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NY Jets HC Robert Saleh took properly calculated risks vs. Vikings

Robert Saleh, New York Jets
Robert Saleh, New York Jets, Getty Images

Saleh gave the Jets their best chance to pull it out

Jets fans, think back: prior to the Vikings game, when was the last time you questioned a Robert Saleh fourth-down decision because he was too conservative?

Yeah, I thought so.

Say what you want about play-calling or personnel use, but Saleh is a refreshing change from the loserlike passivity of his predecessors. Against the Vikings, Saleh’s fourth-down decisions were a significant factor in adding to the Jets’ win probability. While the CBS broadcast did not always agree, the numbers did.

Saleh’s first few fourth-down decisions were fairly routine. He elected to attempt a 48-yard field goal on 4th-and-10 in the first quarter. He chose to punt in the next two fourth-down situations, and both were supported by the numbers, which increased the Jets’ win probability by about 0.5-1% each time.

The next fourth-down decision was the one that Ian Eagle and Charles Davis did not like. At the two-minute warning in the first half, the Jets were down 17-3 and had a 4th-and-2 from their own 43. Many coaches would have punted in this situation, as Eagle and Davis were urging Saleh to do. However, Saleh knew that this game was getting away from him and tried to prevent it.

The Athletic‘s Ben Baldwin has a Twitter 4th down decision bot, based on modeling of NFL play-by-play data, that shows the win probability distribution and resultant analytics recommendation in each 4th down situation. Though there are several models available and all differ slightly in their calculations, we’re going to stick with Baldwin’s across the board because it’s publicly accessible during the game.

Here was what Baldwin’s bot said:

Saleh does not have access to these exact numbers during the game. NFL teams are not allowed to access digital analytics in-game. Rather, coaches rely on precalculated charts that show the numbers for various game situations, as well as their own gut. Whatever Saleh used to make his decision, whether it was data from time management coach Dan Shamash or his own feeling on the game, the numbers agree with his decision. Unfortunately, the pass fell incomplete, but the result does not change the advisability of what Saleh did.

On the next fourth down decision, Saleh elected to attempt a 60-yard field goal rather than go for it on 4th and 3 with 13 seconds remaining in the half while down 20-3. Although the bot identified this situation as a toss-up, Saleh likely took into account the facts that the Jets had no timeouts, a field goal would bring them within two scores, a miss would basically end the half, the game was in a dome, and Greg Zuerlein has been money from 50+ this season. Zuerlein rewarded Saleh’s trust by nailing the 60-yarder, which appeared to be good from close to 70.

On Zuerlein’s next field goal attempt, a 36-yarder with 9:47 remaining in the second quarter, the bot was indifferent. However, on the fourth field goal of the day, the bot agreed with the decision to kick, as a 4th and goal from the 12 was unlikely to be converted, whereas a 30-yard field goal brought them within one score. The bot gave a strong “kick” recommendation with an increase of 3.2% in win probability.

On the fifth field goal, the bot didn’t really care. Near the end of the game, though, the bot clearly agreed with Saleh’s no-brainer to go for it on 4th and goal from the 1, down 27-15. The decision doubled the Jets’ win probability.

The next decision that came down was interesting. The Jets had the ball on 4th and 10 from the Vikings’ 47 with 3:47 remaining in the game, still down by five. Some coaches may have chosen to punt and try to pin the other team deep while relying on their defense to get the ball back. However, Saleh recognized that his defense was having an uneven day, particularly struggling against the run, and he decided to go for it. The bot strongly approved of the decision. White rewarded his aggressiveness with a 31-yard hookup to Corey Davis through the tightest of throwing windows.

The final 4th down decisions for Saleh were no-brainers, as they were the Jets’ last gasp for a victory. As Mike White‘s throw to Braxton Berrios fell incomplete in the end zone, the Jets squandered an opportunity to add 23.5% win probability to their total, and the game appeared finished. However, the Jets received one final gasp, when White’s throw to Corey Davis was picked off on 4th and 10 to seal the defeat.

All told, though, Saleh went with the numbers and relied on his team to execute. You can knock the play calls on fourth down, but his decisions about whether to go or kick were analytically sound and showed an understanding of both the stakes and his team. It also demonstrated incredible faith in Mike White to execute. It’s fair to wonder if Saleh attempts that fourth down in his own territory with Zach Wilson at the helm.

Saleh will likely need to continue choosing his spots to be aggressive for the Jets to make the playoffs. With three road games against winning teams in the next five, Gang Green must take matters into their own hands to continue controlling their destiny.

As Mike White grabs his opportunity to make a statement, so does Robert Saleh.

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Matt Galemmo
1 year ago

It would be interesting to know what the bot would say about the timeout before the 60 yard field goal. I don’t know if timeouts are part of its algorithm, but they should be, as with one timeout and the ball on the 50 you’re in much, much better shape to get into field goal range than without that timeout. I was playing along at home, and wanted Saleh to punt before the timeout, but try the field goal after.

In other words, the risk of missing the field goal more or less vanished when the Vikings used their time out. Oops.

Matt Galemmo
1 year ago
Reply to  Rivka Boord

It probably very rarely matters. That said, while playing along, my thoughts on going for the field goal or punting changed a lot once Minnesota used that timeout.

Thinking it through, it couldn’t have mattered much. What is the difference in the chance of kicking a field goal with a first and ten at the 50 and 13 seconds to play with one timeout, as opposed to none? Probably less than 10%. Then what’s the chance of those three points affecting the outcome of the game? No idea, but probably less than we think. And all that assumes Zuerlein misses his 60 yard kick, which is pretty high but cuts the probability of everything in half.

Going for it was the worst of all options, though. They would’ve needed to get 3+ yards and get out of bounds, and all that would accomplish would be to make the field goal a little shorter. Saleh’s intent must of been to get an offsides penalty or take a delay of game and punt, and the Minnesota coaching staff flinched.

Too bad it didn’t matter.

1 year ago

I said before the failed fourth down attempt at the end of the first half he should have called a fake punt. I think we would have converted. The miss cost us three points and if we were down 24-22 at the end we could have kicked that field goal to win. Even if we punted there and held. I also wanted a play action pass on the third and goal at the end. Not that awful fade. Oh well. On to Buffalo.

Matt Galemmo
1 year ago
Reply to  Rivka Boord

It’s bizarre to me to think that the HC has to make his 4th down decision without knowing the play–any chance he makes the decision and tells MLF what to call? Or the opposite, MLF tells him whether or not he has the right play? Or…most likely…they’ve already discussed this any have a couple of 4th-and-2 plays scribbled on a napkin in advance…although the game flow must impact that…

Well, I’m thinking out loud, and you know what I’m saying. This is all inter-connected, and they have like 5 seconds to decide, so I have no idea how that happens.