While John Harbaugh is being criticized by local media and fans for his aggressive decision-making, the Baltimore Ravens coach is being lauded as royalty by the football analytics community.
In Sunday’s 33-28 loss in Kansas City, the Ravens chose to go for two-point conversions three times based on win probability. Even though Baltimore failed on every attempt, Aaron Schatz, the head of Football Outsiders, called Harbaugh “the prince that was promised.”
Warren Sharp, who excels in predictive NFL analytics and visualized data at Sharp Football, wrote, "This is the right way to make decisions. NFL teams not yet on this level: get on it.”
Harbaugh received an award for one of his decisions, even though it was ultimately unsuccessful. Pro Football Focus gave the “Decision of the Week” to Harbaugh for going for a two-point conversion while trailing the Chiefs, 30-19, with 12:22 left in the fourth quarter.
Many believe the Ravens should’ve taken the extra point to cut the deficit to 10 points. That put Baltimore in position to tie the game with a touchdown and a field goal.
Harbaugh made it clear that the Ravens weren’t playing to go to overtime.
"Getting it to nine gives you a much better chance of winning than taking it into overtime, and you still have a chance to do that with the second 2-[point conversion],” Harbaugh said. "And if for some reason they happen to kick a field goal or score a touchdown, it also enhances your odds. So, while you may think getting it to 10 is the thing to do, it’s the thing to do if you want to go into overtime. It’s not the thing to do if you want to win the game in regulation, and that’s what we were trying to do.”
The Ravens are among the NFL teams who are at the forefront of analytics. On the Ravens’ current staff, members have titles such as "Manager, Player Evaluations & Analytics” and "Quantitative Analyst."
First-year general manager Eric DeCosta loves how this field can find trends, loopholes and patterns to gain any additional competitive advantage. He once read "Moneyball” -- the book on how the Oakland Athletics used sabermetrics -- in 2003 while sitting in the waiting room while his daughter was born.
On game days, Harbaugh has people who feed him the analytical numbers for certain situations straight through his headset.
"The analytics guys will tell you that I don’t follow the analytics nearly enough,” Harbaugh said. "They’ll tell you that I go by my gut way more than I go by the analytics, and I do because of the flow of the game, the feel of the game, situations you’ve been in."
But, in Sunday's game, Harbaugh is not second-guessing any of the decisions that were based on analytics.
"Those were definitely decisions that gave us the best chance to win and put us in 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 a score at the end of the game, period, and that’s borne out by looking back. If we get the 2-point conversions, we win the game just by doing what we did without executing some other things. So, like I said [Sunday] night, we stand by our decisions."
The Ravens players all supported Harbaugh's aggressive mindset, which was discussed as part of the game plan leading up to Sunday's game in Kansas City.
"I love it, I love it, I love it," running back Mark Ingram II said. "We come in here to a hostile environment, one of the better teams in the league everyone says and we went toe-to-toe with them, played aggressive. We gotta make sure we execute so we have our coaches back for believing in us."