An amateur mathlete's look at Monday's onside kick

October 27, 2011|By Matt Vensel

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, a former special teams coach with the Eagles, is standing by his controversial decision Monday night to attempt an onside kick with the Jaguars winning, 9-7, with 2:02 left in the game.

“Execution” was the buzzword at his Tuesday news conference, and though he cited a couple of percentages when defending his decision, he made it because he had faith in his players. He trusted Billy Cundiff and the special teams unit to succeed on the onside kick. He trusted his defense to get the stop if that attempt failed. And he trusted Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and his offense to put up the necessary points either way.

“I felt strongly about the onside kick, and the main reason was, I thought we were going to get it,” he said.

That’s why even though Harbaugh’s decision didn’t pay off, I didn’t have a huge problem with it.

The numbers I crunched Wednesday afternoon, though, probably disagree with Harbaugh’s logic.

(Yes, I’m personifying numbers now. I was a standout mathlete in high school so I have that right).

According to the results of my basic number crunching -- I would love to read about how advanced stats would compute -- the Ravens had a 17.6 percent chance of scoring a game-winning field goal or touchdown if they would have kicked the ball for a touchback in that situation. This season, the Ravens have prevented a first down on 44 percent of opponents’ series. Using that percentage and assuming the Jaguars would have advanced the ball to the 29-yard line, punted for a net of 40 yards (Jags punter Nick Harris is averaging a 40.2 net in 2011) and the Ravens got the ball at their 39-yard line, they would have had about a 40 percent chance of scoring.

On the other hand, there are a couple of positive outcomes (not including something crazy like a defensive touchdown to win it), from the Ravens going for the onside kick: scoring if they recovered it and scoring if they didn’t. Harbaugh said he thought it was a 50/50 chance Cundiff would execute the kick properly, but using another stat from advancednflstats.com, the odds of a successful onside kick are approximately 20 percent.

If the Ravens had recovered the onside kick at their own 45-yard line, they would have had about a 40 percent chance of scoring a touchdown or booting a go-ahead field goal. The odds of that outcome were eight percent.

And then there’s the scenario that played out. The Ravens didn’t get the onside kick and the Jaguars added another field goal to make the score 12-7 (remember, based on the numbers from this season, there was a 44 percent chance the Ravens wouldn’t allow a game-sealing first down there). After the field goal, the Ravens got the ball at their own 20-yard line. From there, the Ravens had a 15 percent chance to score a touchdown.

We all know how that one played out.

Anyway, add the percentages from the two possible positive outcomes from the onside kick (eight percent if the onside kick was a success and 6.6 percent if they got a stop and a touchdown after Jacksonville’s field goal) and it equals 14.6 percent. That means the Ravens’ chances of winning when kicking deep with 2:02 left were three percent better than trying an onside kick. Remember, this is basic math, and I didn't take into account missed field-goal attempts, defensive touchdowns and other things like that, but you get the gist.

Like I said earlier, I liked that Harbaugh showed faith in all three phases of his team. But when the onside kick bounced six inches short of where it needed to land and the Ravens lost, he was subject to second-guessing from armchair quarterbacks and number-crunching by amateur mathletes.

Based on my math, the difference was a few percentage points, but kicking deep was a better statistical play.

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