Ravens coach John Harbaugh is standing by his decisions in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs, decisions that included going for it on fourth down four times, and going for two after three of the Ravens’ four touchdowns.
Harbaugh said he talks to the Ravens’ analytics staff and formulates a plan for each individual opponent, and against the Chiefs, the Ravens wanted to be aggressive about trying to make the most out of each possession, which means trying to score eight points rather than end possessions with a kick.
“I have a good understanding of the numbers,” Harbaugh said. “It’s very detailed and well thought out. I think I was pretty clear about it last night, but we’re standing by our decisions. Our decisions gave us the best chance to win the game in that particular game. These are not league average choices. These are determined by this game and for this game specifically, in that venue, weather is even factored into it. There’s a lot of factors that go into it that are mathematically calculated. And that’s why we did it. It wasn’t a field position game. It was a possession game. And making the most of each possession was what counted and that’s what we were attempting to do and for the most part we did a really good job of it.”
When the Ravens scored a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to cut the Chiefs’ lead to 11 points, they went for two and failed. Many observers questioned that decision, but Harbaugh defended it, saying the math is clear that cutting the lead to nine points would have significantly improved their chance of winning.
“Getting it to nine gives you a much better chance of winning,” Harbaugh said. “You still have a chance to do that with the second two. And if for some reason they happen to kick a field goal or score a touchdown, it also enhances your odds. So while you may think getting to 10 is the thing to do, it’s the thing to do if you want to go to overtime. It’s not the thing to do if you want to win the game in regulation, and that’s what we were trying to do.”
Harbaugh said that while he listens to the analytics staff, he listens more to his own intuitions based on a life spent in football. In this cases, Harbaugh says, the analytics people were in harmony with his gut.
“The analytics guys will tell you I don’t follow the analytics nearly enough,” Harbaugh said. “They’ll tell you I go by my gut way more than I go by the analytics, and I do. Because the flow of the game, the feel of the game, situations you’ve been in . . . all those things are something, as a coach, you have a real sense for. So I’ll go against the analytics a lot more than I’ll go with it, in terms of 50/50 close calls. But in a game like that, those were definitely decisions that gave us the best chance to win, and put us in the best position to win the game, no question. If we hadn’t made those decisions, especially the fourth-down decisions, we wouldn’t have been within a score at the end of the game. Period.”
Analytics experts would agree with that: The math is clear that NFL coaches should go for it on fourth down more often than they do, and that going for two makes sense at times other than the obvious cases of a team trailing by eight points scoring a touchdown to cut the deficit to two points late in the game. The Ravens lost, but the analytics experts would agree with Harbaugh that he made the decisions that gave his team the best chance to win.