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Q&A: EdjAnalytics co-founder Frank Frigo on the NFL season, the Super Bowl and whether coaches are getting smarter

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Edj Analytics co-founder Frank Frigo

Edj Analytics co-founder Frank Frigo at the company's office in Louisville's Nulu neighborhood. Jan. 28, 2019

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If Frank Frigo has one bit of advice for NFL teams, it’s to go for it on fourth and 1.

In the vast majority of cases, even when teams are backed up in their own territory, trying to get a first down increases their chances of winning compared to the typically “safe” choices – punting or kicking a field goal.

Frigo, a co-founder of Louisville’s EdjAnalytics and the guru behind the company’s predictive statistical model for professional football, has been preaching this key takeaway for years.

Looking back on the 2018 NFL season, is the message getting through?

“We’ve seen maybe a bit of an increase in aggressiveness,” Frigo said in an interview this week, “but I don’t know that it’s across the board … (Coaches) are still leaving quite a bit on the table.”

EdjSports, the company's sports subsidiary, uses the lessons from its model to help a handful of NFL teams make better decisions on the field. The company rose to prominence last year when one of its clients – the Philadelphia Eagles – put the advice into practice on their way to a Super Bowl win.

While EdjSports’ insights aren’t limited to fourth-and-short situations, these pivotal moments best illustrate how play calling can dramatically sway a team’s chance to win, Frigo said.

In fact, this season saw a particularly egregious example of the coaching risk aversion that Frigo warns against.

In December, then-Denver Broncos head coach Vance Joseph decided to kick a field goal late in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns. The Broncos were down 17-13 and on the Browns’ 6-yard-line, with only a yard needed for a first down.

Sending in the kicker reduced the Broncos’ chance to win the game – what EdjSports calls “Game Winning Chance” or GWC -- by 33 percentage points. It was the biggest play calling error in the eight years that EdjSports has crunched the numbers on the NFL.

(Sure enough, the Broncos lost 17-16 and Joseph was fired two weeks later.)

“On the surface, everybody should have known that was a bad decision -- we just put a number on it,” Frigo said. 

Neither of the teams in Sunday’s Super Bowl – the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots – have been clients of EdjSports this season.

But Frigo said they’ve been “in touch” this month with one of the two. (While he wouldn’t reveal which one, EdjSports’ figures show the Rams are a lot more prone to statistically unsound decisions than the Patriots).

Earlier this week, I sat down with Frigo to review the NFL season. What follows is a heavily edited transcript:

WDRB: What does Edj’s statistical view of the game have to say about situations besides fourth-and-short?

Frigo: Fourth downs we talk about a lot because they’re so pivotal. It’s a very volatile decision, you’re effecting a possession, you’re extending a drive for a score. So much hinges on that. That’s why we talk about that a lot. But we can put that math behind kickoff decisions, PATs (whether to attempt a two-point conversion), penalty acceptance, challenges, (even) something as crazy as an intentional safety.

It also sheds a lot of light on the tempo of the game. A team that’s leading in the first half has a certain strength advantage, but they’re not burning the play clock. What does that mean? How much win probability does it cost them by snapping the ball 10 to 15 seconds earlier than they needed to? They could have easily burned that play clock. Those little increments add up. We can basically put a microscope on all those different facets of the game because we convert it to this same currency, GWC (game-winning chance), and that allows us to look at all different kinds of decisions.

WDRB: Does faking a punt really increase the chances of converting a fourth down rather than simply lining up for a regular offensive play?

Frigo: There is not a ton of data on fakes on fourth and 1, and so it’s hard to draw conclusions. But the thing about fourth and 1s, a lot of teams treat them as such a novelty that they will do a fake punt or they have to crowd into the line and telegraph that they are going to do a quarterback sneak. When you do a quarterback sneak, it might be a high percentage to convert but you lose all of your overage yardage, so you are not getting any of the upside of a longer game, and that’s worth something. I think in general you do best as treating a fourth and 1 as a play from scrimmage. You’ve got to get a yard, but lets keep the defense honest. We might throw the ball.

WDRB: What are your thoughts on the controversy regarding the missed pass-interference in the NFC Championship and whether the league should implement a fail-safe against referee error?

Frigo: I generally lean toward, across all sports, if the technology is there to do it more accurately, let it do it. There is no sense in letting umpires call balls and strikes when you’ve got (technology) that can call it accurately. I know that takes away from the tradition of the game and some people like that. That being said, I think it can get a little crazy. You have to manage it. You can’t have guys going to the replay booth for everything. Tennis has done a really good job of it. Tennis has gotten away from a lot of these controversies. The game still flows nicely.

WDRB: I’ve noticed that most of the time, an NFL kicker will blast the ball through the end zone for a touchback. But when kickoffs are returned, it seems the runner rarely makes it to the 25 yard line. Is there an argument for kicking it short so the other team has to try a return?

Frigo: Well, you are seeing that more and more, teams are intentionally not blasting it through the back of the end zone and trying to induce runouts. Now, we’ve had some kickoff rules (changed) in 2018 where you can’t get a running start on the ball, you can’t wedge block, automatic touchbacks when the ball lands in the end zone … I don’t know that we’ve got enough data on it yet. That’s actually something that we’re looking at right now, how teams are using the kickoff under the new rules.

WDRB: You say the Rams are in the Super Bowl “despite” their coach, Sean McVay. What do you mean by that?

Frigo: They got dinged pretty bad this year by us. The thing is, they have such a powerful rushing offense. They are almost victims of their own success, in our view. The analogy I would make is, they have a Ferrari and they’re not driving it like a Ferrari all the time. For example, they’ve got a fourth and 1 on their own 30-yard line late in the game against the Chiefs – that 59-56 game – and if you watched that game, those teams are moving the ball at will. These are two really high-powered offenses. They couldn’t stop each other. There was a pretty clear argument that the Rams on a fourth and 1 in their own territory, they’re probably going to convert that 75 percent of the time, which would have allowed them to continue that drive late in the game instead of giving the ball back to this high-powered Kansas City offense. They can’t hurt you if they don’t have the ball. (The Rams still ended up winning the game, and the score was 54 to 51).

WDRB: Which team has the better chance, according to your model, in Sunday’s Super Bowl? (EdjSports assigns game-winning probabilities to each team at kickoff, but they declined to share the figures. Casey Ramage, vice president of marketing for EdjAnalytics, said Thursday, “We have the game pretty even right now.”)

Frigo: I am looking at an assessment here where we’ve got the Rams as a slight favorite, but that is probably not the fairest representation of the game. With New England, there is some weighting in there for their early season performance which is probably not as representative as looking at the playoffs and their last few weeks. I think New England in particular … they have a tendency to adjust their performance -- they are very good exploiting opposing weaknesses too -- as the season goes on. As they get more information on opponents and more information on themselves, I think they are just good at mixing it up. New England is the one team that, as we model them over the course of the season, I have the most reluctance to feel like that’s the whole picture of them because they just tend to be on this upward trend. They do tend to get better as the season goes on. I think from a modeling standpoint and my intuition, it is pretty evenly matched.

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2019 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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Chris Otts reports for WDRB.com about business and economic topics, higher education and local / state government. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after seven years with The Courier-Journal. Got a tip? Chris is at 502-585-0822 and cotts@wdrb.com.