations in hindsight, you know the results afterwards, and you say yeah, I would have done something different," McDermott said. "No doubt. ... But you learn and grow from all situations and it’s something I’ll use moving forward to benefit us in the right way."

The other was the decision to punt with 4:13 left in overtime in the snow-globe game against Indianapolis. It worked out perfectly for the Bills. A good Colton Schmidt punt pinned the Colts at their own 10. The defense held. The Bills' offense got the ball back with 2:25 left and drove to the winning TD.

Ironically, Rex Ryan was skewered for a similar decision that didn't work in overtime against Miami in 2016. Ryan punted on fourth-and-2 from the Buffalo 41 with 4:09 left. The Bills gave up a field goal and lost.

The Bills could not have afforded a tie in either of those OT games.

McDermott said after he was hired that his personality was to be aggressive on fourth-down situations.

"If we're going down, we're going down guns blazing," he said at last spring's owner's meetings.

McDermott went for it on 2 of 9 fourth-and-1 qualifying situations, which did not count any plays trailing in the last five minutes of the game, or trailing in the third quarter by 15 or more or the fourth quarter by nine or more.

The Bills were not successful when they did go for it on fourth and short. They converted only 1 of 6 on fourth and 1 or 2. They were 2 of 9 on fourth-and-4 or less. The one fourth-and-1 conversion was a TD run against Oakland that put Buffalo ahead, 27-7.

On third-and-1 the Bills were better, converting on 12 of 15 run plays.

A few other noteworthy fourth-down Bills calls:

  •  Fourth-and-1 at Carolina, down 6-0, and LeSean McCoy was stuffed on a wide run. Good decision. Carolina didn't capitalize, and the Bills needed that first down in a 9-3 loss.
  • Fourth-and-goal from the 1 at Atlanta, up 14-10, with 12:00 left. The Bills tried to draw Atlanta offsides, took a delay-of-game penalty and kicked the field goal to go up, 17-10. Buffalo won, 23-17.
  • Fourth-and-2 from the 6 at New England, with the game tied, 3-3. The Bills went for it, arguably the correct call given the Pats' potent offense. Tyrod Taylor was sacked.
  • Fourth-and-1 from the 3 in the second quarter of a scoreless playoff game at Jacksonville. The Bills lined up for a field goal and the Jaguars jumped offside, giving the Bills a first down. The Bills still had to settle for a field goal, due to an offensive pass interference call on Kelvin Benjamin.

The most aggressive coaches in 2017 on the Football Outsiders index were Miami's Adam Gase, Oakland's Jack Del Rio and Philadelphia's Doug Pederson. Gase was No. 1 due in part to the fact he went for it a bunch in the season finale vs. Buffalo, which was meaningless to Miami. Pederson espoused an aggressive philosophy but also had the most opportunity, going for it on 14 of 23 fourth-and-1s.

The least aggressive was Minnesota's Mike Zimmer. But he had reason to play to the strength of his defense, which ranked No. 1 in the NFL.

Rex Ryan ranked 19th and 8th in fourth-down aggressiveness his two seasons with the Bills. Doug Marrone was 29th both of his seasons. A couple of McDermott's mentors usually fall on the conservative side of fourth-down decisions.

Kansas City's Andy Reid has ranked in the bottom half of the aggressive index most of his career. Carolina's Ron Rivera earned the nickname "Riverboat Ron" for going for it a lot on fourth down in 2013. But in his other six seasons in Carolina, he has ranked between 15th and 32nd.

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