John Harbaugh Criticized After Ravens Blow Lead Against Bills

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You know that fan. Their favorite team faces a big decision. The stakes are high. And the fan, not subject to the pressure and news media scrutiny that the coach will face, always demands the most daring option.

“Pass, don’t run!” “Go for it on fourth down!” “Try for a two-point conversion.”

On Sunday, Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh listened to that fan. And he was wrong. And the fans ripped him anyway.

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The Ravens shouldn’t really have been in a crucial endgame situation at all against the Buffalo Bills, not after taking a 20-3 lead late in the first half and looking in command. But the loss of receiver Rashod Bateman to injury, coupled with some offensive shortcomings, opened the door for a Bills comeback.

The game was tied, 20-20, in the fourth quarter when the Ravens mounted a 90-plus-yard drive and got the ball inside the Bills’ 5-yard line. A couple of failed runs left Harbaugh and his team facing a fourth-and-goal at the 2. There were 4 minutes 15 seconds to go in the game.

The safe play would have been to kick the short field goal, retake the lead and then send the defense out to try to stop the Bills. But Harbaugh, defying the longtime stereotype of the cautious N.F.L. head coach, decided to go for it.

The problem was it didn’t work. Quarterback Lamar Jackson dropped back under heavy pressure and unloaded a pass to the end zone that was intercepted by Jordan Poyer.

The Bills, taking over deep in their own end but with the score tied, promptly marched down the field, thanks to a 20-yard pass from Josh Allen to Dawson Knox and a roughing-the-passer penalty. As the clock continued to tick down, they moved all the way to the Ravens 1.

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But Bills Coach Sean McDermott did not repeat Harbaugh’s gamble. Allen knelt a couple of times, letting the clock run down to its final second, and the Bills kicked a field goal as time expired to win the game, 23-20.

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Harbaugh cited field position as one key factor in his decision to go for the touchdown. Even if the Ravens did not get in the end zone, he said, the Bills would have had to start at their own 2. He was confident his defense could bail him out, and get the game to overtime, or give the offense one final chance.

“We’re very confident in our defense’s ability to stop them down there with the ball at the 2-yard line, so we got them backed up if we don’t get it,” Harbaugh said after the game. “Didn’t turn out that way unfortunately, and we lost the game.”

The interception, of course, meant the Bills got to start at their own 20, negating that hypothetical advantage.

“In hindsight, you could take the points,” Harbaugh admitted. “But if you look at it analytically, you understand why we did it.”

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Let’s just say some N.F.L. fans sometimes have trouble looking at things analytically. A simple search for “Harbaugh” on social media Sunday night and Monday morning yielded mostly criticism, both of Sunday’s specific decision and of his coaching in general.

Harbaugh is in his 15th season with the Ravens and has nine playoff appearances and a Super Bowl win after the 2012 season on his résumé. But the Ravens finished 8-9 last year, and they have started this season 2-2.

The usual second-guessing of a curious call was not limited to fans, however: Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters also seemed to be on the “kick the field goal” team. Peters had to be restrained by staff members and teammates after screaming at Harbaugh as the Bills went out to kick the game-winner.

“Emotions run high,” Harbaugh said of the exchange. “We’re on the same page. We’ve got a great relationship, we’ve got an honest relationship. I love him. I hope he still loves me. We’ll see.”





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