Sports | September 20, 2021 2:15 pm

John Harbaugh’s Bold 4th-Down Call Is Emblematic of a Growing NFL Trend

The Ravens' decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 helped Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson beat Patrick Mahomes for the first time

Head coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens watches a game. Thanks to Harbaugh's fourth-down call, the Ravens finally beat the Chiefs.
Head coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens watches a game from the sidelines.
Christian Petersen/Getty

Leading Kansas City 36-35 with 1:05 left and facing a fourth-and-1 at his own 43 with the Chiefs out of timeouts, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh didn’t hesitate to send quarterback Lamar Jackson and the offense out onto the field to attempt to get a first down and effectively end the game.

Jackson, as he did for much of the night against a Kansas City defense that allowed him to rush for 107 yards and two scores, was able to find a hole and scampered for the first. Baltimore, previously 0-3 against the Chiefs with Jackson at quarterback, was able to run out the clock and get the win over star QB Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City.

Afterward, Harbaugh explained he thought it was a better option to go for the win with Jackson than risk losing by putting the ball back to Mahomes and the Chiefs. “My gut basically said that we need to get the first down or they’re gonna be able to get back down the field,” Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated. “They had a minute left. I just felt like we had a better chance to get the fourth down [than stop the Chiefs] and I think the analytics might agree — I don’t know if they’d line up or not. I can’t say for sure if they would. But that was really me on that one.”

Looking at the numbers provided by the Next Gen Stats Decision Guide, which tracks and analyzes 4th down and two-point conversion situations and outcomes to give fans insight into the choices coaches make, Harbaugh’s gut and the analytics were in complete agreement.

Analytics research has long shown conclusively that NFL teams should almost always go for it on fourth-and-1 and, at least to start the season, Harbaugh and other coaches across the league are finally starting to listen to the numbers.

In Week 1 of the season, NFL teams went for fourth-down conversions 51 times, the highest single-week total in modern league history and a massive increase from the 37 attempts in Week 1 last year, 26 in 2019 and 22 in 2018, according to Yahoo Sports.

“It has been a treat to see so many coaches across the league embrace the numbers behind these key fourth-down decisions in recent years,” Next Gen Stats analyst Mike Band posted on Twitter. “Perhaps no team has been more optimal in these situations than the Ravens under John Harbaugh.”

Considering Harbaugh’s led to Mahomes losing in September for the first time in his career, expect more coaches to follow his lead and go for it on fourth-and-1.