Ravens’ fourth-down dice roll typifies a more aggressive NFL
Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth all but exhorted John Harbaugh not to go for it on fourth-and-a-long-1 from his own 43.
The Ravens were leading the Chiefs 36-35 and the Sunday Night Football crew figured it foolhardy to risk giving Patrick Mahomes the ball on the wrong side of the 50 and a minute to go.
But this is 2021, when conventional football wisdom has given way to a healthy heaping of analytics flavored with a dollop of hunch.
The revenge of the nerds, if you will.
No longer are notoriously risk-averse coaches viewing the 4 on the sideline down marker as a green light to automatically send out the punting team.
Just last week, NFL teams went for fourth-down conversions a whopping 52 times, the highest single-week total in league history. Twenty-five of those were successful.
So, “don’t discount the possibility that you go for this,” Collinsworth suggested.
“No, you don’t,” retorted Michaels.
“It’s going to be one hell of a call, though.”
It certainly was.
While the seasoned broadcast duo was debating the matter, the camera caught Harbaugh hollering to get Lamar Jackson’s attention.
Finally, he ripped off his headset and stepped onto the field.
You could read his lips: “Lamar, do you want to go for this?”
Of course he did.
Collinsworth and Michaels still weren’t convinced.
“And Lamar Jackson is going back on the field and they are going for it,” Collinsworth said incredulously. “Or at least the hard count.”
“Right,” Michaels said. “At least line up.”
“But they have been picking up a yard at will all night long,” Collinsworth interjected on a night the Ravens had already run for 250 yards and three touchdowns. “You’ve got this monster offensive line. You’ve got an extra offensive lineman in there.”
“You just have to make sure you don’t jump” offside, Michaels said, still sounding unconvinced.
Jackson wasn’t trying to draw the Chiefs offside. He was trying to get the first down, and he took the shotgun snap 5 yards deep and sliced up the middle behind four big bodies for a 2-yard gain.
“And Jackson will GET THE FIRST DOWN! ” Michaels screamed as Harbaugh was hugged on the sideline. “And in effect end the game.”
“The guts of a sailor!” Collinsworth said. “He made the toughest call a head coach has to make and look at him. He knows it. That decision just won the football game. They kick that thing back to Patrick Mahomes, who knows what happens? Four offensive linemen on the left side of the center. And Lamar Jackson with the game on the line says nobody’s touching it but me.”
One kneel-down and the comeback from 11 points down in the fourth quarter was complete, thanks to two incredible plays, the go-ahead touchdown by a cartwheeling Jackson and linebacker Odafe Oweh’s forced fumble and recovery with 1:13 remaining that handed the sure-handed Clyde Edwards-Helaire his first career fumble.
Jackson handed Mahomes his first loss in September after 11 victories, sending the Chiefs into third place in the AFC West behind Denver and Las Vegas, both 2-0.
“What a game,” Michaels said. “One of the rare times the Ravens were a home underdog. And a crazy game ends the way it does with a fumble and then a fourth-down conversion. A beauty tonight.”
“Are announcers allowed to clap?” asked Collinsworth. “I would like to clap for that game. That was something else.”
In Week 2, there were 35 conversion attempts on fourth down, with 13 of them successful.
The 44% success rate should entice even more fourth-down gambles.
Of the 32 games in the books, only three have featured zero fourth-down tries — the Cowboys-Buccaneers and Dolphins-Patriots games in opening weekend and the Texans-Browns game in Week 2.
While none has been as pivotal as the Ravens’ game-sealing dare, the Denver Broncos have converted all five of theirs through two games, including three in a Week 1 win over the Giants.
Teams are more aggressive than they used to be, as evidenced by the 87 fourth-down conversion attempts so far.
“We’ve looked at it hard over the years. Everybody remembers the ones that worked,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said last week.
The ones that didn’t tend to stick in the minds of coaches.
“The greatest example I can give you is the Ravens two years ago were 14-2 in the regular season and they lost their playoff game,” Fangio said. “They had a hell of a team. They were going for it on fourth down more than anybody. They have a quarterback that allows them to do more things, but in two of the three losses they had, going for it on fourth down, got stopped several times and it was a major factor in two of their losses, including the playoffs.
“It’s nice when it works and everybody loves it, but there is another side of that story sometimes.”
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