By HCR Staff | Jan. 12, 2020
John Harbaugh picked a bad time to have a bad game making head coaching decisions.
Almost every button that Harbaugh pushed this year resulted in success. One of the biggest buttons he pushed, and boasted about, was the Ravens’ seeming advantage over every other NFL team when it came to fourth-down decision-making.
Well, Harbaugh went to the fourth down button two times too many yesterday, and instead of success, he cost his team a trip to the AFC Championship game.
The first fourth down decision was the most costly.
After quarterback Lamar Jackson’s interception led to an early 7-0 Ravens deficit, Harbaugh confronted a 4th and 1 on his own 45-yard line, barely three seconds into the second quarter. Instead of punting, Harbaugh decided to go for the fourth down conversion, thereby risking a potential two-possession deficit early in the game.
This was an egregious mistake by Harbaugh, who is one of the best coaches in the game.
His quarterback had just thrown a confidence-draining interception. His team is not good at coming from behind. All season long, the Ravens had played from ahead, and over the course of the past last few seasons, the Ravens have not had much success playing from behind, no matter what the deficit was. The game was barely three seconds into the second quarter–we get that you’re trailing 7-0–but there’s no reason to panic. After all, if you don’t have confidence that your team can erase seven points over the three remaining quarters, what kind of team do you really have?
Just punt, play defense, and let things develop. At least that’s what we were thinking.
Potentially giving the Tennessee Titans a short field and an opportunity at a 10-0 or 14-0 lead was not worth the risk. That type of deficit would change the entire complexion of the game.
But no, apparently Harbaugh and the Ravens organization have found Ivy League whiz kids who apparently can prove that risking a two-possession deficit in a playoff game, with a team that has difficulty overcoming any kind of deficit, was the right thing to do.
It was the wrong thing to do.
The Ravens failed to convert the fourth down, gave the Titans the short field, and the Titans converted a long pass play for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead, which the Ravens would never overcome.
Harbaugh effectively threw away a 14-2 season on a decision barely into the second quarter. He put his team into a position that virtually guaranteed a loss.
We get all the rage about analytics, and we wholeheartedly agree, that obviously, numbers can and should play a significant role in helping shape decisions. That’s a given. After all, one of the most important numbers on every play is down and distance.
But here’s one thing that every NFL head coach might want to keep in mind about fourth downs and the collected data: NOT ALL FOURTH DOWNS ARE CREATED EQUALLY.
What do we mean by this? It’s pretty simple when applied to yesterday’s situation. If you are using a data sample that includes ALL fourth downs, including those attempted in four-touchdown blowouts, then you have the wrong sample.
The relevant sample in this case would have been examining 4th downs, in home playoff games, barely into second quarter, and trailing by only a touchdown, barely into the second quarter.
Does the benefit outweigh the risk under those particular circumstances?
We don’t think so.
And Harbaugh found that out the hard way yesterday.