Belichick Is Not a Gambler: He Played the Percentages Last Night

What got into Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, last night to make him suddenly become a reckless gambler? That’s the question stunned New England Patriots fans have been asking themselves after he seemed to throw caution to the winds by deciding to go for a first down rather than punting in a key situation last night. The Patriots had the ball on their own 28 yard line in a fourth and two situation with about two minutes to play and a six-point lead in their game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots went down to a crushing defeat when they failed to make the first and the Colts then scored 7 points to win 35-34. Naturally, Dan Shaughessy of the Boston Globe was pulling out all stops to express the monumental stupidity of the coach’s decision, saved from eternal ignominy (perhaps) only by its not having been made in a post season game.

I was as surprised as anyone when I saw the Patriots were going for the first down, but on further review, I am going to argue that Belichick made the right call. The timing of the call is crucial because the first down will be decisive if made. With lots of time to play, of course you punt. And for a random game picked out of a hat, this situation would seem to require a punt without a second thought. Get the ball away from your goal line and play prevent defense. What are the odds the other team can move 75 yards in two minutes in a high pressure situation? What are the odds you’re going to pick up two yards against a team geared to stop a short gain?

But this was not a random game between random teams. First of all, the two best quarterbacks in football were playing in it, and that has a strong bearing on the likely outcomes of different scenarios in the last two minutes of a game. One has to consider all the specific personnel of the teams and their current state of exhaustion, the crowd factor, and that real psychological edge people called “momentum.” No, this is not a question that has a universal answer, though Belichick may be one of the few coaches who would realize that.

In addition to Brady, the Patriots have other veterans of Super Bowl Championship teams, including the invaluable Kevin Faulk. These are players that actually get better in pressure situations. The starting point in a decision has to be what are the odds that Tom Brady will be able to complete a two yard pass to Kevin Faulk on third and two from the Patriots’ thirty? From what I’ve seen of these two clutch performers, I’d say about 80%. I’m sure Belichick has a better estimate. What if it’s fourth and two? The odds could go up a little because the Colts have to be thinking that the whole thing may be just a ruse to draw them offside. The Colts must be holding back until they are sure of the snap, thus giving Brady a fraction of second more time to make a decision and an unhurried throw. On the other hand, they aren’t going to be worried about deep coverage. Lets say the odds are that the Pats make the first down 75% of the time.

If they make the first down, the victory is basically cinched, game over. Thus the pass play gives the Pats a 75% chance of winning the game. True, if they don’t make it, based on the way the Colts have been moving the ball, the odds are great that they will lose the game. But of course that is not the comparison to make at this stage of the game with only two minutes to go. The chance of winning if the Pats go for the first down has to be compared with the chance of their winning if they give the ball back to the Colts, at say (best case scenario of negligible runback) the Colts’ 25 yard line. But what had just happened? The Colts had taken the ball 79 yards in 1:44. Manning had been sharp as could be. That means as sharp as anyone could be. The receivers had been sure-handed and were getting open. The Patriot pass rushers seemed tired. The game is in Indianapolis.

The decision formula is simple. Let the probability of making the first down be F, and the probability of a Colt touchdown after a punt be T. Then if F > (1-T), the Patriots should go for the first down. What were the odds that Peyton Manning would be able to get a touchdown in 2 minutes with 3 timeouts and the 2 minute warning to play with? Were the odds of a Colt touchdown greater than 25%? That’s the calculation Belichick had to make on the spot in a short time. If the answer to that question is a definite yes, then the Patriots should go for the first down.

One may argue about the chances of success with Brady throwing to Faulk to pick up a 2 yard first down. I think 75% is a reasonable number. I also think that the odds of Manning getting the Colts into the end zone after a punt were over 50%, which means Belichick’s decision, far from being crazy, was in fact the reasonable one. The main point is that the odds to compare are the odds of the Patriots making the first down and thus assuring the victory versus the odds of Colts scoring after a punt (not after getting the ball on downs). The decision formula F > (1-T) would still say go for the first down even if the chance of success was 60%, so long as the chance of the Colts scoring after a punt was greater than 40%.

Did Brady choke and overthrow Faulk? No, the pass was perfect. Did Faulk drop the ball even when hit? No, but he did take a split second to gain full possession of it after being hit right at the first down spot. Just enough to make the spot short of the first down marker. The Colts defense did just enough to get the ball back. But it was a close as could be, and the call could have gone the other way. Home field advantage may have helped there. The fact that it was so close just points out to me how likely success was.

Would I as coach have gone for the first down? No, like all normal human beings I would have punted and hoped. I wouldn’t have thought to make the proper analysis in the excitement of the game in the first place, and I wouldn’t have had the guts to go against what first glance intuition said if I had. But I now see that Belichick was both smart and courageous. It’s not as though he didn’t know the consequences of failure. He wanted to win more than he feared what the media and fans would say if he didn’t. Yep, the guy is one of a kind.

This is my first (and probably last) topical sports post, but it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything (tied up with iPhone app development again) that I thought I’d better go with something that caught my attention. Back to “normal programming” soon. Maybe.

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