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November 16, 2009 10:35 AM

Did Bill Belichick Make Correct Decision?

Perhaps you've heard something about this:

4th-2, NE28 1:57            T. Brady passed to K. Faulk to the right for 1 yard gain
Near the end of a game they had all but won, the Patriots, up six points with about two minutes remaining, failed to convert on 4th-and-2 from their own 28-yard line. The Colts took over and promptly scored to win the game, 35-34. The second-guessing began immediately, with just about everyone questioning the decision made by Bill Belichick.

Ron Borges, Boston Herald

Is there an insanity defense for football coaches?

That's about the best the "In Bill We Trust" crowd is going to be able to come up with this morning to explain away what happened at Lucas Oil Stadium last night because not even Edward Bennett Williams would try to argue this case in front of a jury of Bill Belichick's peers.

Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

What ramifications this game will have. For Belichick, the acknowledged best game tactician in NFL coaching, the call was immediately assailed as the worst of his long and distinguished career.

In the Colts locker room, defensive end Dwight Freeney said that even when you make that call "in video games,'' it's not a smart move. "You go for it on fourth down when you're not supposed to, and something bad happens."

On NBC, former Indy head coach-turned studio analyst Tony Dungy second-guessed his onetime rival, saying "You have to punt the ball in that situation. As much as you respect Peyton Manning and his ability, and as much as you may doubt your defense, you've got to play the percentages and punt the ball.''

Even ex-Patriots star Rodney Harrison, one of Belichick's favorite players ever, pilloried his former head coach for the call. "You cannot give Peyton Manning the opportunity on the 30-yard line to drive the ball and score a touchdown,'' Harrison said. "I've been around Bill Belichick a long time and he's made a lot of great coaching decisions, but this was the worst coaching decision I have ever seen Bill Belichick make."

Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe

This was as bad as anything the Red Sox ever did. Had it been a playoff game, it would be right up there with Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Aaron Boone, and History Derailed in Glendale, Ariz.

And Bill Belichick played the part of Grady Little. [...] And Belichick gets the blame. Too smart for his own good this time. The sin of hubris.

Peter King, Sports Illustrated

"If we gain seven more inches, it's a great call,'' Brady said at his post-midnight press conference.

Try 30 more inches. And this would never have been a great call. 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. [...]

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.

But what if I told you that Belichick and the Patriots actually made the right call? According to the numbers and odds -- ya know, math -- New England should have gone for it

With 2:00 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A 4th and 2 conversion would be successful 60% of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from that field position. The total WP for the 4th down conversion attempt would therefore be:

(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their own 34. Teams historically get the TD 30% of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You'd have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats' 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it's pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash.

Chris Brown at Smart Football agrees, saying: "The goal is, obviously, to maximize your chance of winning. If you punt, your chances of winning are your odds of stopping a streaking Manning who has just torched your defense the whole fourth quarter. He will have to drive about 70 yards. Because of his excellence in clock management, the two-minute warning, and their timeout, time was not really a factor."

So, after crunching some numbers, Belichick did in fact make the right call by going for it on fourth down. Which is fine. But what about the questionable spot, and the even more questionable juggling call (made by the official who was staring at Faulk's back, remember)? Those seem to be important aspects to that play, too. Really though, the Pats sealed their own fate by burning not one but two timeouts during a four-play series.

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