Tuesday, November 17, 2009

And the beatdown continues...

I love Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column. It's one of the things that I look forward to every week. Peter has great sources, lots of interesting material and he writes well. And he has, at his fingertips, all of the conventional wisdom of life in the NFL, even the conventional wisdom that contradicts the other conventional wisdom. I know that this reeks of damning with faint praise, but it is not intended that way. Even when I don't agree with him, I always learn something, and he's a very good writer, producing a long and interesting column first thing Monday morning, every week, which I know from experience is not an easy thing to do.

And Peter didn't like Belichick's decision. Well, that's fine. He's certainly not alone. The usual suspects and quoters of conventional wisdom seem to be nearly unanimous here. But Peter doesn't want to be seen as merely parroting conventional wisdom (even as he does so) so he gives us some numbers and analysis to demonstrate that it was a horrible decision.
Let's place the odds of Brady getting two yards at 60, 65 percent. The odds of Manning going 72 yards to score a touchdown in less than two minutes ... that's maybe 35 percent...Even it you think you've got a two-out-of-three chance to make two yards deep in your own territory, the cost of missing it is too great. The difference between Manning driving 29 yards for the winning touchdown and 72 is too great. Too many chances for him to err in 72 yards, as he'd been doing occasionally during the night.

OK, Peter, let's do that. We'll use your numbers. We'll use the conservative side of the numbers, too, so we assume that the Patriots had a 60% change of converting. According to your analysis, the Patriots have got a 35% chance of losing the game if they punt. If they go for it on fourth down, on the other hand, they've got a 40% chance of giving the Colts the ball on the 29. Surely, the odds of the Colts scoring from the 29 were something less than 100%. And the odds of the Colts scoring with enough time for the Patriots to get into field goal range were non-zero. If we assume that the probability of scoring a touchdown decreases linearly as yards from the end zone increase1, then Peter's 35% at 72 yards becomes 87% at 29 yards. So the Patriots have a 65% chance of winning the game if they punt, and a (conservatively, using Peter's numbers) 1 - (.4*.87) = 65.2% chance of winning the game if they go for it.

So according to Peter King's own probability assumptions, going for it on fourth down gave the Patriots a better chance to win the game!

And Peter doesn't even see it.
All in all, I hated the call. It smacked of I'm-smarter-than-they-are hubris. Let Manning, with the weight of the world on his shoulders and no timeouts under his belt, drive 72 yards in two minutes, with his mistake-prone (on this night) young receivers and the clock working against him. Sure he could do it. But let him earn it. This felt too cheap. It was too cheap. Belichick's too smart to have something so Grady-Littlish on his career resume, but there it is, and it can never be erased.

Here's the thing that people are not understanding. It isn't arrogance, or hubris, or ego, that would have a coach make that decision. The risk of taking exactly the kind of roasting in the press that Belichick is taking now is too high to make that move for any reason like that. There's one reason, and only one reason, that a coach would make that move - the honest belief that it gives his team the best opportunity to win the game. And part of what makes Belichick great is that he's willing to put his team in the best position to win regardless of the "heat" that follows.

Belichick's an economist. He understands cost-benefit analysis. He knows the benefit of going for it there, and understands the costs. He understands the benefit of punting and understands the cost. There's far, far too much of the analysis of this move that is based on nonsensical assumptions to the effect that the Colts couldn't possibly fail to score a touchdown from the 29, but there's no way on God's earth that they could have moved 40 yards to get there on their own.

If the Patriots punt, they've got one chance to win the game - they need to stop the Colts from going 75 yards for a touchdown in 2 minutes. If they go for it, they've got three chances to win the game
  1. They make the first down.

  2. They stop the Colts from going 29 yards for a touchdown.

  3. The all the Colts to score quickly enough to get the ball back for a field goal attempt.


Belichick made the right choice. The fact that he's the only coach in the NFL that would have done this is a testament to his decision-making process, not an indictment of it.

BTW, the best columnist currently working in the mainstream sports press, Joe Posnanski, gets it exactly right."
The conventional choice there is to punt. In fact, "conventional choice" does not begin to describe it. It was the obvious choice. The incontestable choice. I suspect 31 other NFL coaches would have punted there without even thinking twice about it. I suspect that had Belichick decided to punt there, nobody -- not one interviewer, not one talk show host, not even one radio caller -- would have second-guessed him there (and anyone who would second-guess him there would have been mocked and told to learn about football). I simply cannot remember any team going for it in a similar situation. You punt the ball and make Peyton Manning and the Colts go 70 yards to try to score the game-winning touchdown. It's as obvious as bringing Mariano Rivera in the game in the 9th.

But ... Belichick went for it. And here's the reason: He doesn't care about any of that stuff. He doesn't care about sentiment or history or what every other coach would do. He doesn't care about anything at all except winning the game.

Amen, Joe. Amen.



1 - This actually isn't a great assumption. Probability of scoring increases with proximity to the end zone, but not linearly. The last 20 yards tend to be the hardest to get, as the field shrinks, and it becomes impossible to extend a defense. The back of the end zone makes a lot of stops on red zone plays. So really, that 87% is probably more like 75-80%.

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