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John Harbaugh Is Doing Everything Right

There’s still a lot of season left, granted, but Ravens fans should be pleased with the way head coach John Harbaugh has been running things through three games. Baltimore has built an offense that seems perfectly suited to quarterback Lamar Jackson’s many gifts, and Harbaugh has shown an in-game aggressiveness that’s rooted in genuinely sound analytical thinking. This ought to serve the Ravens well in what’s shaping up to be a crummy AFC North.

The Ravens spent the offseason signaling that they’d look to turn the clock back toward a run-centric offense, with Jackson and his running ability as its fulcrum. But that’s not exactly what new coordinator Greg Roman’s offense has been doing. The Ravens are all-in on Jackson’s ability as a dual threat—and they’re mixing it up.

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According to analyst Warren Sharp’s data, the Ravens ran the ball a ton on first and second down (41 rushes, 19 passes) in their Week 1 blowout of the overmatched Dolphins. But in their last two games, their pass-run ratio on early downs has been 64:54. On all downs, Jackson has already rushed 27 times for 172 yards and a touchdown. But he’s also taking plenty of shots downfield, with 21 attempts of 20 yards or more (which ranks second in the NFL, behind Matt Stafford’s 22, according to Pro Football Focus), and eight completions (which ranks tied for fifth). Jackson’s intended air yards, per NFL Next Gen Stats, is 10.7, fifth-most in the league. The Ravens have also combined this sort of big-play threat with a solid dose of play-action: Per PFF, Jackson has play-faked on 33.6 percent of his dropbacks, which ranks seventh among qualified passers. The Ravens are less interested in balance than in making full use of what Jackson does best. And right now Jackson’s Total QBR of 80.2 ranks only behind Dak Prescott’s (90.4), Patrick Mahomes’s (89.6), and Tom Brady’s (85.6). Which is pretty good company.

It’s not just about play design, though. Harbaugh has also chosen to be aggressive by utilizing some forward-thinking risk assessment of fourth downs and two-point conversions. Per Pro Football Reference, the Ravens have already gone for it seven times on fourth down, tied with the Eagles and Dolphins for second-most in the league, and trailing only Washington’s eight. Like the Dolphins, Washington is perpetually playing from behind. But the Eagles had used a similarly aggressive fourth-down strategy to win the damn Super Bowl two years ago. It’s what a lot of smart analysis has been telling teams to do for years.

In Sunday’s loss to the high-powered Chiefs, knowing he’d need to maximize every possession, Harbaugh went for it on fourth down four times, converting three. The first was a fourth-and-3 from the Chiefs’ 9-yard line on Baltimore’s opening possession. The result was a Jackson scramble for a first down. On the next play, the Ravens were in the end zone. The next instance happened early in the second quarter, with the Ravens trailing 7-6 and facing a fourth-and-1 from their own 34. A handoff to Gus Edwards out of the shotgun picked up the first down. Four plays later, facing a fourth-and-2 from its own 47, Baltimore tried again. A Jackson pass to Marquise Brown fell incomplete. And in the fourth quarter, trailing by 17, the Ravens successfully executed a fourth-and-5 from the Chiefs’ 27, sustaining a drive that ended in a touchdown.

It’s true that the failed fourth-down attempt in the second quarter gave the Chiefs the ball near midfield, and that Kansas City scored a TD on that possession. But the risk/reward of win probability (or game-winning chance, depending on whose statistical model is being used) dictated that Harbaugh made the right call both times in the second quarter.

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A similar approach informed Harbaugh’s decision to go for 2 after the Ravens cut the Chiefs’ lead to 30-19 with 12:27 left in the fourth quarter. That attempt also failed, but the win probability the Ravens would have gained by kicking the extra point was only slightly better than what it would have been with a failed attempt, and far lower than it would have been with a successful two-pointer.

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Harbaugh, to his credit, owned his decisions and backed them up by explaining the sound quantitative reasoning behind them.

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I recommend watching that video to get a sense of what was asked and how Harbaugh responded to each question. But for those not inclined to view it, here’s what he had to say:

“I have a good understanding of the numbers and how it worked ... It’s very detailed and well-thought out. I think I was pretty clear about it last night, but we’re standing by our decisions. Our decisions gave us the best chance to win the game, in that particular game. These are not league-average choices. These are determined by this game and for this game specifically, in that venue; weather is even factored into it. There’s a lot of factors that go into it that are mathematically calculated. And that’s why we did it. It wasn’t a field-position game. It was a possession game. And making the most of each possession was what counted and that’s what we were attempting to do, and for the most part we did a really good job of it.”

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And:

“Getting it to nine gives you a 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. So while you may think getting to 10 is the thing to do, it’s the thing to do if you want to go to 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.”

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And:

“The analytics guys will tell you I don’t follow the analytics nearly enough. They’ll tell you I go by my gut way more than I go by the analytics, and I do. Because the flow of the game, the feel of the game, situations you’ve been in ... all those things are something, as a coach, you have a real sense for. So I’ll go against the analytics a lot more than I’ll go with it, in terms of 50/50 close calls. But in a game like that, those were definitely decisions that gave us the best chance to win, and put us in the best position to win the game, no question. 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.”

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One final flourish: After pulling within 33-28 with 2:01 to go (and failing on another two-point try), Harbaugh had Justin Tucker attempt a dropkick on the kickoff, which resulted in a fair catch that prevented any time from running off the clock. The Ravens had just one timeout remaining, so the maneuver basically bought them an extra timeout with the two-minute warning. That it didn’t ultimately work because the Chiefs picked up a first down and salted the game away isn’t the point. Harbaugh again worked to maximize his team’s opportunities in a game in which it would need all of them.

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Football is undergoing an analytics arms race. Smart teams already understand this, and are behaving accordingly. The Ravens certainly appear to be one of those smart teams.

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About the author

Dom Cosentino

Dom Cosentino is a staff writer at Deadspin.