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John Harbaugh Talks About Going With His Gut vs. Analytics


For those who felt Head Coach John Harbaugh was too aggressive Sunday in Kansas City, you should probably know that he wasn't aggressiveenough for the analysts who consult him.

The Ravens have dedicated analysts to break down win probabilities under countless different scenarios. It's a big part of the changing sports landscape, and the NFL is among the newer adopters.

Harbaugh is on the front line, but even his gut sometimes argues with his head.

"The analytics guys will tell you that I don't follow the analytics nearly enough," Harbaugh said Monday. "They'll tell you I go by my gut way more than I go by the analytics, and I do. I'll go against the analytics a lot more than I go with it, in terms of 50-50 close calls."

The day after the Ravens' 33-28 loss in Kansas City, the buzz around Baltimore was still about how Harbaugh's decisions to challenge conventional football strategy and go for it more on fourth down and on two-point conversions.

The strategy has mixed results. The Ravens went for it on fourth down and converted three times. They attempted three two-point conversions and didn't get any of them.

But just because it didn't work out every time in Kansas City doesn't mean it was the wrong strategy.

Even if the Ravens had kicked the extra points, they still would have needed a field goal to beat the Chiefs. But had the Ravens successfully converted those two-point conversions, they would have theoretically won (of course, the Chiefs' strategy may have changed, too).

"In a game like that, those were definitely decisions that gave us the best chance to win and put us in a position to win the game, without question," Harbaugh said. "If we hadn't made those decisions – especially the fourth-down decisions – we wouldn't have been within one score at the end of the game. Period."

The Ravens entered the game with the mindset that they were going to aggressively try to score as many points as possible against a powerful Chiefs offense designed by Andy Reid and headed by MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes. That meant Baltimore needed to maximize each possession.

With the Chiefs' quick-strike, fast offense capable of big gains at any time, the Ravens knew that punting to save 30 or so yards of field possessions did them little benefit.

"It wasn't a field position game," Harbaugh said. "It was a possession game."

Here's an example. After Baltimore's first punt, which they did on fourth-and-4 from their own 43-yard line, the Chiefs scored on an 83-yard touchdown three plays later. How much good did the 53 yards of field position (after an excellent Sam Koch punt) do?

By contrast, the Ravens went for it on fourth-and-3 from the Kansas City 9-yard line on their first drive and converted with a 7-yard run by Lamar Jackson. They scored a touchdown on the next play to take an early 6-0 lead. That was a four-point swing right there.

The decisions that are being debated the most were the two-point conversions – probably because they didn't work out as well as the fourth-down attempts – and specifically when Baltimore went for two when trailing 30-19 early in the fourth quarter.

Traditional thought would say to kick the extra point and get to 10 points behind so a touchdown and field goal would tie the game. But the Ravens weren't playing to tie.

The Ravens knew their best chance of winning – the ultimate goal – was to do so in regulation rather than overtime. This isn't part of the calculation, but remember that Baltimore lost in overtime in Kansas City last season.

Statistically speaking, the boost to Baltimore's win probability of a successful two-point conversion outweighed the negative impact if the Ravens didn't convert.

"While you may think getting to 10 is the thing to do, it's the thing you want to do if you want to go into overtime," Harbaugh said. "It's not the thing to do if you want to win the game in regulation. That's what we were trying to do.

"Getting it to 9 gives you much better chance of winning than taking it to overtime. You still have a chance to do that with the second two. And if for some reason, they happen to kick a field goal or score a touchdown, it also enhances your odds."

If you're still confused, or looking to take a deeper dive, check out this article from Pro Football Focus, which gave Harbaugh the "Decision of the Week" honors in Week 3.

Or take the word of these football media analysts, who crunch numbers for a living (kind of like the people the Ravens employ).

But don't forget, Harbaugh still trusts his gut above all else. It's just that his gut believes in his players, and his nature believes in being aggressive. Thus, he often aligns with the analytics.

"The gut part of it for me is that I like Lamar and I believe in Lamar as a quarterback," Harbaugh said. "I believe in all of our guys' ability to make a play. We didn't make those plays in this game. We'll study those from a football standpoint."

Jackson's ability to run or pass puts additional strain on defenses around the goal line. He's hard to stop from getting just two yards. The Chiefs did, so give them credit.

But the Ravens are betting that most teams won't. And they're going to keep trying – regardless of the outside noise.

"[Lamar's] going to make a lot more of those over the course of his career than he's not," Harbaugh said.

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