As the Ravens’ hopes of an undefeated season evaporated after Thursday night’s 34-23 loss at the Cincinnati Bengals, so did their bid for perfection in fourth-down conversions.
The team finished 2-for-4 on fourth down, but both successful tries occurred on the offense’s final series of the game. It was the two failed attempts that had several fans questioning the rationale behind them.
The first miss occurred in the second quarter when quarterback Joe Flacco short-armed a pass to wide receiver Willie Snead IV on fourth-and-4 at Cincinnati’s 38-yard line. The second miss took place in the third quarter when Flacco threw the ball to Buck Allen short of the first-down marker, and the running back was tackled for a 1-yard gain on fourth-and-2 from the Bengals’ 44.
Perhaps the encouraging thing is that Cincinnati was unable to turn those missteps into points. But could the game have turned if the team had elected to punt and pin the Bengals offense deep in its own territory?
Asked about the basis for going for it on fourth down during his weekly news conference Monday, coach John Harbaugh began by emphasizing that the analytics for the attempts had been processed before the two scenarios had unfolded.
“The math is already done,” he said. “We study all of that. We have all those numbers. That’s given to me during the game. The math in both of those was pretty overwhelming to go for them. While I’m not Copernicus, I passed math all the times I took it.”
A mathematics and business major at Skidmore College in New York told Inside Science in Feb. 2017, “On average, teams that went for it had a change in win probability 2.6 percent greater than teams that did not go for it.”
Even more pressing to Harbaugh was that the Ravens had trailed 28-7 in the second quarter and 28-17 in the third quarter at the time that he green-lighted going for it on fourth down.
“We were down by a lot,” he said. “I think on the road, there’s two ways to look at it. One way is to get the points, chip your way back in, which is generally what we’ve always done. The other way to look at it is, we needed touchdowns. We needed to score, and we were running out of possessions. So I went with the idea to go for it, figuring that we could convert it. The fact that we didn’t convert them makes me feel like we shouldn’t have gone for it. We should’ve kicked it. In the end, that’s what you judge it on — whether you make it or not. The analytics to your question were pretty strong in favor for going for it.”
After two games, the Ravens are 2-for-4 on fourth downs and have finished at 50 percent or better three times in the past four years. Time will tell whether the decisions Thursday night and the subsequent loss to Cincinnati will damage the team’s mission to qualify for the AFC playoffs.