For the second time in three Sundays, the Baltimore Ravens scored a late touchdown that brought them within one point of the opposition. Coach John Harbaugh decided to go not for a one-point tie but a two-point lead. The decision sparked a social-media firestorm that requires much more than 280 characters for full and proper analysis.
Thus, with no limits in this space (other than our ability to hold your attention), here’s a look at the various factors that were (or should have been) relevant to Harbaugh’s decision — and that will be relevant to future situations that unfold in the same or similar fashion.
1. The time remaining in the fourth quarter.
When the Ravens went for two against the Steelers in Week 13, 12 seconds remained on the clock. If Baltimore had converted, the Steelers most likely would have had no chance to win the game with a late field goal or touchdown. On Sunday, Baltimore’s two-point try happened with 42 seconds left. That’s a big difference, half of a minute. Also, Green Bay had one timeout left. Thus, while it truly was a win-or-lose proposition in Pittsburgh, Sunday’s game was going to continue for a little while, and possibly just long enough.
2. The opponent.
In Week Three, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers got the ball back with 37 seconds left and zero timeouts, down one point to the 49ers. Rodgers led Green Bay to the win, with a six-play, 42-yard drive that put the Packers in position for a walk-off 51-yard field goal. Rodgers quite possibly would have done the same thing again against the Ravens.
3. The opponent’s incentive to score.
Green Bay’s urgency would have been very different if the game were tied than if the Ravens were ahead. In a tie game, the Packers would have been much more careful about turning the ball over. If they’d landed on a fourth down in their own end of the field, they would have punted. If behind, the Packers would have thrown caution to the wind.
Throughout that final drive, the Packers could have decided at any point to just take a knee and go to overtime. If losing, they’d have to keep pressing.
4. The menu of available two-point plays.
One important factor that often gets lost when rattling off percentages regarding kicking the extra point and going for two is the fact that, while the kick generally operates like most mechanical propositions based on objectivity (e.g., flipping a coin, rolling dice), the two-point conversion becomes more complicated than calling “heads” or “tails.” In the week before the game, the offense develops its potential two-point plays for use in the game. How well the head coach feels about the options becomes a factor in deciding whether to go for it.
That’s what made Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s public lamentations from two weeks ago regarding his team’s play calling when trying (and failing) on multiple occasions to convert two-point conversions against the Lions so surprising. The head coach knows (or should know) what the choices for the current game are. The head coach knows (or should know) whether there is or isn’t confidence that those plays will work against this defense. The head coach knows (or should know) which specific play will be used when each decision to go for two is made.
5. The ability of the players to execute the play as called.
This is part of the fourth factor, but it merits its own explanation. How confident is the coaching staff in the men who will be asked to get the ball across the goal line? Many who support Baltimore’s decision to go for two didn’t like the play that was called, given that quarterback Tyler Huntley sprinted to the right and threw the ball toward tight end Mark Andrews, who was covered by a pair of Packers. Andrews was covered in part because, as Harbaugh explained it after the game, safety Darnell Savage swooped in from the left in order to make it harder for passer and receiver to connect.
But what if the play was designed to potentially lure the safety toward Andrews, clearing out the middle of the field — where receiver Marquise Brown was wide-ass open? What if Huntley was supposed to read Savage, throwing to Andrews if Savage stays put and looking for Brown if Savage took the bait? That’s not something Harbaugh would be expected to disclose publicly; Huntley played admirably in place of Lamar Jackson, and nothing would be gained by calling Huntley out. Still, it’s possible that the play call seemed so bad because Huntley made a bad read as to the safety.
6. The opposing defense.
After the Ravens went for two and lost to the Steelers, coach Mike Tomlin said that Baltimore is predictable in its willingness to go for two. That predictability places greater importance on every team preparing to face the Ravens to work, work, and work on their two-point defensive plays and concepts. It’s therefore better to be unpredictable, in all things regarding football. If you make your habits too obvious, your adversaries will spend the hours and minutes they have preparing to counter the things they know that you will do. If they don’t know what you will do, they’ll have a harder time allocating their available resources.
Maybe there are other factors (feel free to suggest some in the comments). But these seem to be the biggest ones. The point is that, when it comes to choosing to go for two, it’s not nearly as simple as convening a game of rock, paper, scissors, shaking a Magic 8 ball, or crunching numbers.