Ravens have analytics nerds to thank for their success

Lamar Jackson has quarterbacked his Ravens to a 10-2 start. Opinions Editor Jonas Trostle argues their success is owed in part to a willingness to embrace analytics. Courtesy of Office of the Maryland Governor via Wikimedia Commons

The New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers are a combined 20-4 through Week 12. They have combined for a +343 point differential (NFL, “Statistics,” 12.01.2019). In other words, they’ve averaged winning by two touchdowns per game. Both teams possess a top-10 defense, #6 and #10 respectively, by Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). Not just top-10 defenses this season, top-10 defenses of all time (Twitter, @[FO_ASchatz], 12.01.2019).

All of this brings me to our Ravens. The Baltimore Ravens are responsible for half of the losses of the Patriots and 49ers. The only other two teams to beat the Patriots and 49ers were themselves steamrolled by Ravens by a combined score of 71-13. The Patriots and 49ers are historically good, but our Ravens are decimating the entire NFL.

The “our” in our Ravens does not refer to the city of Baltimore, although the team certainly belongs to the people of its city, but instead to the NFL analytics community. No team uses analytics to increase its chance of winning quite like the Baltimore Ravens do. Let me explain how.

For years, the bloody shirt of the NFL analytics community has been fourth-down decision making. NFL coaches, as a general rule, forfeit huge swaths of win probability every season by failing to try to convert manageable fourth-downs (Twitter, @ [bburkeESPN], 12.01.2019). Yes, just trying to convert on fourth-down would increase almost any team’s chance of winning a game. This has served as a harping point for analysts ever since the analytics Godfather himself, Brian Burke, justified Bill Belichick’s decision to go for a fourth-and-2 in the waning moments of a game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2009 (The Ringer, “Go for It: The Story Behind the NFL’s Fourth-Down Conversion,” 11.13.2019). And the Ravens are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league when it comes to being aggressive on fourth-down.

According to The New York Times’ fourth-down bot, which looks at the down, distance and years of data to recommend whether a team should (at least according to statistical models) go for it, the Ravens keep their offense on the field for fourthdowns 70 percent of the time that they should. The next best team? The Bills, at 55 percent, and the average is sub-50 (Twitter, @[benbbaldwin], 12.01.2019). Fourth-down is the lowest hanging fruit of the analytics tree, but apparently the Ravens are the only team reaching.

Even beyond the raw percentages, Baltimore has built a team designed to take advantage of the free points that other teams are leaving on the field. Usually, the NFL analytics community frowns upon running the football; for the most part, it’s inefficient (The Miscellany News, “Running backs don’t matter,” 09.13.2019). But when you as a team have decided that you have a whole extra down, and you run as well as the Baltimore Ravens do, this inefficiency barely even matters. Baltimore, with its strong running game, mobile quarterback and use of pre-snap motion, has precisely what you would want if you were trying to convert a fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2.

Speaking of the Ravens’ mobile quarterback, Lamar Jackson is a generational talent being paid like a middling ball-hucker. ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating reveals just how good Lamar Jackson is. Not only does he lead the league with an average of 81.3 out of 100, in his first game this season he posted an absurd 99.4. This led the league until week nine, when he one-upped himself with an even more absurd 99.7. These numbers are bonkers. In week 11 he posted a 99.8. On a scale that goes to 100, he scored a 99.8 (ESPN, “NFL Total QBR – 2019 Season Leaders,” 12.01.2019). He’s doing all of this at 22 years old, which I’m relatively certain is younger than at least some of the student readership of this newspaper.

With an electrifying young quarterback on a rookie contract, aggressive fourthdown decision making and an offense built around converting those fourth-downs, the Ravens are dragging the NFL into the future. They might not win the Superbowl— in fact they probably won’t—but they are following the outline drawn by the data and providing the flesh and blood proof of concept for every other team in the league to follow (FiveThirtyEight, “2019 NFL Predictions,” 12.01.2019). Not all of those teams will have access to a generational talent like Lamar Jackson, but every team can use a strategy that allows them to maximize their wins and put up as many points as possible.

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