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Gus Bradley's aggressive strategy nearly pulls upset over Ravens

Bradley's Jaguars perfectly executed a "David" strategy to nearly escape Baltimore with a major upset.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

There is a concept in game theory and strategy known as David vs. Goliath. For those that need refreshing of their biblical knowledge, David was a young, scrawny teenager, barely able to do more than wield a slingshot for the Israelites. Goliath was a hulking seven-foot tall Philistine armed with heavy armor and a spear that was even taller than David. Despite Goliath's enormous advantage in battle, David slew Goliath with mere pebbles from his sling, thus becoming one of the earliest upsets in battle to be immortalized.

Applied to sports, David was the underdog while Goliath was the heavy favorite. When analytics types discuss how an underdog can pull the upset against a heavy favorite, they often use the terms "David strategies" and "Goliath strategies".

David strategy = high variance, higher risk.  Goliath strategy = low variance, lower risk.

David strategies are defined by their use of what we call a "high-variance" tactics -- think onside kicks, fake punts, going for it in bad situations, or even the Ravens' fake field goal in Super Bowl XLVII. Think of variance as the range of possible outcomes to a given event such as an NFL game.  In a low variance game, fewer crazy, improbable events occur, and thus the game plays out about as expected.  This favors the better team.

As a result, it plays to the favorites' chances if the underdog plays the Goliath strategy, too. Goliaths will play more conservatively, punt on most risky fourth downs (especially on their side of the field), settle for field goals on 4th-and-goal, and just generally sit back and wait for their superior talent and coaching to win the day. And they should, because it plays against them to take on a David strategy as the favorite.

The problem for Davids is that if they attempt to play the game the traditional way, the way Goliath does, they will almost always lose. Sure, employing the higher risk strategy also allows for the very real likelihood that you can get blown out way worse than normal but if you are the underdog, does losing by 9 feel any better than losing by 21?  No, it doesn't.

The David Strategy was on full display in the Jaguars vs. Ravens game

As heavy underdogs, a typical NFL game plan would likely not have been enough for Jacksonville to beat Baltimore, even with Baltimore screwing up left and right as they did early on. Had Bradley approached this game as coaches usually do (i.e. with conservative game planning and decision-making to a fault), Jacksonville would probably have lost comfortably.

So, what did Jacksonville do?  They went for broke -- and it nearly worked.  Baltimore helped certainly with their own horrendous play for too much of the game, but let's not take away what Jacksonville did either.  Their fake punt to convert a first down and surprise onside kick early in the first half to steal a possession were perfectly executed and by themselves put Baltimore in a big bind. Jacksonville's high risk approach (which luckily for them just so happened to succeed on seemingly every occasion) is why the Jags had a real chance to win the game.

It takes a lot for NFL coaches to do that. It helps that they were 2-11 and not playing for anything but pride, but  give them credit for trying. Plenty of coaches would have been content to continue doing stupid, pointlessly conservative stuff like punting on 4th and 4 down 23 in the fourth quarter as Cleveland did against Cincinnati.

A note on Harbaugh and 4th Down Strategy

One thing Harbaugh has taken heavy criticism for this year has been his generally risky approach to fourth downs which earlier on in the season seemed to fail more than they succeeded. This criticism has been unjustified. Harbaugh has made the right call virtually every time at least by standards of what is best for the team (and the NYT Fourth Down Twitter Bot nearly always agreed).  When these risks don't work, it was easy for us to sit back and chastise him for not "taking the points". This is lazy analysis where we have the benefit of knowing the result of the gambit.

However, Harbaugh potentially changed the fortune of his team's season last week in Miami when he called for Baltimore to go for it deep in his own territory. They succeeded, and would later produce a crucial go-ahead touchdown drive in the third quarter. We sung his praises (because it worked) but I suspect that had it failed, setting Miami up in our territory, the criticism would have been scathing. Instead, they succeeded and in the process, Harbaugh's risk was a huge factor in the Ravens pulling off the road upset of Miami in a game they had to have.

There was also a game this year where Harbaugh went very conservative. It was a game Baltimore came out hot, generated turnovers, played fast on offense, and moved the ball up and down the field producing a number of scoring drives. This was the game they lost in utterly heart-wrenching fashion to San Diego. Harbaugh went with the safe option of field goal on multiple fourth downs inside the 10 yard line. Most of us thought it was probably the right call. Oh man did it cost us.  Harbaugh's conservatism wasn't the main reason we lost, but it was not merely a coincidence either. Settling for field goals kept San Diego in the game and it burned us.

Taking the risky approach isn't always the right move, but it can be and in the NFL, is often more right than you think. It is doubly true when you are a "David" facing a "Goliath" especially. Sometimes that gets you blown out worse than normal. But sometimes, it allows you to pull the big upset in a game you never could have won playing straight up.

In the NFL there are no moral victories. Only victories.  Bradley's David strategy nearly helped his team pull one off in the end with crazy, improbable plays. As a fan of Harbaugh's gutsiness myself, that's something I can appreciate.