The Baltimore Ravens lost to the Buffalo Bills 23-20 on Sunday after Bills kicker Tyler Bass hit the game winning field goal. Despite the heroics of Bass and the high level of play Josh Allen and the Bills offense exhibited in the second half, the attention was on the Ravens, and one decision in particular.
The Ravens faced a 4th and goal from the two yard line with 4:15 left in the game. Baltimore would throw the ball, and Jackson would be intercepted. The Ravens star QB wouldn’t touch the ball again, and the Bills would win the game.
The loss sparked many discussions and reactions, including a shouting match between head coach John Harbaugh and CB Marcus Peters, who didn’t seem happy.
Now, looking analytically, the numbers actually agreed with the decision to go for it for Baltimore. The Next Gen Stats’ decision guide had it as a “slight go”, with their odds of winning the game increasing by 1.7%. Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz said that the FO decision model had the Ravens with a higher win percentage on both going for it with a run and with a pass rather than a field goal. The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin’s 4th down decision bot had their win percentage higher if they go for it rather than kick a field goal.
Harbaugh discussed the decision to go for it after the game:
On the surface it makes sense. You go for it and score a TD you force the Bills to drive the field and send the game to OT. Go for it and not get it, the Bills have the ball at the 2-yard line and have to drive the length of the field. Unfortunately, neither of those things happened.
This isn’t the first time that the Ravens have gone for it in these critical moments. Against the Dolphins, the Ravens went for it on a 4th and 1 and were stuffed on a run. Even last year, the Ravens and Harbaugh went viral for asking Lamar if he wanted to go for it on 4th and 1, and they got it to put the game away. Long story short, if the Ravens and Harbaugh want to be the aggressive analytics team like they’ve shown then they have to do this.
However, there are two schools of thought here. Going for it seems like the right decision on the surface. I mean, it’s 4th and goal from the two. If you can’t get two yards on the goal line then you need to reevaluate how you succeed in this sport. In addition, Lamar Jackson has played at an MVP level. You want the ball in your best player’s hands in these critical moments.
The second school of thought here is kicking the ball helps the defense. I know it’s looked down upon by many in analytics, but having momentum and defenders seeing a lead on the scoreboard matters. It also changes the mindset of the opposing team seeing a tie game vs being down. Either way it goes, this was going to be a four down game for the final four minutes, regardless of whether the Ravens took the lead or tied. The Ravens’ offense collapsed in the second half, generating a -.255 EPA/play, 25th in the entire league on Sunday. Their dropback EPA was also 25th in the league in the second half on Sunday, so it does raise some concern that they try to throw the ball on the 2 yard line when they weren’t very successful offensively that entire half.
In addition, on late downs in this game, the Ravens EPA per pass attempt was -0.17 and had a 43% success rate on third and fourth down. Their EPA per pass for the entire game was -0.16 and had a 26% first down rate. If they were going to go for it on 4th and 2, they probably should’ve run the ball. Considering the logic that Harbaugh applied, if they run the ball, it practically ensures that the Ravens either score or start backed up.
Would I have gone for it in this situation? I think so. Running the ball gives them the higher chance to either score or pin them deep. However, a field goal would have been my second choice.
Overall, football is cruel, and the split decision choices that go into making the decision to go for it or kick it not only affects the outcome of the game, but the locker room as well.