Pulaski Academy Ravens
One of the most impressive things about what the Baltimore Ravens have done has gone largely under-reported. Many people have talked about the ‘revolutionary’ part of the offense. It has to be said what the coaching staff have done in buying into what Lamar Jackson can do as a runner and a pass and building the team around him. For that alone I think John Harbaugh deserves recognition as Coach of the Year. However, one of the biggest things that the Ravens have done which makes their offense truly revolutionary is the complete and utter embrace of analytics.
One of the darlings of the analytics community has been Kevin Kelly, former coach of the Pulaski Academy Bruins who famously ‘never punts’. He based this decision upon statistical model that elevated possession of the ball above all else. Kelly also had a lot of success at Pulaski going 77-17 with 2 state championships in Arkansas to boot. Not only did Kelly ‘never punt’ but he also attempted onside kicks on every single kick off. He was truly a maverick, however the statistical model upon which he based his decisions hold merit and have slowly being percolated into the NFL.
About 5 years ago, teams only really went for it on fourth down in times of desperation. When they were behind in the game and needed to score a touchdown to win or tie. You would often see teams kick field goals from fourth and short from the 5-yard line. “Better to come away with 3 points than nothing” was the prevailing thought. However, if you look at statistical analysis of ‘percentage likely to score a TD’ from various points on the field you are much more likely closer to the goal line. More and more coaches are going for it on fourth down throughout the league and not just in the opposition’s territory. However, commentators and writers still class coaches as ‘brave’ for going for it on fourth down and chastise them for doing the same and failing even when analytics say it was the correct decision.
This year the Ravens are leading the charge to embrace the same analytical models that Kevin Kelly did at Pulaski Academy. The Ravens have gone for it 20 times on fourth down so far this season. They have punted the ball 24 times and attempted 23 field goals. That’s a staggering 30% of the time the Ravens will go for it on fourth down. On top of that the ravens have converted 15 of their fourth down attempts. Which means even if a team holds the ravens to a first down, 22% of the time they’re going to convert for a 1st down anyway. This embrace of analytics came to a head against the 49ers. Both teams went for it 6 times in total in the game.
In the list of teams, Baltimore rank 3rd in fourth down conversion attempts. The two teams above them, the Giants and the Dolphins, are woeful and are likely to go for it more just because of the places they find themselves in game. The next team in the list with a winning record are the Houston Texans who rank 9th and convert only 50% of their fourth down attempts.
Everything about the Baltimore Ravens approach to crafting their offensive identity needs to be praised. Looking at a quarterback who has talents and building around those talents to maximize what he can do rather than attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole. Hiring Greg Roman to run this new running offense when he’d had plenty of success doing so in the past with Colin Kaepernick needs to be praised. Building a team of incredibly fast runners and an offensive line built to make hole for a running game. Embracing RPO concepts. Having the first ever ‘All Heisman Trophy Backfield’. All these things need to be praised. However, the embracing of the analytics that Kevin Kelly used to become a successful maverick of a high-school coach is one of the more pleasing aspects to me.