It happens every time.
When a head coach decides to go for it on fourth down and the team converts, it was a "gutsy" call. When a head coach decides to go for it on fourth down and the attempt fails, it was a bad decision.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh was answering fourth-down questions again Monday afternoon after Baltimore was stuffed four times on the goal line, the final on fourth-and-1 on the first play of the fourth quarter, in a 27-23 loss to the New York Giants.
A field goal wouldn't have made up the four-point difference, but it could have meant the Ravens would have needed a field goal instead of a touchdown to win on their final drive that stalled in Giants territory. That is, if the game had played out exactly the same, which is hypothetical and no guarantee.
Following a 70-yard catch and run by wide receiver Mike Wallace, in which he perhaps would have scored had he not been tackled by the facemask, the Ravens faced a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line, trailing by four points at 17-13.
West plowed up the middle for 2 yards. Then quarterback Joe Flacco tried to sneak over the goal line (something he's been very successful doing in the past) and was stuffed. West got another crack at it on third-and-1 and went airborne, but was cut down.
The Ravens had time to think on the fourth-down call as the third quarter expired, and Harbaugh kept the offense on the field.
"All the numbers will tell you that you have to go for that," Harbaugh said. "If you want to talk about the analytics and the numbers and all that – which I'm not saying that is what we live and die by – but it is the call you make. Because you back them up, you pin them down, and the chances of getting at least three [points] coming back are really good. The chances of getting more than that are good as well."
The toss to the left for West looked like it could have been blocked up, but fullback Kyle Juszczyk didn't execute a cut block well enough, and Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas kept his feet and pushed West out of bounds for a 1-yard loss.
"We can't score from the half yard line with our offense?" Harbaugh said. "Are you kidding me? That is what ticks me off."
The irony of the second-guessing of* *the goal-line call is that there has been no second-guessing on an even bolder call later in the fourth quarter – because it worked.
The Ravens were facing a fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line with four minutes, 24 seconds left and trailing by four points. They could have punted and lived for another possession. Instead, Flacco rolled right and connected with wide receiver Kamar Aiken for a 22-yard gain. The Ravens pushed the ball downfield and took the lead on a 2-yard touchdown run by West.
"That is the one to ask about," Harbaugh said. "But you didn't ask about that one."
The point is, head coaches have to make tough calls often in a game. The Giants, for example, went for it on fourth down three times over the course of the game, and each one led to scores.
"If they go for those and don't get them, then people are asking them about those," Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh was questioned after the Ravens accepted a penalty two weeks ago against the Raiders that put Oakland in a third-and-long situation. They picked it up and scored a touchdown instead of attempting a field goal. After a 28-27 loss, Harbaugh said, "looking back on it, it wasn't the right decision."
He was questioned after last week's game for a fake field goal that didn't work out because tight end Crockett Gillmore tripped coming off the line and kicker Justin Tucker's pass fell short. The Ravens lost, 16-10.
"We tried a fake field goal last week, and we ended up losing by six," Harbaugh said. "If we would have gotten the touchdown there, we would have won the game. But no one said, 'Well it was good to go for the fake there, because you ended up losing by six.'"
Harbaugh said then, and he repeated again Monday, that he will be aggressive. That's just the kind of coach he is, and he said that, most of the time, he wants to give his players a chance to make a play.
"If I have to throw up the white flag because our offense can't score from a foot-and-a-half out … if that is the coach that you want, if that is what we have to do, then we will do it," Harbaugh said. "I'm going to coach this team to score from the half yard line. That is the way we are going to do it."
Harbaugh also explained the play-call by Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees on the Giants' game-winning 66-yard slant pass to Odell Beckham Jr. Safety Eric Weddle and cornerback Tavon Young collided as they crossed paths.
"Dean's thinking there was that it's fourth and 1, lets win the game right now," Harbaugh said.
"We bat a ball down, he throws one high [or] he throws one low, someone gets in the throwing lane, you win the game, you're off the field. It's done. It was an aggressive call. It wasn't played very well and you can say it wasn't a good call because of the result if you want, but that was the idea behind the call."