John Harbaugh's Decision to Kick a Field Goal Down Six: You Need a Field Goal Anyway, Right?

By Jason Lisk

Last year, I tore into Marvin Lewis and Romeo Crennel for conservative late game decisions to kick a field goal when trailing late, when a touchdown on the drive would have given their teams the lead.

So, if I am going to be fair, I have to do the same for John Harbaugh, Super Bowl ring in hand or not.

Harbaugh made a pretty bad strategic error in kicking a chip shot field goal, down by six points, with just over four minutes remaining in the game. At the time, the Ravens trailed 23-17, and faced a 4th and 5 from the 6 yard line. I should note that a few years ago, he faced a similar decision, one that should have emboldened him. Against Pittsburgh in 2010, he went for it on 4th and goal from the 2, got stopped, but then got the ball back on Pittsburgh’s side of the field after a three and out, and Flacco hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a game winning touchdown.

Just so we are clear, then, Harbaugh passed up trying to outright take the lead with only four minutes left (and still have the opponent pinned deep and within a touchdown if it failed) to pursue the following path:

  • make a field goal;
  • make a defensive stop;
  • get the ball back, get in field goal range, and make a field goal;
  • hope that there is not enough time for Buffalo to get their own late field goal;
  • go to overtime, and win it (we would assume with a field goal).

And sure, they could have gone for a touchdown when they got the ball back, which would largely make the original field goal decision unnecessary.

So you might be interested to know this. According to the Win Probability Calculator at Advanced NFL Stats, the Ravens had the following chances to win the game:

  • If go and score touchdown to lead 24-23, A 48% CHANCE OF WINNING assuming Buffalo starts at own 25 down 1.
  • If kick field goal, to still trail 23-20, a 17% CHANCE OF WINNING, again assuming Buffalo starts at own 25 up by 3.
  • If go for it and fail, still trailing 23-17, a 25% CHANCE OF WINNING, assuming Buffalo takes over at the 6.

Wait, what? Talk about a bunch of statistical mumbo jumbo and mathematical formulas. That says that the Ravens would have had a better chance winning down by 6 than down by 3, not to mention the chance they could have taken the lead by going for it.

Here’s the thing. These are not advanced rocket science numbers. You know where they come from? Actual games coached by guys like John Harbaugh and Marvin Lewis and Romeo Crennel.

For example, while the sample size is small, there have been 24 occasions since 1999 that meet the following similar pattern to what would have faced Buffalo if Baltimore went and failed on fourth down: ahead by between 4 and 7 points, first down, inside the 10 yard line, between 3 and 5 minutes left in the game. The record of the team trailing was  9-15 (40%) in real contests played in real NFL stadiums. Three of those involved teams trailing by 7, scoring, and going to overtime, and two of them lost. Two others involved teams that were trailing getting the go ahead touchdown, only to lose in regulation. Some of those comebacks have been led by the likes of Quincy Carter.

So yes, Baltimore’s chances of winning the game were actually less by kicking the field goal than by going for it, even if they failed, because NFL coaches are a ridiculously conservative group who will play for the tie whenever given the opportunity. The reason that teams trailing by 3 do worse than those trailing by 6 is because coaches assume long field goals will be good, and are wrong a decent amount of time. Even if they are right, they still have to go 50/50 in overtime.

It’s a real and intriguing phenomenon. Everyone thinks in terms of “we need a field goal” rather than “what’s the best way to win the game.” It happened, also, when Mike Smith kicked a field goal on 4th and 1 down 10. You actually don’t need a field goal, you can win in regulation with a touchdown and another touchdown, while leaving the possibility of a field goal to tie in case of emergency. As it, predictably, happened, the Falcons faced a worse situation later to try to tie when they had to go for it anyway.

In Harbaugh’s case, everyone needs to keep in mind that with a chance to take the lead from six yards away, he chose to hope for a bunch of other things to go right. History says that is wrong.