Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More Belichick decision reaction

A couple of things have become clear - I'm not in such a minority as it looked yesterday, and the arguments are a lot clearer, data driven and rational on my side of the street...

Alok Pattani:
The result: .805 is greater than .790, so Expected Win Probability When Going For It is greater than Expected Win Probability When Punting.

Using these estimates, the decision is very close. The Patriots' expected win probability when going for it is greater than the expected win probability when punting...

Bill Barnwell:
Too close to call.

It's not the satisfying answer to the Great Belichick Debate, which has seen him declared by most observers to be either an infallible genius or overzealous tinkerer, but it's the most accurate one.

Did he make the right decision?

Too close to call.

No matter how we fiddle with or adjust the probabilities to account for the game situation and the quality of the two offenses and defenses, it's difficult to find a dramatic difference between the choices of going for it or punting.


The key factor that the cacophony of responses seems to be missing is that you can't judge Belichick's decision by the fact that it didn't work. As we've mentioned more than once in these pages, you cannot judge decisions by their outcome. You have to consider the process that goes into them, and then decide whether they're right or wrong at the moment they're made.

Adam Kilgore:
Among the countless criticisms hurled at Patriots coach Bill Belichick for his decision to go for it on fourth down Sunday night, former Colts coach Tony Dungy summed up the most popular when, speaking on NBC, he said, “You have got to play the percentages and punt the ball.’’

What Dungy did not realize, though, is that “the percentages’’ dictated that Belichick do exactly what he did.


going for the first down gave the Patriots a 79 percent chance of winning. Punting gave them a 70-percent chance to win. Even after Burke made tweaks, the win probability never dipped in favor of the punt. If anything, factoring in how explosive the Colts’ offense is, the team-specific adjustments only made going for it more favorable.

“A lot of criticism is probably way over the top,’’ Burke said. “At the very least, it’s defensible. It’s not crazy. It’s not reckless.’’

Steven Levitt1:
I respect Bill Belichick more today than I ever have...He has been excoriated for the choice he made. Everyone seems to agree it was a terrible blunder.

Here is why I respect Belichick so much. The data suggest that he actually probably did the right thing if his objective was to win the game.


If his team had gotten the first down and the Patriots won, he would have gotten far less credit than he got blame for failing. This introduces what economists call a “principal-agent problem.” Even though going for it increases his team’s chance of winning, a coach who cares about his reputation will want to do the wrong thing. He will punt, just because he doesn’t want to be the goat. ...What Belichick proved by going for it last night is that 1) he understands the data, and 2) he cares more about winning than anything else.

So hats off to Bill Belichick. This decision may have hurt his chances for the Football Hall of Fame, but it guarantees his induction into the Freakonomics Hall of Fame.

Gregg Easterbrook:
On Sunday night in Indianapolis, Bill Belichick, with his team leading 34-28 just before the two-minute warning, went for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28. As I'm guessing you heard, the try failed...Though the try failed, Belichick did exactly the right thing.


Which seems like a better gamble -- 2 yards to win the game, or two minutes to shut down Peyton Manning when the Colts are hot? In 2007, AccuScore did thousands of computer simulations of the punt-or-go-for-it question for TMQ. One finding was that between your own 21-yard line and your own 35, you should go for it on fourth-and-2 or less. In test after test, doing this improved a team's chance of victory -- though, of course, there is no guarantee. No coach can control what happens on the field. Had New England punted, Indianapolis might have run the kick back for a touchdown, for instance. All the coach can do is make a decision that improves the team's odds. Belichick made such a decision.

1 - Levitt is an economist, and the author of the best-selling Freakonomics. Note that he echoes (with correct terminology) the exact phenomenon that I mentioned this morning:
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.

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