When John Harbaugh leads his Ravens in their playoff rematch against the Titans this weekend, he should remember the key moments of his team’s surprising loss last year and remind himself:
I need to do the exact same thing.
Yes. The same thing. You might remember last year’s Ravens-Titans game as the biggest upset of the 2019 postseason. The Ravens had the league’s best record (14-2) and their MVP (Lamar Jackson), but lost to a Titans team. who went 9-7. You may remember that Jackson committed three turnovers and Tennessee did not commit any.
But it was also the game that would test even the most analytically inclined coaches’ belief in percentages. Almost every time Harbaugh made a mathematically intelligent decision, he backfired.
On the first play of the second quarter, 7-0 down, Baltimore faced fourth and one of its own 45. NFL football data and analytics director Mike Lopez says teams try about 51% of the time. in that situation. Harbaugh went for it.
Jackson was stopped for no gain and Tennessee scored a touchdown on the next play.
In their report on the game to coaches across the country, consulting firm Championship Analytics wrote: “This scenario became a theme in this game as the Ravens made a good decision by going fourth and one but got bad. results. . “
Later in the fourth, the Ravens faced the second and Tennessee’s goal of the four, but the half was ending, so they wisely kicked a field goal to cut the margin to 14–9.
Then, on the first drive of the second half, they faced another quarter and one, this time from the ’18 Titans. They were five below.
Now imagine you are Harbaugh. You have the best team in the league. You’ve been beating Tennessee. You have Justin Tucker, one of the best kickers in NFL history. You can easily cut the lead in two. You already tried and failed on fourth and one time.
But you are one of the most adaptable coaches in the NFL. You have studied the numbers and applied them all year. Many coaches in NFL history would automatically kick a field goal here. But the league has gotten wiser; According to López, teams try 72% of the time in that situation.
And you know that the fact that you failed once shouldn’t influence whether you try again.
Harbaugh went for it. Jackson was arrested again.
“Although it was likely that an FG would be made, requiring only one yard, CAI fully agreed with this choice,” wrote Championship Analytics.
Tennessee scored again in the next series. Super Bowl favorite Baltimore suddenly faced a steep climb only to win a playoff game. Then Jackson missed and Tennessee scored again to make it 28–6. But it wasn’t over, because the Ravens had Lamar Jackson leading a loaded team. He drove them on an 88-yard touchdown to make it 28-12.
Harbaugh chose two. “Absolutely the right decision,” Championship Analytics wrote, and that doesn’t need much explanation. But the Ravens failed to convert. Still 28-12.
Baltimore still had time, but his next series ended with another missed fourth shot at Tennessee territory. The Titans won, and the game’s stories would be Tennessee’s dazzling month (the Titans had ended Tom Brady’s tenure in New England a week earlier) and the disappointing departure of Jackson, who was his property.
Even now, there is a perception that the Ravens didn’t show up and the Titans beat them up. But take a closer look. The Ravens outscored the Titans 530 to 300. Lopez says that since 1981, teams that outnumber their opponents between 220 and 240 yards have won 86.3% of their games. But the Ravens didn’t just lose … they lost by sixteen.
How unusual is that? Well, there have been about 10,000 NFL games since 1981, including the postseason. According to Lopez, this was only the second time that a team outscored its opponent by 230 or more yards and lost by at least 16 points. That means there was about a 0.2% chance of this happening.
Had Harbaugh been more conservative, his team might as well have won the game. But he would still have been wrong.
This is the difficult part of applying analytics. They often defy convention: If math teaches you something new, then by definition it is telling you to do something that has not been done historically. Following analytics is actually Less risky than being conservative, because every smart analytical decision increases a team’s chances of winning a game. But it requires self-assurance. You have to be willing to be called a fool when you know you are not.
Michael McRoberts, the founder of Championship Analytics, says his firm tells head coaches that they need to educate all of their teams on these decisions long before they make them. That way, no one is surprised when he does something that coaches resisted 20 years ago. Going for two and missing can be an emotional disappointment, because players feel like they drove to the end of the field for seven points and finished with six. But teams should do much more. They only need to explain why to their players in August, so that no one is surprised in January.
The story heading into this weekend’s Titans-Ravens game is different. The Ravens are a wild card team. Jackson struggled further, but then he straightened up and played close to his MVP level again. The Titans have been good for two years in a row, now we know that Ryan Tannehill was not a fluke of a season and the game is in Tennessee. This is an even showdown.
It could come down again to a few high-leverage plays. Baltimore will need Harbaugh to make the right decisions. You know, like he did last year.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.