Ravens’ John Harbaugh claims analytics back up aggressive decisions vs. Chiefs. Here’s what the numbers say.
By Daniel Oyefusi
Sep 23, 2019 | 3:50 PM
"It wasn't a field position game, it was a possession game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said about using analytics to decide to try a 2-point conversion.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh rolled the dice in his team’s 33-28 loss Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, opting to go for it on fourth down several times and attempt multiple 2-point conversions.
He had mixed results in the gambles and some of his decisions proved pivotal in an eventual one-possession game.
After the game, Harbaugh said that the analytics backed his decisions and he doubled down on his fearlessness, saying, “We don’t play scared." He provided more insight into his decision-making process and the use of analytics Monday at his weekly news conference.
“It’s part of what we do,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not all what we do. I have a good understanding of the numbers and how it works. I have people in my ear that help with that as well, which is important. Not just with that, but with challenges and things like that. We’re very organized in what we do and we have a method and a process. It’s very detailed and well-thought-out.
“We’re standing by our decisions. Our decisions gave us the best chance to win the game, in that particular game. These are not like league average choices. These are determined by this game and for this game specifically, in that venue. Weather is even factored into it. ... It wasn’t a field position game. It was a possession game. Making the most of each possession was what counted.”
Analytics and advanced metrics have studied when going for 2 and attempting fourth-down conversions are appropriate. Using statistics from FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times 4th Down Bot, The Baltimore Sun looked into whether Harbaugh’s claim was accurate.
Note that while the analytics might say to make a certain decision, the situation matters as well, and the numbers don’t account for that.
Situation 1: First quarter, 5:08 remaining. Game tied 0-0, Ravens attempt fourth-and-3 from Kansas City 9 (success)
Analytics say: Go for it. According to the NYT 4th Down Bot, the general rule of thumb on fourth-and-3 is to “go for it almost everywhere beyond your 40. ... As the down-to-go distance increases, your chances of successfully converting a first down become smaller — and the decisions become more nuanced."
Early in the game with the score tied, the Ravens aimed to get the ball in the end zone instead of settling for a short field goal and succeeded. Had they failed, the Chiefs would have taken over deep in their own territory and had to drive the length of the field to score.
Situation 2: First quarter, 4:24. Ravens lead 6-0, attempt 2-point conversion (failed)
Analytics say: Toss up. According to FiveThirtyEight, the estimated change in win probability, had the Ravens converted the attempt, was 3.3% (vs. 5.2% if they had kicked the extra point). However, because of a penalty, they were on the 1-yard line.
But that early in the game, such a risk likely wasn’t warranted. The Chiefs scored on the following possession and took a one-point lead with the extra point.
Only one other team through three weeks has attempted a 2-point conversion with a 6-point lead following a touchdown. The Buffalo Bills went for 2 — from the 1-yard line, like the Ravens — against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday and converted.
Situation 3: Second quarter, 13:26. Chiefs lead 7-6, Ravens attempt fourth-and-1 from Baltimore 34 (success)
Analytics say: Go for it. According to the NYT 4th Down Bot, “on fourth-and-1, go for it any place on the field where that is possible, starting at your 9-yard line.”
A 5-yard gain from running back Gus Edwards extended the Ravens’ second drive of the game, as they looked to retake the lead. The team later failed on another fourth-down try, but the analytics support going for it with such a short distance to gain.
Situation 4: Second quarter, 10:38. Chiefs lead 7-6, Ravens attempt fourth-and-2 from Baltimore 47 (failed)
Analytics say: Go for it. According to the NYT 4th Down Bot, “on fourth-and-2, go for it everywhere beyond your 28-yard line."
Quarterback Lamar Jackson threw a low pass to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, which fell incomplete. The Chiefs took advantage of the short field, using five plays to score a touchdown and take a 14-6 lead.
Situation 5: Fourth quarter, 13:21. Chiefs lead 30-13, Ravens attempt fourth-and-5 from Kansas City 27 (success)
Analytics say: Take the field goal. According to the NYT 4th Down Bot, “on fourth-and-5, go for it between midfield and your opponent’s 33.”
However, with a three-possession deficit, touchdowns trumped field goals at this point, so going for it was probably the better decision. Jackson completed a miraculous 25-yard heave while being tackled to wide receiver Seth Roberts. Running back Mark Ingram II scored two plays later.
Analytics say: Go for 2. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Ravens’ estimated change in win probability, had they converted the attempt, was 2.2% (vs. 1.3% if they kicked the extra point).
Jackson’s pass to tight end Nick Boyle was incomplete. If the Ravens had gone for the extra point, they would have closed the deficit to 10, where a touchdown (with the extra point) and a field goal would tie the game. The failed attempt essentially forced the Ravens to try another 2-point conversion when they scored a touchdown again.
“Getting it [the deficit] to nine gives you a much better chance of winning than taking it into overtime,” Harbaugh said. "You still have a chance to do that with the second [2-point conversion attempt]. If for some reason they got to kick a field goal or score a touchdown, it also enhances your odds.
“While you may think that getting 10 is the thing to do, it’s the thing to do if you want to go into 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.”
As stated, the previous failed attempts forced the Ravens into another try to bring the score within a field goal. The Chiefs converted a third-and-9 on the following possession and the Ravens had no timeouts, effectively clinching the game.