It’s a query Ravens coach John Harbaugh has faced twice lately, and many times in the past. It’s one that fellow AFC North coach Mike Tomlin of the Steelers — yes, two of the NFL’s best sideline men — also has been asked a bunch.
There might not be a correct answer, regardless of what the charts and analytics say. Indeed, Tomlin was going for 2-point conversions in all sorts of situations even before analytics became a sports obsession.
“It’s part analytics, it’s part feel,” Tomlin says, recalling when he went for the deuce with the Steelers down late 29-20 against Minnesota. “Particularly in that instance, I wanted to be aggressive and go for the win, and so in an effort to do that, I think we needed two 2-point conversions. The first two scores that we got, we kicked the extra point. The third score we got, we went for two in an effort to set up the potential to play for the win on the last one if necessary.
“It’s just the mindset I had in those circumstances. I thought we were too thin in the line of scrimmage to go into extra time, and so I did it with that understanding. But again, I never make those decisions based purely on one set of variables or one equation. … It’s a multitude of variables and game circumstances, and that’s always the case.”
Ditto for Harbaugh, whose team is 2 for 8 on 2-pointers.
When he went for 2 against both Pittsburgh and Green Bay at the conclusion of key AFC North games, Harbaugh was recognizing what was left of his illness- and injury-ravaged Ravens. Baltimore’s secondary was such a mess at the Steelers that John Stallworth probably could have run right through it, and the Hall of Famer is 69 years old.
As for the redux against the Packers, well, kicking the tying point or going for 2 might not have mattered with Aaron Rodgers having 42 seconds left to march his team downfield.
“We had a lot of conversation with it on the phones at the time,” Harbaugh admitted. “I’ve thought about it all night – of course you do. There are two choices, and they’re both viable. Either one can turn out right. Either one can turn out wrong. It’s basically 50-50.
“We talked about a lot, we decided to go for it. It didn’t work out. I know half the people are going to say we should’ve kicked it, I get it. They can certainly criticize me for it. I’m OK with that, I criticize myself for it. You can’t dwell on it too much, because we definitely have to move on. … I think it’s a little bit like decisions in life.”
It takes guts to make such decisions. But they are not simply done spur of the moment. Plenty of planning goes into it, with such variables as score, opponent, weather and your team’s health.
There are other instances in football games when that is true.
Trying to convert fourth downs, for example. Perhaps the most recognizable bevy of those attempts — some would say they are absurd, others would counter with analytically perfect — were delivered by Chargers coach Brandon Staley. LA went 2 for 5 on them against Kansas City, and lost in an AFC West showdown last week.
“I think we’re going to try and unpack each game as we go,” Staley explains. “Our models are going to be different based off who we play. Then, you also want to be able to apply pressure on the other side of things. If you make it, then it changes their model, too, early in the game. Sometimes by going for it in the first half now you flip the script on what they have going on the other side, too.
“I have a lot of confidence in our operation. We’re going to practice it a lot. We knew that was going to happen. We got on the ball, there was no hesitation.”
Conviction is critical, whether going on fourth down or trying for the 2-point conversion. This season, the Cowboys and Jets have gone for 2 the most often, nine times. Dallas was successful on five, New York on four.
Staley’s Chargers are 5 for 7, but the best numbers belong to Philadelphia, perfect on five attempts. Also perfect are Cleveland and New England in three tries apiece, Tennessee in two and Houston once.
At the other end are New Orleans (0 for 5), Las Vegas and Arizona (0 for 2), Tampa Bay and Green Bay (0 for 1), though Minnesota is 1 for 7 despite its strong offense, and Washington is 2 for 7.
“We have to have a large array of plays in that area,” Harbaugh says of the tries from the 2-yard line. “So, I think that’s one thing that has changed about football in the last five years or so – those menus are much bigger than they used to be. You spend a lot of time working on and repping those, because you can run out of them pretty quickly. That’s a good point.”
Especially a good point when you get the additional point.