Three times in three weeks, the Baltimore Ravens have scored fourth-quarter touchdowns, gone for two-point conversion tries instead of extra kicks, and missed. They’ve lost each week by a combined four points, and two of the losses came directly from missed attempts that likely would have won games in regulation. This being the NFL’s fishbowl, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh has become the latest flashpoint in a holy war between those who believe in the so-called “analysis” of going two-way and the traditionalists who prefer almost automatic kicks. It hasn’t been a good national conversation, as a CBS studio segment illustrated last week. It was just a spearhead for similar exchanges that have been going on for years on social media, in living rooms and in sports bars. On the one hand, there are spreadsheet assholes who don’t understand real soccer; on the other, cave people who cannot grasp intelligent strategy.
There’s a better way to talk about football, but I’m afraid it’s impossible until ‘analysis’ – a toxic and polarizing word that makes everyone retreat to one side or the other – is the lens through which we view training decisions. It’s a useless term. Analytics are everything and nothing. They’re as simple as teams counting how many times a team runs out of a certain formation and as jargon as any number of formula acronyms most people have never heard of. Somewhere along the line, every two-point or fourth-down decision has become a matter of ‘analysis’ – though very few of them seem to be the result of coaches analyzing win probability models. in real time and make calls based on percentages of a pattern.
There are a few situations where the math should make a coach’s decision obvious, but the Ravens’ decisions in recent weeks haven’t really been “analytical” at all. They talked about Harbaugh evaluating his team in a way that feels more old than new, arriving at football decisions rather than math, and then watching them fail to perform. The results were bad for the Ravens, but they didn’t focus on math as much as football logic. If we accept that aggressive coaches are only football coach rather than attempting a complete takeover of the sport by Excel, we will understand them better and unlock a more productive way to assess their decisions at critical moments.
On Sunday, the Ravens edged the NFC-leading Green Bay Packers by 14 points in the fourth quarter. Baltimore scored two touchdowns to nearly tie, the latter with 42 seconds left. It was an unlikely return; Backup quarterback Tyler Huntley was playing the game of his career with injured Lamar Jackson, and the Ravens had more than a dozen absences due to other injuries and COVID-19 protocols. They were playing Aaron Rodgers, and their exhausted secondary struggled to stop him and his receivers for most of the game before some critical late stops. The Ravens were missing five key defensive backs at kickoff and lost another during the game. Harbaugh didn’t like his team’s overtime chances against a much healthier opponent, so he tried to win the game on a two-point conversion. It did not work.
“I was just trying to get the win there,” Harbaugh said. “I think our chances of winning there were better than they were in overtime, maybe, if you calculate it.” It sounds a bit mathematical, sure, but the gist is that Harbaugh was trying to weigh various factors the Ravens faced in real time. It was do not just looking at a model who told him to go out there and follow his orders blindly. He realized he was facing Rodgers with a thin roster and a QB who had little experience, and he thought going forward on a play (and then stopping Rodgers for 42 seconds rather than a full overtime) was his best bet. “Give Aaron Rodgers as limited a window as possible to beat my rundown secondary and backup QB” is much more of a gut-level call than anything some sort of two-point conversion supercomputer would have advised him to. to chase.
The previous week, the Ravens scored a touchdown to close in on the Cleveland Browns’ nine points, with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. They failed on a two-point attempt here too, prompting the CBS segment which decried “analyticals” in general for having too much influence in Harbaugh’s decision-making. But if this decision concerned the analysis, it is thanks to the widest possible definition of the word. When a team trails 15 points in the fourth quarter, like the Ravens did before scoring that touchdown, it’s a virtual guarantee that they’ll need two touchdowns to tie the game and one of them will require a two-point conversion. There’s no intrinsic reason a team is more likely to convert after the second touchdown than the first, so try the deuce after the first scoring, as Baltimore did at Cleveland, is the obvious move. It’s not about advanced math – 15 points is 15 points – but about a basic concept of time. If you miss early, you can adjust your strategy and try to extend play to get another possession. If you miss late, you’re screwed. It’s not analytical at all.
“It’s pretty much standard, really a non-decision,” Harbaugh said. “You do it then because you’re going to have to win a two-point conversion. So you understand if you get it or don’t get it early where you are, from there, how many possessions you will need and what you will need to do.If you wait for the last two-point conversion and you don’t get it, the game is over, you lose.
Again, the game did not work. The coach and the players will be criticized for this in professional sports. It just doesn’t have much to do with analysis. And, perversely, the strategy worked exactly as it was supposed to, even in a 24-22 loss. Having missed that first two-pointer, the Ravens knew later in the quarter that they had to hurry, score and recover an onside kick to stand a chance. They did mark and did recover the kick in play, and only a late stoppage by the Cleveland defense prevented a near-miraculous Baltimore victory. (Update, December 20, 2021, 2:30 p.m.: In an odd change, Harbaugh didn’t follow that strategy against the Packers after trailing by 14 instead of 15, but he got less backlash for it than going for it in general.)
A week before that, the Ravens were in Pittsburgh to face the Steelers. Jackson led a last-minute touchdown to bring his team down to one point, and Harbaugh called a two-point try for the win. That one made sense, too, for reasons that don’t require a math degree to understand. The Ravens’ badly injured secondary couldn’t stop Ben Roethlisberger in the second half, after the team’s top cornerback, Marlon Humphrey, joined several of his teammates on the injury report. “We were pretty much out of the corners at the time,” Harbaugh told reporters, and he saw a chance to get around a shortage of bodies at a critical position. “It was an opportunity to try to win the game on the spot.” Again, it didn’t work.
The play call was ideal. Mark Andrews, one of the NFL’s best tight ends, was wide open. Jackson threw a decent pass to him, but Steelers defenseman TJ Watt, one of the most dominant players in football, disrupted him just enough to send the pass slightly wide. Andrews couldn’t corral it. It sucked for the Ravens, and Harbaugh was not beyond criticism. But the idea was good, and the play was right there. Sometimes in the NFL shit just happens, and it could have happened to the Ravens in overtime too.
Those losses could say bad things about the Ravens’ leadership. The Steelers are the dictionary definition of mediocrity, and maybe Baltimore should have played well enough not to need a dramatic finish at all. The Browns aren’t special either. Against the Packers, when the two-point conversion failed, perhaps Huntley should have been trained well enough to see an open receiver in the back of the end zone instead of trying to press a missile in the hands of a tightly covered Andrews. Harbaugh makes more than enough money to get criticized every time the Ravens lose, especially when his decisions don’t pan out. But presenting these decisions as risks based on analysis is a mistake on two fronts. For one thing, they were as much about the football context as anything a calculator would say to Harbaugh. On the other hand, playing overtime is its own huge risk. It simply takes place over a longer period of games than a carefully confined two-point conversion attempt.
None of this is a defense of Harbaugh as a scholar who sees the whole chessboard while his luckier peers make do with old conventions. Along those same lines, Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley is no tortured genius because his barrage of fourth down attempts against the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t work for him. But it’s worth remembering that aggressive coaching strategies are a two-way street and aren’t always based on 400-level math. Earlier this season, Harbaugh made a fourth-down decision that changed (and won the match) against the Chiefs by simply asking the mega-talented Jackson, “Hey, Lamar! You want to go there ? That call was rooted in a desire to leave the game in Jackson’s hands rather than opposing QB Patrick Mahomes, and that one worked. Harbaugh’s recent assault does not have worked on is not a reflection on data-driven decision-making but on a different truth, one that soldiers on all sides of analytical warfare can agree on: football really is hard.