When NFL Analytics Go Wrong

Harbaugh is an idiot

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Years ago, the NFL wanted to come up with a better way of ranking the league’s best quarterbacks. Simply listing them by passing yards was kind of arbitrary. That’s why the league developed a passer rating system in 1973.

Around the same, NFL quarterback and Northwestern-educated Virgil Carter and his partner Robert Machol wrote a paper called “Operations Research on Football.” Carter’s paper quantified the idea of expected points. This laid the foundation for what today is the field of NFL analytics.

The Moneyball movement in professional baseball helped boost the analytics game in other sports. In 2010, ESPN’s Brian Burke revived the idea of advanced analytics applied to football and now there are several services that provide data and statistical analysis to all NFL teams.

There are some teams – Baltimore, Cleveland, and Philadelphia for example – that utilize analytics more than other teams around the league. Sometimes, the analytics don’t produce the desired outcome.


The Ravens

In each of its past three games, the Baltimore Ravens have scored a fourth quarter touchdown that has put the team in a position to win the game. In a Week 15 game against Green Bay, the Ravens trailed by 14 points in the fourth quarter. Baltimore rallied scoring twice to bring the score to 31-30 with 42 seconds remaining in regulation play.

If you pay attention to the NFL, you know that the Ravens attempted a two-point conversion, missed it, and lost 31-30. It was the team’s third consecutive loss. You see, in each of the Ravens’ past three games head coach John Harbaugh elected to go for two after each decisive fourth-quarter touchdown. In all three cases, the Ravens failed on the conversion.


The Playoffs

Not long ago, the Ravens were 8-3 and held a commanding lead in the AFC North Division. Fast forward and Baltimore is now 8-6 and has given up control of the division to Cincinnati (who the Ravens play in Week 16).  

The three losses also moved Baltimore right out of the AFC playoff picture. Currently, the Bengals are in as a result of leading the AFC North. The Colts, Chargers, and Bills – all of which are also 8-6 – own the AFC’s three wild card spots right now. 

The Ravens still have three weeks left to get back into the playoff picture. They are currently No. 8 in the AFC, but analytics played a role in their recent demise.

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What about the 10%?

Washington head coach Ron Rivera brought up an interesting point one time when asked about the use of analytics. He will often hear that in a certain situation his team is 90 percent likely to succeed. Rivera’s question is “What about the other 10 percent?”

If his teams go for it ten times on fourth down, the likelihood of success is nine out of ten. But, what about that one time you don’t get it? No one talks about that. For Rivera, analytics is a nice tool to use but one that has to be tamed by coaches’ experience and intuition. 

If used correctly, analytics can be a great addition to a football program. But, if analytics were always right, there would be a lot of coaches out of business. For coaches that rely heavily on analytics, they may want to rethink their strategy. Harbaugh and the Ravens the past three weeks are an indication of that.