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Fourth Down Conservatism Rules Week 3

The top-scorer on Harbaugh's fantasy team

The top-scorer on Harbaugh's fantasy team.

It’s become trendy in this space and many others for stats folks to rail against bad 4th down decisions. It’s even trendier to do it when those conservative decisions backfire, leading to losses. But analyzing any decision — and especially decisions about whether to go for it or kick on 4th down — should not be done with the benefit of hindsight. So today, I’m going to rail against John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, and Mike McCoy, who made some awfully timid 4th down decisions but won on Sunday. And while one could argue that they won because of those decisions, the better argument, I believe, is that they won in spite of them.

Trailing by 4 with 5:03 remaining, the Ravens kick a Field Goal on the 3-yard line

Harbaugh is no stranger to meek 4th down decision making; in fact, he’s no stranger to this particular brand of conservative coaching. Last year, he sent out the kicker when, trailing by 6 points with just over four minutes remaining in the game, the Ravens faced a 4th and 5 from the 6 yard line. Both Jason Lisk and I wrote about the silliness of this decision, which resulted in a Buffalo 23-20 victory.

Facing similar circumstances — a 4-point lead and an extra minute remaining makes it less objectionable to kick the field goal, but being on the 3-yard line makes it even worse — Harbaugh again sent out Justin Tucker to take the points.  That decision cost the Ravens 0.22 expected wins; according to Advanced Football Analytics, the decision to kick a field goal instead of going for it dropped Baltimore’s win probability from 54% to 32%.

As Mike Tanier facetiously wrote, this just set up the ultimate Ravens end game: one bomb from Joe Flacco and one kick by Tucker is all the team would need to win.  Sure enough, Flacco hit Steve Smith for a 32-yard catch, and Tucker kicked the chip shot for the win.  The Ravens wound up having two additional possessions: after Tucker made it a 1-point game, the Browns and Ravens traded 3-and-outs, and the Browns went 3-and-out again before giving Baltimore one final possession with 1:58 remaining.

At the time of the decision to send Tucker out for a field goal, Brian Hoyer was 19 of 22 for 290 yards and a touchdown. He wound up throwing incomplete on his last three passes of the day. But if not for two Cleveland three-and-outs — the only two of the day — Harbaugh’s decision to cost his team 22 points of win probability would be generating much more backlash today. [click to continue…]

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Did you know these two are brothers?

Did you know these two are brothers?

John Harbaugh is a Super Bowl-winning head coach. He might represent the new archetype for owners when it comes to hiring a head coach. He outcoached his brother in Super Bowl XLVII. But that doesn’t mean his fourth down decisions on Thursday Night were above criticism.

1) Punting is not the way to beat Manning

Facing 4th and 5 from the Broncos 40-yard line, Harbaugh elected to punt up 14-7 with 8 minutes left in the second quarter. Last year, I highlighted one of the most difficult fourth down decisions coaches have to make: 4th-and-7 from between the 34- and 38-yard lines. In the thin air of Denver and with strong-legged Justin Tucker, we can safely include this scenario in that definition of No Man’s Land. Facing 4th-and-5 is a lot easier than 4th-and-7, so going for it would have been my preferred choice. The Ravens elected to punt, but let’s consider the other two options.
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“He’s the best coach in football right now.”

That was what John Harbaugh said about his little brother after the game. It’s hard to argue: I’ve said a few times that I think Jim Harbaugh is the best coach in the league, too. (Although I gave my mythical COTY vote to Pete Carroll.)

It was a classy thing to say by the winning coach, especially on a day where he outcoached his little brother. Actually, the more accurate way of putting it would be to say that “John Harbaugh made fewer bad decisions than Jim Harbaugh.” Let’s go through the game in chronological order

The First Snap

I’ve watched enough Jets games to know that there’s a certain level of horribleness that comes with having a pre-snap penalty at the start of a quarter or half. Maybe you don’t want to blame Jim Harbaugh for the 49ers lining up in an illegal formation on the first snap of the game, but let’s just say this: that’s not how the New York media would react if Rex Ryan’s team did that. Jim Harbaugh would be the first to tell you that it was inexcusable to have such a penalty on the first snap of the game, and the team didn’t look any more prepared on snap two, when Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore were on the wrong page of a fake-handoff that instead went to Lennay Kekua.

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Fourth and Harbaugh: Which coach is more aggressive?

The puns this week are harribaughl.

The puns this week are horribaughl.

I’m going to hold off until Sunday morning to post my Super Bowl preview, but today, I’m going to look at a possible hidden key to the game. In most playoff games, each coach is faced with a critical fourth down decision. Often times the conservative coach delays the decision to go for it in favorable circumstances early in the game only to be forced to do so in less optimal situations in the final minutes. We also know that in general, coaches frequently fail to go for it early in games when the down and distance dictate a more aggressive approach: even Bill Belichick has been known to cost his team points with conservative fourth-down decisions, as he did in the AFC Championship Game. Which leads to today’s post: Is one Harbaugh more or less aggressive than the other?

Let’s start with how each coach has performed in the regular season, beginning with Jim.
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The Schottenheimer Index

Marty checking to make sure the pilot light is out.

Marty inquires as to whether Felix Wright's pilot light is out.

Last week, Neil brought us the latest iteration of the Manning Index, showing which quarterbacks have overachieved in the playoffs relative to expectation (based off of the Vegas line). I’m going to do the same today for coaches. A couple of introductory notes:

Neil described the exact methodology in his quarterbacks post, so I won’t waste time repeating it. However, I wanted to look at coaches over an even longer period, and 1950 sounded like a good cut-off.1 Since we don’t have point-spread data for games from 1950 to 19772, I simply used the projected point spread based on the differential between each team’s SRS ratings and by awarding the home team three points. So for pre-1977 games, coaches are credited with wins over expectation based on the SRS, and for post-1977, for wins over expectation based on the Vegas line. Here are the results.
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  1. Note that coaches, like Paul Brown, who coached before 1950 are included, but their pre-1950 stats are not. []
  2. One other piece of fine print: for the Super Bowls, I used the actual Vegas lines, since those are readily available. []
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Lewis looks to cement his legacy

Lewis looks to cement his legacy.

Being a Super Bowl champion is a pretty nice bullet to place on your Hall of Fame resume. For players like Jerry Rice or Peyton Manning (or say, Steve Largent or Dan Marino), the failure to acquire a ring wouldn’t have prevented their induction; on the other hand, would Lynn Swann or Paul Hornung or a host of quarterbacks have made the HOF without a Super Bowl ring (or two, or three, or four?)

Just winning a Super Bowl guarantees nothing — Charles Haley and his five rings are on the outside looking in, as is Fuzzy Thurston, winner of six NFL titles. The borderline cases are the ones most helped or hurt by that Lombardi Trophy (or lack thereof) on the resume, and that class of players seems to be among the largest growing segment each year. So today, I’m going to take a look at how winning the Super Bowl could impact the legacies of certain Ravens.

Ray Lewis is a first ballot Hall of Famer regardless of what happens in Super Bowl XLVII, although his status as the game’s best inside linebacker of all-time might be boosted with a second Lombardi. The Ravens have been on a magical “Ride with Ray” and he’s been the face of a defense that’s turned from average in the regular season to excellent in the playoffs.

Ed Reed is another obvious Hall of Famer, even though unlike Lewis he was not a member of the 2000 Ravens teams that won the Super Bowl. Still, considering Troy Polamalu has appeared in three and won two of these games, Reed’s resume will look slightly less glamorous if he never is able to win a Super Bowl. And while it isn’t particularly relevant here, but I’ll just note that from 2005 to 2007, Bob Sanders made them a “Big Three” at the position, when Sanders won both a Super Bowl and a Defensive Player of the Year award. All three have battled injuries, showing just how dangerous the safety position can be in the NFL.
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When you think about the Ravens under John Harbaugh — or just about any time in their existence — you think of a defensive team. Under Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata, Baltimore has fielded dominant defenses for much of the last decade. Marvin Lewis, Baltimore’s defensive coordinator from 1996 to 2001, was rewarded with the head coaching job in Cincinnati after his years of excellent service. He was replaced by Mike Nolan, who after coordinating the defense for three years in Baltimore, was tapped to revive the 49ers. His replacement, Rex Ryan, excelled for four years in Baltimore, and was then chosen by the Jets to be their next head coach. The Ravens replaced Ryan with Greg Mattison, who was lured by his friend Brady Hoke to take the DC job at Michigan in 2011. He was replaced by Chuck Pagano, who coordinated the Baltimore defense for only a year (after spending three as the defensive backs coach) before the Colts selected him to be their next head coach. Dean Pees is the current DC in Baltimore.

Suffice it to say, with so many prominent names roaming the sidelines and coordinating the defenses in Baltimore, there are few fingerprints from either John Harbaugh or his predecessor Brian Billick on the great Ravens defenses. When you look at Baltimore’s offense under Harbaugh, you immediately think of Cam Cameron, who excelled so much in his role as OC in San Diego that he was hired by the Miami Dolphins in 2007. Cameron’s Dolphins went 1-15 and he was fired after only one year, but Harbaugh chose Cameron to be his first offensive coordinator. Then, with three weeks remaining in the regular season, Harbaugh fired Cameron and promoted Jim Caldwell to OC.

That’s a long bit of background to say this: John Harbaugh isn’t in charge of the Baltimore offense or the Baltimore defense. At least when Brian Billick was around, you knew the offense would be crafted in his image, even if it wasn’t successful. But there’s a reason you don’t think of Harbaugh when you think of the specific offensive/defensive units in Baltimore: that’s because he made his name as a Special Teams coach.
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[Note: I'm scheduled to appear on The Bobby Curran Show on ESPN 1420 at just after 2:00 today. If you're interested, you can listen here.]

Not Dick LeBeau.

Rex Ryan is the Tim Tebow of coaches: whatever he says tends to get magnified. I was sitting a few feet from Ryan when he made his latest controversial comment. Keyshawn Johnson asked Ryan if having a former head coach in Tony Sparano now coaching the offense would allow him to focus more on the defense. Ryan said it would, although Ryan previously vowed to also be more involved with the offense. The next question asked about Ryan’s confidence, and he said he had a lot of confidence in himself and his coaching staff. He went on:

Now, I wasn’t even in the defensive meeting last night, but I have complete faith and trust in the coaches we have. As I said, it’s easy for me to say I’m the best defensive coach in football. Now that’s saying something, because Dick LeBeau’s pretty (darn) good, Bill Belichick is pretty good. But that’s the way I’ve always believed. And you know what, I believe it because of the guys I coach with, there’s no doubt about that, and the guys that I’ve coached. That’s the truth, and that’s how I feel. I’m going to be more involved over there, calling games or whatever. Obviously, Mike Pettine, that’s my right hand guy, he’s always been my right hand guy and that’s the way it’s always going to be.

Not that inflammatory, is it? In any event, Ryan also issued a call to the media on Saturday, and if you’ve ever read this blog, you know he got my attention with what he said:

I’m still waiting to see somebody put the stats up there, because I know I’m crazy, but go ahead and just put them out there one day, since I’ve been a coordinator and head coach, I dunno where I’d rank…I really don’t even know the answer…Now watch Dick LeBeau get me.

Well, Rex, I’ll put the stats out there for you. Presumably we want to compare Ryan to all current head coaches (with defensive backgrounds) and defensive coordinators in the league. There are only 25 defensive coordinators to examine, as sevens teams do not have coordinators with any relevant track record. Both Missouri teams are actually without defensive coordinators this year: In Kansas City, Romeo Crennel will be head coach and defensive coordinator, while in St. Louis, the Rams are going with a committee approach to replace the suspended Gregg Williams. In addition, five men will be first-time defensive coordinators in 2012: Matt Patricia in New England, Kevin Coyle in Miami, Alan Williams in Minnesota, Jason Tarver in Oakland and John Pagano in San Diego.
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