On Aggression: Two Yards and Two Points
We'll see a new look Ravens this year, but will we see the same old Harbaugh? God I hope so...
It’s Sunday Dec 5th 2021, and the Ravens are trying to pull off a 4th quarter comeback against the hated Steelers. Lamar, despite his line crumbling in front of him, is performing admirably, hitting receivers for chunk-yardage pickups and marching the offense down the field. Then, incredibly, with only 12 seconds left, Lamar finds Watkins in the endzone, bringing the Ravens within a sure thing Tucker extra point of improbably sending the game into overtime.
But that's when things go off the rails. Because Harbaugh eschews the guaranteed point, and instead opts for the potential deathblow on a bitter rival's home field. Of course as we all now know, it turns out to be an epic misfire when the play is blown up by Watt. Totally deflated, the Ravens are left to slink off the field with their tails between their legs.
For fans, it might’ve been easier to stomach1 had it not come within a seemingly implausible stretch of similar situations, where a Harbaugh decision (or decisions) led directly to a loss each time. If memory serves, such was the case with Cle, Pitt, GB and Pitt again. All close games, all lost at least in part due to a late-game, aggressive Harbaugh call which then blew up in his face.
In a 24-22 loss in Cleveland, he went for a two-point conversion one score too early (down 24-15, 8:56 left). Against GB, his aggressive play calling seemed to backfire on him all game. He went for 4th and goal early on and didn't get it, then again on 4th and 5 from inside their own 30 with 12:00 min left. And crucially, like in Pitt, a failed two-point conversation with 42 seconds left sealed a one-point loss. And they closed out the season with another lackluster, uninspiring loss to the Steelers, for the second time in little over a month, no less. In that game they were both stymied on 4th and inches and crapped the bed on a fake punt–Koch's ruined perfect passer rating, the salt in the wound on that one.
Witnessing this demoralizing run of utter futility might lead some fans to think Harbaugh’s lost his grip on reality. That he can’t make coherent in-game decisions any more. That he’s become too smitten with analytics. Or they simply might be confused because he didn't seem to make such head-scratching calls before that stretch. To that last point, I don’t exactly remember pre-Lombardi Harbaugh’s play calling in terms of aggressiveness. He may’ve even had the ‘conservative play caller’ scarlet letter pinned to his headset back then. But I do have vivid memories of the dark times, the ‘15-‘17 times, when Harb’s maddeningly unorthodox decision making would have me itching to punch a hole through the drywall on the regular.
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Back then, it’d be the same script seemingly each week: In the middle of a close game, Flacco would drive the team down the field only to be halted inside the redzone. Like clockwork, though, somehow he’d find himself in a 4th-and-goal situation from the one. Harbaugh would decide to go for it, but Flacco could never quite root his way through the earthen mound of bodies, effectively denied six points every time2. And in the end, the Ravens would lose by three or less, and I’d go hoarse hurling expletives at the TV.
So if that was our reality for at least three years, why then does it seem like that late-2021 spell came out of nowhere? Simple: ‘19, ‘20 & early ‘21 happened in between. And that was just the perfect palate cleanser, the ginger you eat before switching to a new sushi roll. Because Harbaugh hasn’t changed at all really3. He was just as uber-aggressive from ‘19-‘21. Lamar was just converting these attempts at an insane clip.
And we already knowingly celebrate this fact, as this is what the vaunted "Hell yeah, coach, let's go for it!" play is at its core. Just like the two-point conversion attempt in Pitt, they were potentially leaving points on the field for a dagger play on the road. Except no one was roasting Harbaugh after the Seattle game. We were instead lauding him for embracing analytics. Pounding our chests over how calculating our head coach was. Declaring that he was just the right kind of effectively crazy.
So what's the difference, then? Well let's not be coy, we all know what it is. Plainly and indisputably, the ‘19-through-early-‘21 teams were resoundingly better from a roster standpoint. And it isn’t even close. Those teams were far and away better at football than the rosters that directly preceded and followed them. That’s why the main difference between Harb’s successes and failures in these high-leverage situations isn't his play calling but the players executing the plays. His roster, the horses he has at his disposal, pure and simple.
With that in mind, let’s perform a sober and dispassionate autopsy on those two fallow periods—‘15-‘17 and late-‘21. Yes, in both stretches Harbaugh was wildly overaggressive, which left points on the field and potentially cost the Ravens wins. But looking back, honestly, even if Harbaugh had been more conservative, had made the exact “right4” call 100% of the time, how many of those teams could've made it to the Super Bowl? The AFC Championship? Hell, even the Divisional round?
Did late-second-contract Flacco still have any of his patented playoff magic left? And as much as I like Huntley as a backup, does he strike anyone as a championship-winning QB at this point in his development? If I had to put a paycheck on it, I’d say ‘no’ to both.
But, I’ll never be the guy to dictate how other people should watch or enjoy sports. So if someone’s argument is ‘Just do whatever you need to do to get to the playoffs, who knows what’ll happen,’ I won’t begrudge them their opinion5. And since we, of course, can’t truly test these counterfactuals anyway, maybe they’re right and I’m wrong. Maybe going the conventional route would’ve resulted in more playoff trips and perhaps even a third trophy.
Though I'd argue the exact opposite. That Harbaugh's aggressiveness didn't actually cost us anything of substance but rather served as sort of a litmus test during those seasons. As being aggressive shows you in real time if you have what it takes for a deep postseason run. Because if you couldn't get one measly yard in a do-or-die situation against the 5-5 Browns in November, come January, the peak Brady Pats would’ve probably been out of your league, too.
So in the long run, I'm not sure Harbaugh’s desire to push the envelope actually ever knee-capped a Super-Bowl-caliber roster. Instead it may’ve simply revealed some rosters to be in a lower tier than we had previously assumed. And that’s why in the zero-sum game of professional sports championships, I can with a fair amount of confidence claim that there are no phantom trophies or banners laying at the feet of Harbaugh’s aggressive play calling.
Which brings us back to 2022 and all those pointed questions trailing Harbaugh. Is John Harbaugh too aggressive? What could convince Harbaugh to be more conservative in certain situations? I say brush these types of questions aside, and go with a statement: John Harbaugh is aggressive. Perhaps even overly aggressive. And we all already know he is. And that's why I think it's a fool's errand to want to convert the coach to the roster. Let’s instead convert the roster to the coach. Let’s get him the appropriate horses so that he can thrive as the aggressive play caller we all know him to be.
Plus there’s another reason to employ this strategy—one that might even unite the two sides of this divide. Back when the sport was more a war of attrition, when points were at a premium and good field position was borderline sacrosanct, it was common sense to call a more conservative game. But since every rule change in the past thirty years has been made in an attempt to juice scoring, you could argue this entire concept has been flipped on its head. That focusing solely on never turning the ball over and field position and playing for a tie is no longer the conventional path to victory it once was, but a self-inflicted handicap, instead.
And so the bird-in-the-hand crowd might want to consider that John Harbaugh isn’t throwing caution to the wind by leaning into his aggressive tendencies. Rather, he’s simply exploiting the modern ruleset in quite a savvy manner. Because with the defense at such a striking disadvantage, even a competent offense should rarely have an issue executing a basic play to pick up a few yards. And it should be child's play to a high-functioning, playoff-worthy offense. Which is exactly the type of offense I expect the 2022 Ravens to have.
So for both revelatory and tactical reasons, I'll take my play caller extra aggressive. Just a whisper shy of reckless—and to be honest a little recklessness isn't the end of the world in a sport like football. Of course, it's going to bite you sometimes. Or, in the case of the end of 2021 season, it might bite you five fucking times in a row. But 2021 was cursed by the gods before the season even kicked off. It was never meant to be, so the six straight losses to end the year is nothing but a depressing stat in retrospect. But in the years when he's got the horses, and, again, I anticipate 2022 to be one of those years, the dice rolls are going to show more in his favor than not. So let’s saddle up and let those motherfuckers run wild.
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Just to be clear, I’m referring to the general consensus, which seems to have disapproved of going for it. Full disclosure, I didn’t care about going for it, because I was unconcerned about wins & losses at that point of the season anyway. I wanted nothing to do with the playoffs last year. But I respect those that always want to be in the playoffs regardless of circumstance. I really can’t knock them for wanting a professional sports team to go out and compete, that’s a perfectly reasonable request. But that’s not the headspace I was in last Dec.
That’s not an exaggeration. I can’t recall one time when Flacco converted a QB sneak on 4th and short.
Again, at least not in the post-SB times.
I should probably state here that the term ‘right call’ is a little misleading. At least in the traditional sense, where the right thing to do is always rewarded and the wrong always punished. In the NFL, The ‘right call’ might lead to zero points and a loss, while the ‘wrong call’ might net you one point and a win.
And I don’t think I’m very far off from that camp, either.