A Minor Little Penalty at the End May Have Dramatically Changed the 2015 Ravens 49ers Game Outcome, and some other Fourth Quarter and NFL Game Considerations

A 2015 week six NFL matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers featured a rematch of Super Bowl XLVII from less than 3 years ago.

It also featured two 1-4 teams, while still current Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh’s brother Jim is no longer coach of the 49ers; and out of both original teams, only ten players again started this game on Sunday (or at least for the same side – see below), six for the gang from San Francisco, and four from Baltimore: QB Joe Flacco, guards Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda, and linebacker Courney Upshaw.

The game also saw a few interesting strategy situations unfold in the fourth quarter of what was ultimately another close one. And, with barely two minutes to go, wound up being dramatically altered by an inside of five yards subjective defensive hold call, in a contest that up until that point had seen just five penalties.

First, in a key 3rd down situation and trailing by 6 from the 49ers 27, the Ravens threw a long pass with very little chance, to a well covered Kamar Aiken boxed in along the deep right sideline (after the play was over, long time quarterback and commentator Rich Gannon proclaimed the play ultimately had “no chance”), thus blowing the more important opportunity to get four new plays out of the deal, on a sort of needless “wing it and hope” type of decision.

Then, about a minute later, the Ravens – having already badly wasted timeout number one less than a minute into the second half – lost their second on a challenge to a solid 51 yard Anquan Boldin catch (also see below), that barring a likely mistake by the referees had very little chance of being overturned.

This was a timeout that, given the Ravens waste of the earlier one, effectively made the difference between them having a very realistic chance of later ultimately winning the game, versus the super long shot chance they wound up with; but for, again, want of that timeout.

Then the Ravens pulled within 6, and made a PAT versus two point conversion attempt decision that was also pretty interesting. (Link forthcoming – but here was the situation: 5:14 left, the touchdown, pending an extra point or conversion try, made the score 25-19, with more strategy implications than might at first meet the eye.)

Then, though we’ll never know, the game may have been all but decided on a measly little penalty. A penalty that but for its moment of occurrence otherwise probably went somewhat under the radar:

Leading 25-20, the 49ers faced 3rd and 7 from their own 40 yard line with 2:33 left in the game, and just the one Baltimore timeout.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick scrambled hard left. (Which, interestingly, as a right handed quarterback he nevertheless seems to like to do more than roll right – and on their prior drive, moving hard to his left, had on the dead run and with his right arm of course, thrown that essentially perfect pass to Anquan Boldin nearly 50 yards downfield for a 51 yard gain shown in the video above; hitting Boldin in his hands out in front in near perfect stride.) And he was eventually forced out of bounds for a one yard gain.

Thus, after Kaeperinick’s scramble on 3rd and 7, a 49ers punt had been upcoming. And thus at that moment the game was not only far from over, it may even have more likely belonged to the Ravens at that point: Since Joe Flacco joined the league and team in ’08, given plenty of time for a two minute type drill with the game on the line – make it and win outright, don’t make it and lose – the Ravens have won these games more than they’ve lost.

But they were called for their third penalty of the game: A somewhat subtle, within five yards, “grab” type hold by a member of their heavily depleted secondary. Here, cornerback Jimmy Smith on one time 49ers defeating Super Bowl champion Raven, and current 49er, Anquan Boldin. (Torrey Smith is yet another Raven wide receiver who was a member of that Super Bowl squad that defeated the 49ers and Kaepernick in number XLVII (47), who now plays for the 49ers – Smith even had a 76 yard TD catch against his former team in the game. Meanwhile, on the flip side of the ball, the Ravens secondary was so depleted coming in – and they lost safety Kendrick Lewis to a knee injury in the third quarter – that Shareece Wright started at corner for them, when just over a week earlier Wright had been a member of – who else – the 49ers. But not playing, he had asked to be traded or released, and gotten his wish.)

That 3rd down out of bounds scramble play and defensive hold stopped the clock at 2:26, and made it 49ers first down, at their own 45 yard line.

The Ravens could still win. (And as long of a shot which as a result they were ultimately faced with – helped as it later was by a bad 49ers punt – they wound up getting to the 49ers 35 yard line – also helped the last 5 yards by a 49ers penalty – and took two shots at the end zone: Though the 49ers likely played the final drive with more cushion than they otherwise would have had there been a little more time left.)

But at this point they were in a near Hail Mary fluke type of chance situation. A first down ends the game; and barring that, the only requirement was for San Francisco to run plays and hold onto the ball. One run will burn the Ravens last timeout. The second will take the game to the two minute warning.

The third will gake the game clock down to 1:15 or 1:16, at which point the 49ers would make a short high punt with essentially no chance of a return, and put the Ravens somewhere in between the goal and 20 yard line, and probably around the 10 or 12 on average. The Ravens would have about 70 seconds, and no timeouts, to drive between 80 and 99 yards. It’s been done on some fluke occurences, but it’s extremely rare. (The punt, despite becoming more of a rarity in such situations the last few seasons, as it is went into the end zone for a touchback, and gave the Ravens a slightly higher faint – albeit still faint – hope.)

But for a huge 49ers breakdown (though, again, with the Ravens reaching the 35 yard line the opportunity did at least arise as turned out), and what would be one of the very very rarest of last minute drives – post normal kickoff with no timeouts and only a minute to a minute and twenty seconds left – the 49ers, by virtue of that subjective penalty, all but essentially won the game (which, of course, they did 25-20). Or, but for a long shot fluke foulup – it ensured their winning a game that was otherwise completely up in the air.

This is no injustice of sport. And, frankly, in some sense it wouldn’t really be even if it was a bad penalty call. (Heck, the one being called a huge injustice for this season so far, if anything, would have been super fluke luck for the team ultimately deprived of it.)

The games are called aggressively against defensive backs – for better (fans that love high scoring and lots of “big plays” and big fantasy point scoring that the NFL’s Goodell, despite constant NFL sponsorhip on its own shows and website, says it’s not promoting), or worse (less balance between offense and defense, and less meaning to each big play and score). And bad calls, though the goal is to minimize if not eliminate them, are part of the game – and here, if minor, the penalty may have been a legitimate call as well.

When a game is that close – something that seems long forgotten if ever known (or agreed with) in the NFL, but for the record books and subsequent results, it’s not really “won” anyway in one sense at least. When it’s that close, bad bounces cause the difference betwen a win and a loss; a fluke, freak or lucky good play or bad, due to sheer randomness as much as skill and focus, cause the difference between a win and a loss.

They’re still legitimate wins and losses – particularly when combined with great play in key moments – but they often could have gone the other way. (Here the Giants lost opening day – imagine the repercussion for the tightly bunched NFC East right now, or possibly even more significantly by season end – because of a horrendous strategy decision by them; as well as, strategy snafu aside, by a third botched officiating call: A botched call that would have been a defensive hold penalty that, while legitimate, would have saved the Giants after their bad strategy decision and before they even had a chance to then add to it by playing a soft, backed way up swiss cheese style of defense – a defense with more holes even than capitalization policy on the word “swiss cheese,” and a botched call openly acknowledged by the NFL the next day. Itself one of two; but not three, acknowledged, as the NFL, but almost no one else, is apparently “clear” on what defines a catch when a receiver hits the ground “soon” after making said catch. (But apparently not if the ball is fumbled immediately beforehand – when the not yet completed catch under one set of rules, is now ruled a completed catch under another, and with sources apparently chomping at the bit to explain why.)

So actual wins count, are legitimate, and are real. But real wins in the sense of ensuring that on this day this competitor, or this team, is going to, will, and does defeat that competitor (somewhat like the week five game between the Saints and Falcons, most of the Patriots games this season, and of course, many, many others – but not including when Rex Ryan says his team is going to), or the way it turned out, unequivocally did win, regardless of calls or bounces, are a little bit different if not always as discernible.

But games are close in the NFL. And even not so close ones in the end come down to a lot of things. Sometimes those things are the subjective angle of penalty calls. And naturally here in the Ravens game it was the type of penalty that in the last few years has been increasingly tilting NFL games in favor of offenses versus defenses; and specifically passing, versus defenses.

And a game that was probably 50 50, if not at that point with a slight edge to the Ravens – with four player per set of downs, plenty of time, nothing to lose desperation on their side, and the fact that given this opportunity Flacco and the Ravens accomplish it more often than not – becomes, barring a complete 49ers defensive meltdown, essentially all but a lock for the 49ers to win.

It’s an interesting aspect that something as trivial as a minor holding call may have ultimately decided this game. And while the Ravens season looked all but over anyway, one never knows with this team. While it’s not likely in terms of their otherwise still very long shot chances of making the playoffs, that penalty may have ultimately, and very early in the season, knocked those chances down for the final count.

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2015 Ravens at 49ers – Maximizing Winning Opportunity Through Play Calling

Week 6 of the NFL saw the Baltimore Ravens, with a depleted secondary and a 1-4 record out of a bevy of close games, go into San Francisco and (though seemingly slightly outplayed for much of it), lose another close one to fall to a now logistically impractical 1-5.

But an interesting situation came up early in the fourth quarter: 13:47 remained when the ball was snapped, and the Ravens faced 3rd and 4 from the 49ers 27 yard line (though not a “gimme,” solidly within superman kicker Justin Tucker’s comfortable field goal range – see bottom).

Ravens quarteback Joe Flacco occassionally makes throws that may not have been well advised, but overall takes a “play to win” approach, doesn’t fear interceptions if the play has an overall positive value, and generally makes good to very good decisions at one of the most difficult positions in all of sports.

On this play however, and however subtle, the Ravens may have blown a small but important opportunity.

With almost a quarter left to play, it’s too early to heavily discount the value of 3 versus 7 points here. But down 19-13, fairly late, pulling within 3, and thus still trailing (and thus not in a position to be able to generate the key late game two score lead, whereas your opponent is), and also more likely ultimately putting your team in a position to only play for the “tie” with a field goal, isn’t of huge value.

So going for the touchdown is obviously not a bad move. But what maximizes the chances of getting that touchdown?

If the Ravens get the first down here, it means they’re on the 49ers 23 yard line or better, and can mix it up to continue to try and advance the chains, as well as go for the end zone as oppportunity permits.

On the other hand, going for the end zone on this 3rd down play instead – and leading to an inevitable field goal try if they fail – isn’t necessarily a bad play. But it’s limiting in that if they fail, it cuts off any successive chances of trying for the touchdown on this drive.

So does a failed shorter conversion attempt of course (unless that failure brings up a fourth and fairly short, in which case the Ravens should go for it); but the chances of doing so on a far shorter conversion attempt are much lower.

It’s easy to watch game film and second guess. And for that reason (and because it’s part of the fun of football), it tends to get overdone – even when one is trying to be careful not to. But at the same time we’re talking about the professional level, and one of the better, and instinctively savvier, quarterbacks in the game.

And here the best decision is of course to get a touchdown if you can. But, if at all possible, maximize keeping the drive alive if you can’t.

That aside, the best call here as with any situation, is to go with what whatever play call is best in this situation. In other words, as with most play calls, something that, taking into account the situation, personnel out there, alignment at the line, and outguessing a defense, etc., is fairly subjective.

But there’s also an important component here that’s not really “after the fact” second guessing, and objective.

That is, if taking a shot at the end zone under the impression that the play offers high odds is the call, that’s fine. But for winning football it needs to be considered that unless the end zone play is – or at least, more importantly, ultimately develops into – a solid, relatively high opportunity rather than just a near wing it and “take a shot” type of a play, making sure to try and get the first down is of greater value because of the multiple successive chances of scoring that it brings up.

The Ravens do go for the end zone. But in such a situation they need an out, in case the play develops more into the latter (a low odds play) rather than the former (a relatively high odds play that catches the defense off guard):

That is, if the play doesn’t unfold nicely, then the low odds of connecting on it, combined with the complete practical loss of their possession if they fail to connect – in so far as fourth down now ensues, and from the 27 on 4th and 4 – far out yet still within Tucker’s easy range, and without a super easy conversion opportunity – they will and should kick the field goal – make the play a bad decision.

The loss of opportunity may have been in the play call itself. But that’s hard to say: Maybe it would have worked out with an open receiver more often; maybe the play was designed to have easy second and third options, etc. (Or maybe it wasn’t, which would have made it a bad call from the get go, and not just how it was called and ultimately run.)

In other words, the loss of opportunity may not have been with the call to go deep down the right sideline to Kamar Aiken in coverage by Tramaine Brock. And again, even if it was – barring the issue of secondary options – it’s a subjective call because if it does leave Aiken wide open, with Flacco’s ability it’s a fairly easy touchdown.

The loss of opportunity was to both go with that play call and stick with it after nothing but tight coverage and a sort of “low odds” wing it situation developed, and thereby give up the far higher odds play of getting an entire new set of downs, and thus several more (and somewhat closer) chances at the end zone to work with.

The play as thrown had a very low probability of completion.

First of all it’s a difficult deep pass. Clearly that can be worth the payout (likely touchdown) on its own if it looks like it has a good chance of working. But again the uniqueness of the otherwise very makeable third down situation and the greater value that situation brings up needs to be considered as well.

Given that situation, the fact that Aiken was well covered and with little manueverability near the sidelines to boot when the long pass was thrown, greatly lowers the odds.  And while it still “could” have worked, the chances were now much lower of it working; and thus, correspondingly, the chances were very high that the Ravens would be stopped in their quest to, far more importantly, add 7 rather than 3 points here.

Thus the decision to attempt the play, despite the tight coverage under the specific strategic situation the team was in – and thus the low probability use of only one shot at the end zone rather than a far higher probability shot at getting closer and gaining an entire new set of four downs (or at least a better probability shot at the end zone), was a mistake.

And by better awareness and decision making before the fact, it was probably an avoidable one; one that, at least with some trust, is also recognizable and correctable from a website blog piece alone, without additional practice time on the field and or physical skills – making it in one sense among the most critical kind of mistakes in football, as it offers up the opportunity for a team to improve its winning chances by better decision making alone. (And there are reams of these, many very significant, in NFL football today.)

Put more simply, in that situation, if there are subjective reasons or assessments for the end zone shot, call the play. But make sure it has secondary and tertiary outs. And given the situation, if the big play isn’t there, while its not always possible to easily make good adjustments on the fly, don’t get greedy and go for it regardless rather than for a secondary decision that instead maximizes the chances of keeping the drive alive with an easier option.

As it turned out, Justin Tucker, who rarely misses, hit the right upright on the ensuing field goal try, and the score remained 19-13 – although the San Francisco field may have been part of the reason. Watch Tucker sink and almost split on the kick, showing solid athleticism to even half stay with his follow through:

Steelers Made the “Play not to Lose Call” When it Mattered the Most Not To

A lot of strange things and tough decisions, that outcome wise didn’t go the Pittsburgh Steelers’ way, combined to give the Baltimore Ravens what was ultimately an unlikely win in their week four Thursday Night Matchup.

The strange come from behind victory kept the Ravens from losing a key divisional game and dropping to 0-4 (0-2 in the division, and with both losses to the two division front runners), and thus putting them in a hole that barring a remarkable turnaround would have all but ended their season a mere four games in.

And there was some criticism of the Steeler’s tough decisions in overtime, some unwarranted, some worth considering.

But the real mistake by Pittsburgh is the one that went on somewhat under the radar, and which came at a critical moment for them to correctly finish out the game. In that instance, the team made the strategy decision almost every team in the league would have made, and routinely makes; a decision that increased their opponent’s chances of winning the game, and decreased their own. (In fact, it was not as bad as many, and simply because of the long distance the Steelers faced – see below – and the extra 8 yards to the opponents if the decision fails, may have occassionally been decided differently; whereas ten yards further in, where it’s just as ill advised, the decision’s almost always made the same way – even usually in shorter yardage decisions where it increasingly becomes an even bigger mistake, sometimes to the point of practically handing one’s opponent a very good chance in a game that up until the decision is made, from a probability standpoint, they don’t remotely have.)

With Steelers backup quarterback Michael Vick at the helm, and, along with their defense playing reasonably well, Pittsburgh built up to a 20-7 lead early in the third quarter.

But the Ravens came back, adding a touchdown and then field goal to pull to 20-17. Then after an exchange of possessions, the Steelers took over at their own 43 yard line with 4:43 left in the game.

A nice long drive would finish it off. Pittsburgh pulled off the first half of such a drive, but then found themselves facing a fourth down at the Ravens 31 yard line, with 5 yards to go for a first.

2:29, and one Baltimore timeout remained. (As of this moment, NFL’s Gamecenter incorrectly has a timeout attributed to Pittsburgh at 2:32, and Baltimore’s second rather than third timeout atttributed to them at 1:51 of regulation, even though Baltimore, still trailing Pittsburgh who had the ball, could do nothing to stop the clock on the ensuing play, and it ticked all the way down to 1:06)

At the Ravens 31, facing fourth and five, a field goal would put the Steelers up by 6 points; with Baltimore still having a timeout left, and about 2:24 left on the clock after the field goal. This is more than enough time for a two minute drill to drive and win the game.

Needing a touchdown is more difficult than needing a field goal. But, with enough time, the difference, in an end game situation where the trailing team is both playing with desperation and in effect has four plays rather than the customary “three” to advance the ball (with the fourth typically used to either punt or kick a field goal, both of which are essentially worthless when trailing by 4-7 in two minute drill situations), isn’t all that great. Particularly when a field goal, down by 3, only gets the trailing team a tie – which they will then lose in overtime about half of the time anyway – while a touchdown as the last score of the game when trailing by 6 gets them the win every time.

The other aspect to the field goal here is that a 49 yard attempt isn’t all that easy. The last few years, as kickers have gotten better and better, kicks are around 75% from the 48 yard line. This is good, but still means a quarter of the time the field goal will be missed anyway. And thus the other team will get the ball without even those 3 points added – and get it at the literal spot of the kick, so about 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

49 is another yard above 48. Less trivial than another yard is the fact that Heinz Field where the Steelers play, is a typicaly difficult place to kick field goals from. And for this game there was again a cross breeze, if somewhat light, and the Steelers were on their third field goal kicker of the season: Josh Scobee, who had also missed two field goals in the Steelers opening night loss at New England, from 44 and 46 yards.

But more important here is the fact that kicking the field goal is literally handing the Ravens the legitimate opportunity to win the game outright – and doing so voluntarily.

But on the other hand, actually kicking the field goal doesn’t increase the Steelers chances very much, and in fact probably only does so somewhat marginally. And it certainly doesn’t enough to offset the value of the opportunity (its value times the chances of achieving it relative to not doing so and the harm therein versus the field goal try), being given up by doing so.

First of all, again, there’s the missed field goal issue and ball placement after the miss, an extra 8 yards out to the Ravens 39.

This is only about 25 yards away from excellent kicker Justin Tucker’s realistic range to be more likely to tie the game than not. And it’s only 61 yards from a winning touchdown, with a full 2:25 and a timeout left – a touchdown the Ravens may still play for or stumble into given the large amount of time, even though they only “need” a field goal.

And again, making the field goal is not that big of an advantage versus simply staying up by 3 points. (On the other hand, if there was 1:06 left to play, it’s almost exactly the opposite – and precisely this scenario also wound up coming into play in this game a few moments later.)

If the Steelers don’t have much better to do, sure, take the field goal. (Most of the time.)

But they do have something better to do. Much better, and at least reasonable enough odds of achieving it. That is, play to win the game outright, without Baltimore even getting any reasonable chance in the first place.

That means getting a first down, and effectively running out most or all of the relevant remaining portion of the game.

A first down doesn’t guarantee the win, but it’s close; whereas if the Steelers don’t make it they’re not in that much worse shape than if they had simply kicked the field goal, as we’ll see a little more below.

If Pittsburgh makes the fourth down conversion try and doesn’t go out of bounds on the play – fairly easy to control when it’s important to so control (unless going out of bounds assures them of making the first, which is more important here) – Baltimore has to take their last timeout.

Then Pittsburgh’s ensuing first down will run the game clock down to the two minute warning. Second and third downs will run it down to about 30-32 seconds before any fourth down play is run. And then from the 26 yard line or very likely better (i.e., making their 4th and 5 from the 31 by getting the absolute minimum 5 yards, then getting 0 total yards on three more runs, still puts Pittsburgh at the 26), they can try a field goal to if successful make it a 6 point game at that point – with the Ravens needing a Hail Mary (huge kickoff – very hard when the covering team doesn’t have to maximize yardage, but just cover gaps to prevent a fluke huge return, which will burn up half the time left, plus then a long or Hail Mary type pass), or double Hail Mary type of situation.

And if they miss the field goal, with now about 25-27 seconds left and no timeouts, the chances of the Ravens winning are still negligible.

If Pittsburgh instead makes the first down but somehow goes out of bounds (either by big mistake, or the play somehow unfolds where it becomes a choice between going out of bounds and picking up the first, or otherwise not making it), the Ravens are still very unlikely to win – what wound up bizarrely happening in this game aside.

The out of bounds – which again will be rare in the first place if the Steelers make the first down and are correctly aware of the key difference that extra forty seconds makes in the game situation (unlike the Giants in week one) – would stop the clock. In such a case the Ravens would use their last timeout after the Steelers ensuing first down, the two minute warning would stop the clock after second down, and the Steelers could take the clock down to about 1:15 before trying a reasonably easy field goal, unless they get another first down and can just take a knee to end the game.

If the Steelers make the fourth and 5 from the 31, they’ll be at the Ravens 26 or better, and then have 3 more plays to advance the ball, ideally a few yards each. (And if the clock was somehow stepped by an unavoidable out of bounds they should also play a little bit for the first down to then be able to simply take a knee, rather than just pure vanilla plays simply to run clock.)

Between picking up an average of 5-8 yards or so on any successful fourth down conversion try, and a few more yards (2-8) on three more run attempts, the Steelers would likely be trying a field goal from about the 18 or 19.

In essence, if the Steelers make the fourth down conversion try, they have to 1) somehow have gone out of bounds – easily avoidable – 2) they need to then miss a fairly easy field goal (unless they pick up another first down, which makes it all moot anyway), and then 3) the Ravens still need to drive in likely the last 70 seconds and make the field goal, and 4) then win in overtime.

Driving and making a field goal in 70 or so seconds is more than doable. But the chances of the Ravens winning if the Steelers convert are the chances of 1) Pittsburgh making the conversion but going out of bounds (low), 2) not making another first down (high, but it still lowers the overall odds a little more), 3) missing a fairly easy field goal (fairly low, but as this game reminded us, more than plausible), 4) driving to field goal range and making that field goal (reasonable), 5) then winning in overtime (50/50). All these things have to be accomplished, and multiplied together the odds are exceedingly low.

in essence, and part one of the two things that are key here, Pittsburgh doesn’t automatically win if they make the conversion and don’t go out of bounds. But they will win save for those rare, rare freak instances; and if they make the conversion and nevertheless do go out of bounds, they’re still very very likely to win.

The second key is that failing on the conversion attempt versus simply attempting the field goal, doesn’t really increase the Ravens chances too terribly, and more importantly, doesn’t in comparison to the critical fact that making the conversion – which is certainly reasonably doable – radically changes the game into what will in almost all cases be a win for Pittsburgh.

The problem is that getting stopped on such a conversion try – probably a little more likely than not with 5 yards to go – is looked at as if versus simply trying the field goal it’s some sort of huge loss; so the gigantic, almost game winning gains from making it, aren’t fully evaluated, or are somewhat overlooked or misassessed.

But again, it’s not: Trying the field goal, particulary with a kicker only available as Pittsburght’s third option because the other 3 teams in the league didn’t consider him among the 32 best, and a field with typical crosswinds, and from 49 yards, gives a decent shot at missing anyway.

But more importantly making the field goal forces Baltimore to play for the win; ensures that they have time left to do it; and voluntarily hands over the ball to them so that they have the opportunity to do it in the first place.

It’s better to be up by 6 than 3, generally. But it’s usually not that much of an improvement versus an opponent being down by 3 and playing for the tie – or at least not being forced to hurry enough to get to the end zone rather than field goal range, and to use fourth downs as field goal plays and not to keep a TD drive alive – and then still losing half the time (in overtime) anyway.

Also relevantly, but not all encompassing, making the field goal and kicking off also does get a little extra yardage for Pittsburgh’s defense versus geting stopped somewhere outside of the 26 yard line, and likely on average near the 31 yard line of scrimmage, ona failed conversion attempt.

Again, not meaningless,including that yardage, particularly when only talking about having to get it into field goal range to at least keep the game alive. So take the field goal here if there’s no better option. But the option to essentially win the game – make a simple five yards and stay in bounds on the play (with still very good odds even if they go out of bounds) – relative to what trying the field goal provides, and the reasonable chances of being able to make it, is of enormous value.

As it turned out, Scobee missed the field goal by a few inches to the left, in the direction the light Heinz breeze was blowing.

Then what happened was pretty unusual – particularly for Joe Flacco, who has gotten the Ravens to the playoffs (and then performed well in them) six of the seven seasons he’s been in the league, in part because if the game is on the line and he has a chance to win, he does more often than not.

And particularly when it’s critical, as this game was as much any game four of the season possibly can be. (Here was a rare miss by Flacco, and it allowed the Patriots to get to the Super Bowl last season. Another key miss is covered in that same link, where with the AFC Championship on the line against, once again, the Patriots Flacco lasered it in on a narrow tightrope into Lee Evans’ stomach, and an undrafted rookie free agent, much as in the last Super Bowl for the Patriots, made the key play of the game and saved their season.)

Still down 20-17, sitting a 0-3 and looking at 0-4 and yet another division and possible wild card rival game loss, and thus with their season on the line as much as it can be only four games in, the Ravens got to start out from their own 39, with 2:24 and one timeout remaining: plenty of time to play for the 61 yard TD drive win, which good teams will usually do in situations like this. (Notice Tom Brady and the Patriots almost always play for the win whenever possible, and also have Six Super Bowl appearances since 2001); and to use the field goal tie as backup.

Yet the Ravens got stopped, gaining a whopping total of negative 10 yards, on four plays. And with three incompletes and a sack that stopped the game clock for the exchange of possession, they got stopped so quickly that, with some more luck shortly to come, they got yet another reprieve in the game.

Here’s what happened: Pittsburgh took over at 2:04, a mere 20 seconds later, and after Baltimore used their last timeout at the 1:51 mark and before Pittsburgh’s third down, they took the game clock down to 1:06 before lining up for a 41 yard field goal attempt.

Once again, close, but no cigar: This kick, after veering at the last moment, also missed to the left by about a foot. And 41 yarders are usually made.

Baltimore then started from their own 31 with 61 seconds remaining; and with a few seconds left, they kicked a 42 yarder to send the game into overtime.

In overtime Baltimore also stopped Pittsburgh on two short fourth down conversion attempts by virtue of good defensive plays, and some would suggest iffy play calls. (Using Michael Vick on a designed run on fourth and two. And later, on a fourth and one from the 33 where a 51 yard field goal would have won the game outright, a pass play – Vick’s probably not the best QB to make that call with – and a long one but heavily angled for short yardage – which only increased the chance of error.)

After the second fourth down stop, Baltimore was able to drive, and won the game on a 52 yard field goal. (A yard more than the one that the Steelers wouldn’t take a few moments before, and, ironically, also a fourth and one. But the Ravens have a great kicker, the Steelers absolutely don’t, and their confidence in him was also probably particularly low at that point, so one can understand the difference in the two calls.)

The outcome of the game isn’t relevant to the original decision to try a 49 yard field goal from the 31 yard line and go up by 6 points with a little over two minutes remaining, rather than simply try to keep the ball and run the clock out or close to out and then (try) a fairly easy field goal.

And after knocking the Ravens backward on four plays after the missed field goal, the Steelers should have won anyway, but missed the easier 41 yard attempt as well. (Had the Steelers done that from a fourth down conversion failure and thus about 6-12 yards further in, the kick would have been good. It’s not relevant, but interesting to note.)

But the Steelers overall chances of winning the game, at the time they faced 4th and 4 from the Ravens 31 yard line, would have been higher had they simply tried to win. That is, make Baltimore both stop them and then drive for the win or tie and then win in overtime, rather than voluntarily hand Baltimore a good chance of winning the game, either by missing the field goal anyway, or making it and kicking off with plenty of time left for Baltimore to win.

Mike Tomlin is usually pretty good at these types of decisions relative to other head coaches. But he makes multiple mistakes too. And the fact is it’s far too much to ask of a head coach to be intuitively expert at these kinds of “secondary” yet important and improvable structural game logic and decision making skills that can improve outcome odds from better assessment alone, in addition to being the expert teachers, communicators, media liasons, organizers, managers, leaders and motivators that coaches simply need to be, and which most are extremely good at.

Making these kinds of decisions correctly also goes against almost all of the conventional thinking that dominates the league; And most such decisions are hidden, in that they tend to go largely unrecognized or widely (but not always) mis-assessed in the mainstream media when addressed, which as with teams and coaches tends to be far too conventionally routine as well as outcome oriented in assessing a strategic move, rather than exlusively focused on the conditions and facts that existed at the time of the decision.

Yet such assessments and decisions are a key part of the game, in that a team’s chances of winning can be improved simply from better strategic assessment; without additional skills, endurance, balance, flexibility and smaller muscle kinesthetic development, technique, tackling, execution and other practice (which as an aside I also think the CBA unprofessionally restricts too much), but the mind alone. (The same thing also applies to non game day decisions, but that’s another, broader topic area.)

Jacksonville, for you, I’m available. I know you guys need a lot of help. Even if your quarterback does suggest that “fans questioning play calling are like kindergartners questioning college students.”

Maybe, sometimes. But we’re all kindergartners. We just don’t know it.

 

 

Harvard Study Part III

About a month ago, a popular Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

Part I assessed the top 10 teams on the Harvard study list, and compared them to the probability assessments made here, while part II assessed teams 11-20.

Note also that since the study, original promise to do this comparison, and part I of it came out, a few of the study’s numbers have changed. The oddest was increasing an already semi statistically outlandish “95%” chance of Seattle – the top team – making the playoffs, to a now far more outlandish 99%.

Pegging the Seahawks at 99% to make the playoffs defies NFL football reality. (Update: For more on the Seahawks and in general, here’s an analysis of the Harvard study itself, and why many of its numbers are problematic.)

At the end of the regular season, and regardless of results, we’ll do a comparison of both sets of numbers in conjunction with exactly how each team winds up in terms of proximity to the playoffs. Despite general variance and unpredictability, it’ll be very surprising if the Harvard numbers don’t fare much worse overall than the numbers given here.

As in parts I & II, the opening percentage number given in bold represents each team’s chance of making the playoffs according to the HSAC study. The ending percentage numbers, in contrast, are ours.

21.  Bears, 25%. This is a reasonable number except for the John Fox effect. Fox has not been an exceptional head coach, but has been a solid one: He made the Panthers (at least for a while), and Denver both highly competitive, even if the bulk of the latter occurred after Peyton Manning arrived.

It’s also hard to assess what the Bears are losing with the firing of HC Marc Trestman after a mere two years. On balance, it’s likely somewhat of a coaching upgrade to switch to Fox – and potentially a significant one.

Also for the Bears, former Saints director of personnel Ryan Pace becomes the new GM, taking over for the fired Phil Emery. And former Saints scout Josh Lucas takes over as director of player personnel, for the fired Kevin Turks.

That might be a bit too much Saints involvement. Yet Franchise nepotism is common in the NFL, and it also often reflects the hire of people one knows, which can also be an advantage; if, sometimes on the flip side, leading to the same inside the box type of thinking and same, perhaps overly limited, set of candidates.

The Bears also brought in Vic Fangio as their new defensive coordinator. From ’95-’05 Fangio was DC for the Panthers, Colts and Texans. And then again DC for the 49ers from ’11-14, the same years Jim Harbaugh was the head coach there.

And for offensive coordinator the Bears brought in Adam Gase, who played the same role the last two years under John Fox – and when the team was on the field, likely somewhat under Peyton Manning – in Denver.

Chicago also lost several players, but made multiple short signings and a few more longer term, including LB Pernell McPhee ($38.75 million/5 years, 15.5 million guaranteed), WR Eddie Royal ($15.5 million, 10 million guaranteed) and S Antrel Rolle ($11.25 million, 5 million guaranteed).

Pernell, a 2011 5th round pick, has had some key plays in big moments, which may have been due to sheer variance as well as his skill, and may possibly have led to a higher perceived than real value. (Perhaps Bears staffers would disagree and say otherwise, I don’t know.) And it’s possible the Bears overpaid; possibly not.

Some criticized the Cleveland Browns $9 million guarantee given to Dwayne Bowe, but the $10 million given to Royals is larger. (Though Bowe’s 9 million guarantee was out of a $12.5 two year deal total, making it more lopsided.) When you take into account the offenses each played for, Bowe is probably a better receiver, although he does turn 31 later this month, whereas Royal is 29.

Included among the player losses are 12 year Bears stalwart Lance Briggs, who last season started 8 games with 24 tackles and 10 assists, and is now retired. And Brandon Marshall, now 31, who broke some ribs and had a collapsed lung from a knee hitting his back against the Cowboys in week 14, and is now with the Jets.

Marshall had 61 catches last year before getting hurt late. But he also had over 100 catches in 2012 and 2013, and in years 2007 – 2009 with the Broncos (one of only five receivers in the NFL to ever have 3 consecutive 100 catch seasons). And the QB throwing him the ball in all those years but for 2009 when he went to Chicago a few years ahead of Marshall? Jay Cutler, still with the team today.

The Bears were pretty awful last year. But that is in some part relative to the general expectation that they weren’t a bad football team. Maybe they were and we just didn’t know it.

As duly noted in part I, the Bears are a wild card. Not that they will make a wild card playoff spot, but they could be anywhere from a contender to a bad team – although Fox might keep them from slipping too far:  28%

22. Ravens, 24%. Until recently the number published by the Harvard study (and referenced here as well), was 9%. But 24% is still too low.

While the Ravens may not make the playoffs this year, they have every single year but one since Joe Flacco as rookie QB and John Harbaugh as rookie HC joined seven seasons ago. And they lead all NFL teams in total playoff wins during that period.

The original number of 9% was statistically ludicrous. (A 1 in 4 chance is low, but a slightly less than 1 in 10 chance, statistically, is far different.) The study doesn’t seem to note any particular reason for this change in its as of now current and apparently updated form, other than “normalizing” the results so an average of 6 teams would make the playoffs every year. And which doesn’t explain such a change (particularly when most teams are still the same).

The Ravens are in a tough division; they don’t seem to have really improved while a lot of other teams have; The AFC North’s schedule was fairly easy relative to some of the other divisions last year; and several teams will likely vie for the two AFC wild card sports this year, including a likely improved Chiefs and an overall improved NFC East. And, this year the NFC North plays the tough AFC West and tough NFC west: 36%

23. Redskins, 22%. Giving the Redskins about the same chance of making the playoffs as the Ravens (and originally more than twice the chance) is slighty far fetched. This team right now sits on the bottom of a division that may see three competitive teams. (Four if the Redskins join in.) 19%

24. Panthers, 22%. This is a good indication of the study’s considerable flaws. At the end of last year the Panthers were the best team in the weak NFC South. In part probably because of team cohesion, and defensive chemistry;

The study projects the Falcons to have a 55% chance of making the playoffs (which is also too high, see part I), and it’s near silly to claim the Falcons have nearly a two and a half times better chance of winning the division than the winner the previous two years. Cam Newton has also been a little rocky at times; but if he takes that next step, the Panthers are also going to have a heck of a QB.

Since the study came out the Panthers got a little hammered in the injury deparment, losing both starting DE Frank Alexander and more importantly second year WR Kelvin Benjamin for the year.

Benjamin was seemingly the key element in an otherwise potentially very weak receiving corps. And right now, after missing training camp and most of the preseason with a hamstring injury – not good for rookie wide receivers – rookie Devin Funchess is third on that nevertheless still on paper very weak looking depth chart.

Funchess was no small investment either, as the Panthers traded up to snag him, perhaps inadvisedly giving up their 3rd and 6th round picks to move up 16 spots in the second round to 41 overall to grab him. (If your team is that good at evaluating talent that you know Funchess is a steal at that spot, evaluate the best guy available at 57 and then again in the 3rd round, which is a considerable value pick – low salary but still with a reasonably high chance of strong upside – and then again in the 5th round; with both now being picks, as a result of the trade, that simply vanished. (Technically they moved over to the Rams, who made the deal with the Panthers.)

On the flip side, and trade aside, Funchess may have been a nice pick with a lot of potential. And the Panthers could have used some more wide receiving help – in part possibly why they made the trade. But then their by far and away this moment best WR, Benjamin, goes down for the year, and Funchess essentially misses training camp and the preseason.

But we’re trying not to take hard news that came about after the Harvard study into account, so the Panthers are still around even to the slight favorite to win the division over the Saints, with the Falcons possibly in the mix, and with a wild card from this division still probably unlikely.  (Also, even taking into account the bad injury news and holdup to any possible early development of Funchess, this team is still at least probably even with the Falcons and Saints overall to win the division, putting them over 30%.)  36%

25. Browns, 15%. This seemed like it would have been a really bad number. But in 2013 the Bears’ Josh McCown filled in nicely for Jay Cutler for several games later in the year, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, despite over a decade of nice quality backup QB work by McCown, said, “hey, he can be our starter!” And made him so.

It was a bad move at the time. And while it still could have worked out (McCown, after all, had played pretty well in 2013), it didn’t.

Now the Browns are trying the same magic trick.

True, they have Johnny Football, aka Johnny Manziel, sitting in the wings. And if McCown falters they will probably say “let it rip” Johnny. And Manziel didn’t show enough last year to conclusively prove he won’t make it in the NFL as a quality starter. So it could be exciting yet.

But it’s somewhat hard to evaluate, as last year the Brown’s also had Brian Hoyer as their starter for 13 games (although for the last several he played very poorly). And teams seem to play better when Hoyer starts, and thus win more often. In 2013, before now second year HC Mike Pettine got there, the Browns went 4-12 overall, yet 3-0 in the games Hoyer started.

It’s kind of head scratching. I mean, if the argument for going with Josh McCown is, “well, we have Johnny Boy waiting in the wings” (reasonable enough), why wasn’t that the argument for going with Hoyer: Out of the so far 22 total starting QBS the Browns have had, not counting McCown, who will be starter week 1 and number 23 overall since the franchise was resurrected from the football graveyard (having earlier been turned into a large black bird in 1996 and moved to Baltimore in something famous enough in Ohio to be known as “the move”), the only one who even has a winning record is Brian Hoyer.

That’s out of 22 total starting QBs. One. One, has a winning record. Hoyer. Letting him go is one thing. But to 1) let him go. and 2) choose McCown, a long time backup, who the Bucs just made the same mistake on last year and who is entering his 13th year in the NFL (it would be 14th but McCown played for the UFL in 2010), is quite another.

Bad Browns, bad.

Bad Harvard study too, as Pettine shouldn’t be counted out so quickly. But that’s what perhaps silly studies that then get popularly picked up by multiple news sources and hat try to assess a team’s chances based upon subjective core player evaluation, miss; among many other things. 26%

26. Vikings, 12%. This is a joke. Anyone who thinks the Vikings are 1 in 8 to make the playoffs hasn’t been closely watching football the last several years.

Note, the Vikings will probably miss the playoffs: Again, if they are given a four times, or a 300% greater, chance of making the playoffs than this Harvard study gave them, the odds would still be that they are (slightly) more likely to miss the playoffs than not.

And even if their chances were a whopping 65%, they would still miss the playoffs 1 out of 3 times.

This NFC North division could be tough. The Packers lost their stud wide receiver Jordy Nelson for the year. Nelson had over 1500 yards for them last year, and made some solid catches. (Though we’re not supposed to take that into account, as it happened after the original SAC study came out). But they’ve been perennial contenders, and there’s no real reason to think they won’t be strong this year. And the Lions look to be as well. As for the Bears? Well, see above.

But the Vikings improved last year under first year HC Mike Zimmer; also surprised the league a few years back and won the division in 2008 and 2009; second year QB Teddy Bridgewater showed some smooth moves his rookie year, and could be a force this one; and they get back what was not long ago the undisputed best running back in the NFL. This might not seem like a lot, but it’s double – double – the study number. And probably conservative: 24%

27. Rams. 10%. I’m just gonna say it. Almost no one does it seems. Possibly because he’s just one of those guys. You know, the guy that just handles it all well, and we don’t want to diss, because they just, well, handle it all so well.

But after many years of watching his teams often fail to wrap up when tackling (and he’s been 5 straight seasons, 2 with the Titans, then a year off, then 3 with the Rams, without a playoff appearance), it’s time: Head Coach Jeff Fisher is a little overrated.

That being said, he’s still a very good head football coach, and smooth as silk the way he seems to handle most things. (I wish he was a little less smooth about poor tackling though.) And this year the Rams have a legitimate shot.

That’s even with the fact that while their former number one overall draft pick QB is back after missing most of the last two years with injuries (and some injury time before that as well), he’s unfortunately back with the Eagles, who the Rams traded him to in the offseason. And who, if he stays healthy, is going to surprise a lot of people; because Sam Bradford is a natural.

Unfortunately, in preseason the Rams at times looked sloppy tackling once again – particularly for a defense that could potentially be a powerhouse (though I’m trying not to take that into account, and the tackilng could also have been a fluke that won’t happen as such in the regular season.) And they are starting two rookies on the offensive line, which could be problematic for them once again. But this “10%” number is far, far, almost ridiculously, too low.

It’s also still tough to assess their new quarterback Nick Foles. In his rookie year with the Eagles, Foles first played in week 9 and got his first start week 10. And impressed a lot of people. But in one game against the Panthers he threw three easy picks that were all ridiculously dropped. Had they been caught the take on Foles would likely have been different.

But the following year, 2013, he posted a remarkable 13.5 to 1 TD to interception ratio, throwing 27 TDs, and only 2 picks. And he became only the second QB ever to post a perfect passer rating, while also throwing for over 400 yards.

In 2014 he played in only 8 games before getting hurt, and had a much more pedestrian 13-10 TD/interception ratio. And that offense in ’13 and ’14 seemed to buzz under innovative HC Chip Kelly, so it’s hard to know how much that might have helped Foles performance.

Regardless, Foles is an upgrade over the backups the Rams were playing with last year, and his team seems to play well when he’s on the field. But how he does with a still possibly iffy offensive line remains to be seen.

On the one had it’s hard to see why this Rams team couldn’t put it together (provided they get good offensive line play) and contend for the division. On the other hand, if prior history, and what to me seems like a series of up and down draft day decisions over the past several years is any indication (let alone the fact that they were hooked with several extra high picks courtesty of the “RGIII” trade with the Redskins in 2012), it’s hard to imagine them having much of a shot to go deep into the playoffs if they do manage to finally take a bigger step and make it in.

But their defense could be scary. And showed it for a short stint mid late last season, where they outscored an overall middling batch of teams 79-0 over 10 consecutive impressive quarters of play: 0-0 v the Chargers quarter 4 in a game they lost 27-24; a 52-0 win over a bad Oakland team that was in dream land after its first big win in a while – a week twelve 24-10 victory over rival Kansas City for their first win of the season after an 0-10 start; and a 24-0 drubbing of the Washington Redskins followed by a 3-0 first quarter against the Cardinals (in a game they also eventually lost, 12-6.) Before, unfortunately, relapsing back to so so play.

Think what you will of the Rams, but assessing them before this season even starts as having only a 1 in 10 chance, with a significant upgrade (even if a questionable one) at quarterback; another year for those young players; an improving team; a good head coach; and when 12 of 32 teams make the playoffs, is just not realistic.

Our number is still remarkably higher than the study’s, and by halfway into the season, who knows, while they are probably not there yet, it could even look very low, as the Rams could pull it together. I just think they need a new GM first. 35%

28. 49ers, 9%. This is not only the most remade team of the year, it’s probably the most remade team in several, and unfortunately it includes the loss of a probably underrated head coach.

This is a guy who joined them in 2011, taking over a seemingly middling team, and immediately taking it all the way to the NFC Championship game three seasons in a row. There, winning once and losing twice in close games, one of those times on a fluke muffed punt to send the game into overtime and then another to lose in overtime (against the Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl against the Patriots). And in the Super Bowl, putting on a furious comeback effort against the Ravens and head coach Jim Harbaugh’s real brother John (of all people), and almost pulling off a huge comeback at the end.

And it includes the loss of a lot of big name and very successful on field players.

Still, many people rave about the 49ers new head coach Jim Tomsula, and the 49ers also brought in new players as well; and even with a lot of injuries and some key suspensions last year, were still a tough matchup, and finished 8-8. (though again, how much of that was specifically Harbaugh’s doing where other coaches might have failed, is hard to tell.)

LIke the Bears, but possibly with more upside, this team is also somewhat of an unknown wild card. 20%.

29. Jaguars, 3%. It’s hard to say the Jaguars have a chance. They simply have made what appears to be mistake after mistake after mistake. (Though many argue otherwise, and some Jaguars fans don’t like hearing it.) But fact is, make all the excuses you want, this team has won 14 games out of its last 64.

But they played tough at times last year; their rookie QB last year, who seemed to me like a bit of a stretch when they took him with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, neverthless impressed some people last season and could at least pan out; the team seems to fully believe in its now 3rd year head coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley; and the league is full of surprises. 8%

30. Buccaneers, 2%.  There is this perception that Lovie Smith, brought in last season, is a really good head coach.

Maybe he is. The Bears had a solid winning record under him, made the playoffs a couple of times, and one year somehow managed to get lucky and make it to the Super Bowl as probably the single weakest Super Bowl team in the 2000s so far. (2006 season, and lost to the Colts. I’m also not buying that the Cardinals were when they played the Steelers for the 2008, season. Conventional wisdom called them one of the weakest teams to simply enter the playoffs in a while, and conventional wisdom was way off. I even picked them as the dark horse Super Bowl winner at the very start of the playoffs. And but for a James Harrison pick just outside the goal line on a 5 yard pass that versus a Cardinals touchdown led to a 14 point swing, they probably would have been.)

But the Buccaneers were at least sometimes competitive under departed head coach Greg Schiano, and regressed under Smith. We’ll see in season two. Though obviously they could easily exceed expectations, and given Smith’s prior W-L track record could surprise, no reason to not think they are still one of the poorer teams in the league.

Still, giving them a 2%, or 1 in 50 chance of even making the playoffs, is not realistic given basic NFL variability. This number, though still low, is in part based on the fact that in addition to themselves, their division was still fairly weak last season, and may still lag a little bit this year and has an easier schedule than last year: 10%

31. Titans 2%. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt, over six full seasons of coaching, and all with the same team, had an overall losing record. But it wasn’t by all that much. (Until last year’s dreadful 2-14 record with the Titans is tacked on, never mind that the team also got blown out in most of its games as well.) And his prior team twice made the playoffs, getting to the Super Bowl once, where a James Harrison pick of a Kurt Warner pass from the Steelers’ 5 yard line turned into a 14 point swing and likely kept the team with the red bird on its helmet from winning the game.

The Titans have a lot of young, talented players, and with the second pick in the draft had the opportunity to draft a potentially very strong franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota. (Who this preseason has looked exceptional, although that’s not supposed to be taken into account, so we’ll discount it. However, his very strong upside coming into the league still existed prior to the preseason. And this team overall had some upside as well.)

For the same reasons already addressed, assessing this team, or essentially the chances of any team, at 2% is a statistical joke. Our number, if low compared to many teams, is still a whopping six times greater chance of making the playoffs than the one given by the study. And it may still be too low: 12%

32. Oakland .03%. No team in the now essentially half century of the Super Bowl era has had only a 1 in 333 chance of making the playoffs before a season began, and no team has even been close. Oakland’s no exception, and this “point zero three percent number” is,again, ridiculous.

Also notice Oakland’s pattern last year after beating the Chiefs to shoot their record up to 1-10. They took it light – obviously – and got pounded 52-0 by the Rams, then pulled it together and back at home surprised again, legitimately beating the still tough 49ers – and doing so as large underdogs – 24-13, before then, same pattern, getting pounded yet again, and this time by the Chiefs in a rematch in Kansas City, 31-13. Then guess what. Same pattern still: They won again, and again against a good team. By late last season the Bills were a very good football team, and probably taking Oakland lightly, and on a cross country trip fell to those same Raiders 26-24.  And yet after pulling out that win, Oakland continued its pattern as well, getting pounded by Denver in a season ending game, 47-14.

The Raiders might wind up being a better team than the Titans (there is no way to really know), but they seem to be in a tougher division. And their division also plays the NFC North and the AFC North, while the Titans’ AFC South plays the AFC East and the easier NFC South: 10%
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Again, the Harvard study, by focusing on the “core” players of a team to assess value, misses that critical full team element, including the contribution of less marquee but still starting players whose strengths or weaknesses can play a critical role in a team’s results; the effect some players can have on how others play; and most of all, it seems to miss a good portion of coaching, and heart.

We’ll also take a look in from time to time before the end of regular season recap to see who’s getting pummeled: Harvard’s numbers, or ours. Guess which one I predict will lose out.

NFL Football Strategy Versus the Harvard Study Team Projections, part II: Teams 11 – 20

Note, this was published’/posted late yesterday, September 6, 2015. Not August 30th. Who knows what wordpress is doing. If you know, please tell me.
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A few weeks back, a popular Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

Part I looked at the playoff probabilites of the first ten teams of the study, and tried to offer more realistic numbers. Continue reading

Why the Patriots Should Win a Great Super Bowl Matchup

The two best teams in the NFL are probably meeting in the Super Bowl, helping to make this one of the best matchups in years. Continue reading

Another Wild Ride Past their Nemesis Ravens for the Patriots to Reach This Year’s Super Bowl

This year’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks is shaping up to be a great match-up. It pits the dominant team of the past 15 years against their former head coach, leading a team seeking to be the first NFL team to repeat since none other than the Patriots themselves did it back in 2003- 2004, and a dominant defense that in last year’s Super Bowl dismantled what had been one of the best offenses of all time.

But the New England Patriots almost lost in the playoffs to their nemesis, the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens weren’t very good this year. But in the AFC divisional round to this year’s playoffs, Baltimore came into town; and playing Baltimore in the playoffs should never make the Patriots feel comfortable.

Never mind that the Patriots were at home, where they almost never lose. Or the fact that Baltimore hasn’t typically been a great road team. (Or at least during the regular season, in 2012 they made it to and won the Super Bowl, winning two of three playoff games on the road en route, and in the playoffs have won multiple other games on the road.)

Or the fact that but for the Chargers losing against the Kansas City Chiefs back up quarterback, Baltimore never would have been in the playoffs in the first place. Or that as an underdog they had to beat the division winning Pittsburgh Steelers to even make it to the divisional round. (They did, 30-17.)

For the Patriots first playoff game, the Ravens were coming to town. And in January,  that normally means trouble for the Patriots – one of the winning-est playoff franchises in modern NFL history:

The Ravens beat the Patriots handily in the first round of the playoffs in 2009, knocking them down 33-14 (Though after the game, then Ravens’ running back Ray Rice was quick to correctly surmise “their era is not over.”)

And the Ravens beat them again, 28-13, in the 2012 AFC Conference Championship Game for the right to play in the 2012 season Super Bowl. (Which the Ravens won, fending off a furious near come from far behind 49ers victory, interrupted by an infamous, and very long, stadium power outage during the game.)

In the 2011 AFC Championship game, the Ravens should have beat the Patriots as well. But a dropped pass by wide receiver Lee Evans –  as well as a strong play by an undrafted rookie cornerback waived by the team that originally signed him earlier in the year – changed who went to Super Bowl 46 (XLVI).

Evans was a former star for the Buffalo Bills – drafted 13th overall by them in 2004, and traded to the Ravens before the start of the 2011 season for a mid round draft pick. And had Evans caught that pass from Flacco, the New England Patriots would now have five total Super Bowl appearances since the 2000 season – not six – and the Baltimore Ravens would have four – followed by Seattle, Pittsburgh, and the New York Giants at three each. Instead it’s six, three three three and three for the five teams.

The Giants incidentally are the same team who lost to the Ravens in the 2000 season Grand Finale. And it was the Giants, of all teams, that would have faced the Ravens again on February 5, 2012 in Super Bowl XLVI, but for that drop which vaulted in the Patriots instead.

(A Patriots team who, even more coincidentally, in a duplicate of Super Bowl XLII, lost a Super Bowl to the Giants for the second time in four years, as the New York team’s only other Super Bowl appearance of the millennium, after the Ravens, was also against the Patriots.)

But here’s what happened on the pass play that changed NFL history (although what happened two plays after that pass play is often referenced even more). Coverage was strong by rookie cornerback Sterling Moore, an undrafted free agent by Oakland who was then waived and picked up by the Patriots. (And who is currently with the Dallas Cowboys.)

Evans caught the near perfect pass, with two hands comfortably wrapped upon it, cradled up to his body. But he didn’t really secure the ball or catch it correctly. So a light hand swipe well after the ball hit Evans gut, and which needle threading connection by Flacco should have vaulted the Ravens into the Super Bowl – knocked away what should have been a catch, as well as another Ravens Super Bowl appearance. Here’s the play:

New England was leading 23-20 at the time, and the Ravens had driven from their own 21 down to the Patriots 14, in just under 80 seconds. Only 27 more seconds remained, and it was 2nd and 1. Flacco then hit Evans – who from examination of subtle body language, basic kinesthetics, and the ease with which Moore’s desperation swipe knocked away a ball that should have been easily secured, likely went into pre-celebratory mindset mode the moment he “caught” the ball.

Had the pass been held onto, the Patriots would have had 22 seconds left (minus any taken off by the ensuing kickoff), and would have trailed by 4 points, 27-23. That is, but for a “music city miracle” type of play, the game was over.  (Even if the Patriots had just over a minute left but not much more than that, trailing by more than field goal they still would have had almost no realistic chance to win the game.)

The story, as assuredly all Ravens fans remember, got even better for the Patriots, as Baltimore then got stopped on 3rd down and with 15 seconds remaining, lined up for the “gimme” 32 yard game tying field goal: A field goal rarely missed in the NFL, and that Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff very rarely misses.

But he did here. And the Patriots went onto their 5th Super Bowl appearance since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady entered the scene in early 2000.

This year, although New England was clearly the better team entering the playoffs, the Ravens again gave them trouble.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has long been underrated as a playoff QB, although that somewhat changed after his bulletproof (and never losing) performance in the upstart Ravens 2012 run all the way to Super Bowl victory.

But in this game, the 2014 AFC divisional round playoff, and just as Brady finally did years into his career (losing to Peyton Manning and the Colts in a game where the Patriots could have pulled it out at the end, and for the first time in his playoff career, they didn’t), Flacco finally came back down to earth when it ultimately mattered most.

Despite some prognostication otherwise (save from those who have vivid memories of the Ravens Patriots playoff history), the game was once again a very tough match-up for the Patriots; and if not a lopsided affair in the Ravens favor, it was certainly, as with their 2011 AFC championship tango, a reasonably even game.  And it came down at the end to a final drive, with the ball in Joe Flacco hands.

Flacco, as usual in tight spots, tried to make the most of the situation. But this time he pressed a little too much, didn’t pay quite enough or the right kind of attention to the clock, and threw too loosely for the situation; perhaps just in hope “something,” like a super catch or a huge penalty flag, would happen.  And something most definitely did happen. .

But the situation didn’t call for such a move, and there were enormous clock considerations:

After losing the lead on a Brandon LaFell TD, the Ravens started on their 11 yard line, down 35-31, with just over 5 minutes to go. This was probably not the situation the Patriots had wanted to be in. But it was better than losing, and the Ravens having the ball at the end. (As a side note, LaFell was part of an interesting team purge of the otherwise crescendoing 2013 Carolina Panthers.)

Minutes later, after a Patriots’ offsides, the Ravens found themselves with an opportunistic 1st and 5 at the Patriots 36.  Since a TD would only put them ahead by 3 and allow the Pats a chance to tie the game on a field goal, they needed to be careful with the clock; but since the Patriots only had 1 timeout remaining, a few plays in bounds should crunch off enough clock easily enough when and if they needed to.

But for their part, the Ravens, after a 3rd and 3 incomplete from their own 42 with 2:25 remaining, took their 2nd timeout. This would have been a bad move had they wound up scoring fairly quickly; it stopped the clock above the two minute warning and kept a lot of time left for New England if they did score quickly – which does happen – and took away their clock flexibility for later control.But they probably wanted to think about the play longer, since it was 4th down and the game was on the line. And unless they scored very quickly, it was probably not going to be a problem. (Still, since there is little support for the idea that “thinking” about what play to run even more than the 20-30 seconds an incomplete allows, just because the situation is crucial, necessarily increases a team’s chances, they probably shouldn’t have called it, but it wasn’t at all a horrendous move, like this strategy call in the Packers Seahawks NFC Conference Championship Game was.)

More likely than not the Ravens were not going to score right away from the 36. But the 1st and 5 gave them a few shots at making up significant yardage (which is part of why getting that clock lower for control would have been a good move), and then making sure to pick up the 1st down and keep the chains rolling regardless.

Yet the Ravens did something ill advised. After a short incomplete, they threw deep down the left sidelines. Almost to the end zone.

This was a bad move, for two reasons. It was a low probability play that was also well covered, and had they scored it would have left the Patriots with over a minute and a half and just a 3 point deficit.  (The strong coverage and poor angle for the throw in combination with its low odds are the key reasons it shouldn’t have been attempted; if open, even if it will leave the Patriots some time, take it.)

You don’t want to leave any team with that kind of time. And Tom Brady and the Patriots in particular don’t fail to score very often when there is over a minute to go and they trail by 3 and have the ball – and the score would have stood at 38-35 at that point, not exactly a low scoring game. (One of the few times it did happen was in 2012, after a 46 yard near Hail Mary type of pass put them behind 24-23, but with over a minute left. That game was in Seattle, against the Seahawks, the same team they face on Sunday in the Super Bowl.)

But as Flacco had likely wanted, “something” did happen on the play. A catch into the end zone. Unfortunately it was by Duron Harmon, who happens to play Safety for the Patriots. And that was the ball game, and a slight change in NFL history.

Ironically, there is a good possibility that the Ravens would still be matching up with the Seahawks in this year’s Super Bowl had that game gone differently at the end. The Patriots, “deflategate or not,” went on to crush the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship game. The Ravens easily beat the Colts back in the 2012 playoffs – although it was in Baltimore and both teams were a little different, and the Colts easily beat the Ravens in Indianapolis earlier this season, where this game would have been as well.)

The long ball to the end zone into extremely good coverage with far too much time left on the clock for the Patriots to still easily pull out the game, on an otherwise manageable 2nd and 5 in unambiguous four down territory with plenty of time to throw numerous incompletes and still get to the end zone, was a poor decision by the Ravens and Flacco – who is usually both clutch, and makes fairly good decisions for the given situation.

An occasional commentator has questioned some of Flacco’s moves.But they usually have a bigger upside times their chances than downside times those chances relative to the situation – which is the most crucial aspect of good quarterback decision making. Brady, of course, has long been the master at this. (Although Russell Wilson, who Brady faces in this upcoming Super Bowl – and who also possesses a great set of feet to both complicate and expand his decision making process and potential – like Brady early in his career has fast become very good at it as well.)

But regardless of what happens in this year’s Super Bowl coming up on Sunday versus Wilson and those same Seahawks (pick: Patriots win), if Brady returns for another year, – likely – and if the Patriots make the playoffs (based on past history also likely, as they’ve made the playoffs every year but 2 since Brady became the starter in 2001), they probably would rather not have to face the Ravens, one way or another.