Stats are the lifeblood of sports, the source of both bragging rights and cold, hard incentive-driven cash. But they’re also a touchy subject; like an invitation to an elite club, you’ve got to pursue them without looking like you’re pursuing them.
Stat-grubbing hit its lowest point on March 16, 2003, when then-Cleveland Cavalier Ricky Davis realized he was just one rebound short of a triple-double. Problem for Davis was, the Cavs were 27 points up on the Utah Jazz, and only seconds remained in the game. Davis attempted an unconventional — to say the least — move, shooting on his own basket and grabbing the rebound. The Jazz immediately understood what he was doing and fouled him, and the NBA refused to give him credit for the needed rebound.
Sunday afternoon, the Baltimore Ravens went and did a little stat-hunting of their own. Baltimore had come into the week riding a 42-game streak of rushing for 100 yards or more, a testament to the team’s run versatility and one short of the 1974-77 Pittsburgh Steelers record.
Up 23-7 on a total of 97 yards rushing, with Denver driving inside the final 15 seconds, it appeared Baltimore’s streak would end at last. Ah, well … at least the Ravens would get the W. But then: opportunity! Denver’s Drew Lock threw an interception in the end zone with 10 seconds remaining, and suddenly the Ravens got the ball back after all.
Normal procedure in this situation would be to go into victory formation, take a knee and end the game with 95 or 96 yards rushing. But the Ravens are not a normal team, and don’t have a normal quarterback. With three ticks left on the clock, head coach John Harbaugh turned Lamar Jackson loose, and Jackson rolled up another five yards to keep the streak alive.
It was stat-chasing. And it was exactly the right move.
“100 percent my call,” Harbaugh said after the game of the decision to keep the streak alive. “That’s one of those things that’s meaningful. As a head coach, you have to be mindful of your players and your coaches and what it means to them.”
Even so, the call apparently didn’t sit well with Denver’s players, who were reportedly “livid” as they walked to the locker room after the game.
You can understand Denver’s frustration boiling over at that point. But here’s the thing: An NFL game is 60 minutes long, not 59 minutes and 57 seconds. “Victory formation” is a courtesy, not an obligation. It’s not Baltimore’s job to make Denver feel any better about itself after beating them by 16 points.
Denver came into the game 3-0, but the most unproven 3-0 you could possibly be. Not a single one of Denver’s first three opponents won a game the first three weeks of the season. So getting punched in the mouth was a humbling experience, and losing Teddy Bridgewater to a concussion just before halftime only dumped pretzel salt into the wound.
But Baltimore’s on a mission of its own here. It’s trying to keep pace with the best teams in the league, trying to establish itself as more than just the Lamar Jackson Show, trying to create the kind of multidimensional team that can hang with the Buffalos and Kansas Citys of the conference come January.
That’s why Harbaugh signed off on the play, because he knew how much it meant, and would continue to mean, to his team to keep the record going. Short-term, game-by-game motivational tactics like these are crucial in keeping the larger-scale goals, like another Super Bowl title, in view. (Yes, if/when Harbaugh has this done to him, he’ll go full Vesuvius on the Baltimore sideline and won’t cool down for a week. Such is life in the NFL.)
Baltimore has held this record literally the entirety of Jackson’s career — having a quarterback who’s a dual threat opens up opportunities on the ground — and the team now has another week to go to claim the record all to itself. Baltimore will get the chance to break the record against Indianapolis next Monday night.
Baltimore wasn’t stat-grubbing like Ricky Davis, and this wasn’t an individual seeking personal glory. This was a team effort, against another team of well-paid professionals. Denver doesn’t have to like it — Denver shouldn’t like it — but the Broncos can’t complain about it.
The Ravens embodied the most basic tenet of competition: if you want to keep your opponent from celebrating, don’t give them any reason to celebrate.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]