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How Bengals Took The Fourth

P Kevin Huber (10)
P Kevin Huber (10)

Not only did the fans not like it, the CBS announcers wondered about Bengals head coach Zac Taylor's fourth-down call that ended up giving him his first victory in Sunday's 22-6 victory over the Jets.

"The fans have spoken," warned CBS play-by-play man Spero Dedes as the boos wafted across Paul Brown Stadium with the clock ticking past 6:30 in the third quarter, the Bengals leading, 17-6, and Taylor deciding not to go for it on fourth-and-two.

His analyst, Adam Archuleta, tended to agree. After all, 0-10 right? Even Taylor would reflect later, "Everyone always wants you to go for it."

But as Kevin Huber dropped back to punt on fourth-and-two after Taylor directed him to take a five-yard delay of game penalty that put the ball at midfield, Archuleta did offer that Taylor was trying to put his team in the best position to win.

As Archuelta was opining, Sam Francis, the Bengals football data analyst, was in the coaches' box probably placing his hefty notebook back under a shelf after tearing out a page that applied only to that point in the game and would never be needed again. Truth be told, the numbers on the page told the Bengals to go for it from the Jets 45.   

So not only did Taylor defy the blazers and the people and the 0-10 book, he went against Their Book. Not The Book. Their Book. The Bengals' Weekly Fourth Down Book. Taylor ended up beating both books when Huber dropped it on the Jets 2 and two plays later Bengals right end Andrew Brown forced a safety when he drew a holding call on a play that ended up giving them their final five points.

"It's just not the analytics," says Bengals offensive assistant coach Dan Pitcher, Taylor's point man on game management. "That's just part of it. It's up to Zac and the coordinators to access how the game is going and whether the decision fits the current game dynamics. You have a frame of mind and on Sunday you adjust."

If you don't think analytics have arrived, check Their Book. It's labelled for only last Sunday's game and it's a loose-leaf notebook you might find packed away in your college boxes. It's jammed with 1,000 pages of data spit from both teams and across the league with the pages broken up by tabs labeling any distance on fourth down.

Fourth-and-11 gets as many numbers as fourth-and-1 and the data's three defining characteristics are time of the game, number of timeouts available and scoring margin. The color shades on the graph that resembles a football field tell you to punt or not.

But as Francis says, the numbers only start the go-or-no debate. Francis, who arrived this season to assist the Bengals' largest coaching staff ever, generates Their Book every week before he and Pitcher meet to sift through the numbers early on in game prep. They try to boil it down to about 30 pages that apply to that week's matchup and the debate that began as Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton backed off the fourth-and-two had already been going for 48 hours.

After every Friday practice Taylor summons Pitcher and Francis to meet with him, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. As Callahan recounts, it's a general meeting about how the Bengals plan to attack it on Sunday with fourth-down decisions a big part of the discussion. Conservative? Take a few shots? Are they playing a Hall-of-Fame quarterback or a journeyman backup? Are they playing a top defense or one of the worst? Who is hot and who is not?

Then there'll be another discussion an hour or so before the game.

"With fourth down there's a lot of scenarios that have popped up over the league over the course of the season and we're trying to educate ourselves," Taylor says. "Pitch and Sam do a great job digging through it during the course of the week and presenting it to us with the things they think are important."

Callahan and Pitcher are the guys on offense up in the box talking to Taylor with Francis in the wings with Their Book and other numbers.

"Sam has a really good understanding of win probabilities and estimated points added based on potential outcomes of any given play," Pitcher says. "He's been able to derive a model he can plug in different variables and it helps us on a week-to-week basis kind of tailor our decision-making process. You're trying to predict the future as much as you can."

Francis says the pure numbers are not only just the beginning, but the end. It's the only guide they can give you before the game. Once Sunday hits and the ball kicks off and Callahan and Pitcher are talking to Taylor and Francis is leafing through his notebook, Their Book evolves.

There are always other factors impacting the numbers. Weather. What kind of game it is. Where the ball is on the field. How their three phases are impacting the other team and vice versa.

Most drives that get near midfield, Pitcher is telling Taylor what Their Book says they'll do on fourth down on first or second down because that's going to dictate the play calls.

"Dan and Sam are giving me scenarios as the series progresses. Even if I don't respond, they're saying it and I'm hearing it," Taylor says. "It's fourth and three and you might be on second down and you might be on their 40, but it's at least in your head and you understand it."

Pitcher: "Usually you're looking at something like having two or three options. 'If the play ends in fourth-and-four or longer, the books says do A. Fourth-and-three to fourth-and-one, do B. If it's under one, do C. If you get a first down, it's D. Some of that is understood. It doesn't always have to be verbalized. It's just another piece of information."

Their Book was leaning to saying, 'Go,' after running back Giovani Bernard got up from his eight-yard-catch-and-run to make it fourth-and-two from the Jets 45 with 6:36 left in the third quarter.

But there were other factors they had talked about in pregame. Jets quarterback Sam Darnold was staring at a stiff wind gusting up to about 30 miles per hour in the third quarter and some bad weather was supposed to be coming in during the fourth quarter.

Plus, they now had a game to analyze to supplement the numbers. The Jets weren't moving against the Bengals defense and the Bengals special teams have been playing well enough to be ranked No. 1 by some web sites. And there was Huber with suddenly the same net average he had when he went to the 2014 Pro Bowl after some down years. And, the Jets' short-yardage defense had been stingy.

"Maybe if it was a high-scoring game. Maybe if it was something like 31-20, you go for it," Taylor says. "We knew the wind coming in from the city was rough and throwing the ball out of there was not an option in that direction. Let's punt and we're either going to get the ball back in the same spot with a fresh set of downs three minutes later, or your defense has a chance now to make a big play and they did."

But what are the odds that the big defensive play is a safety caused by a holding call in the end zone forced by a great a rush by Andrew Brown, a guy that had played ten snaps the entire month until that play? How do you predict that with any book?

"It's only a starting point. You can call the book the middle," Francis says. "No game is the same. Every game is unique."

The idea is to just have enough facts in hand before the call is made.

"In the heat of the moment, it's hard. Sometimes you want to act on impulse and emotion," Taylor says. "And you have to make sure everyone is on the same page and there's one clear voice."

With no offense to Their Book.