Green Room

You can always call him stupid ex post

posted at 2:22 pm on November 16, 2009 by

I’m sorry I was traveling this morning and had missed the second half of the game last night. Had I been home, I would have seen Bill Belichick’s call on fourth and two, which Gary has already emailed me made him an idiot, and which Ed has posted was an act of hubris. Vic Carucci calls it a gutsy blunder, and he writes on the NFL’s official web.

I disagreed by instinct. As I told a student after I got to campus who asked about the decision, I said you had to put your head in Belichick’s place without regard to what eventually happened. You have to argue ex ante rather than ex post.

Your team has given up two fourth quarter touchdowns in possessions of 2:04 and 3:32. You are playing against arguably the greatest QB ever (arguably, acknowledging that the greatest QB ever could be your own QB.) You are on the road. You have a play that has worked quite well, and you ran it successfully earlier in the game. (Game log) And it’s not the first time Belichick had done it this season, Michael Lombardi reminds us. He went 4th-and-1 from his 24 up 19-10 in the third quarter against Atlanta (successful, game log.) So this isn’t gut instinct: Belichick has thought the math through.

I was going to write out the math of this in terms of expected values, but Brian Burke has already done this.

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 (win probability — the likelihood you would win the game) 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.

Not to say that Belichick had those numbers firmly in his head and thought of it in terms of WP, but he’s shown evidence that he’s willing to go for fourth downs in his own territory, that the gain in punting would have been to reduce the likelihood of the average NFL team to score the winning TD to 30% from 53%. He certainly knew he would be skewered if his team failed to convert … which he had to think was a 40% probability. He was confident enough to accept that fate in return for giving his team its best shot at winning the game. In terms of the rest of the season, would you rather have your team lose and the blame placed on your coach for a “bonehead move”, or lose and have your defense questioned for its inability to hold a lead?

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I love an irrefutably statistics-based argument.

Joe C. on November 16, 2009 at 3:17 PM

The clear winner in all of this is advancednflstats.com. If Burke had an obscure blog before, he’s getting linked all over the web now.

RightOFLeft on November 16, 2009 at 4:04 PM

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’t just take the Colts probability of scoring from their own 34 in a vacuum. The Pats D was ranked pretty highly coming into the game (7th in passing D), so one would have to probably push down the Colts probability of scoring.

Also, you can’t just take the probability of a 4th and 2 conversion, because the Colts D could have anticipated the attempted play, knowing it was successful in two previous instances, thus decreasing the probability of a Patriots conversion.

I think that blogger’s argument is too generic and I still think it was a bad call.

venividivici on November 16, 2009 at 4:36 PM

You make the other team beat you.

I see the stats, but this was a bonehead call. 4th and 2 on your own 28 – you punt. The play would have driven the clock to the two minute warning.

The Colts had no time outs left to drive 70+ yards.

The last two minutes of a close football game like this with talent onb both sides of the ball, on both teams has to many variables to account for through simply stats.

Manning is a pro at the two minute drill. But you make it as hard for him as possible. giving the Colts such a short field, plus the extra play before the 2 minute warning was just stupid – stats be damned.

Belichik blew it on this one.

catmman on November 16, 2009 at 4:57 PM

The Colts only had 1 time out left. They would have had to go 70+ yards in 2 minuites to win. I think that the smart move in this particular case was to punt the ball and force the Colts to get into the end-zone under pressure. to make a reliable mathematical analysis you really need to look at more specialized statistics such as the history of the players on the field and the match-ups that existed that night rather than simply looking at league trends and averages. I know that Manning is a great QB who comes close to living up to all the hype but he’s not God, Belichick blew it.

Dollayo on November 16, 2009 at 9:39 PM

You folks seem to forget a little Monday night game between Montana (then with KC) and Elway. Elway had just marched the Broncos for a go-ahead score. As Elway’s walking towards the sidelines, he looks up at the clock and says “f**k”. That’s right, with 1:26 left on the clock Montanta took KC 90 yards and ran in his own winning TD with seconds left on the clock. I’m guessing had Shanahan been in Belichick’s shoes (under the same circumstances), he may have done the same thing to keep Montana off the field. My hats off to a great comeback for the Colts. They were getting their butts kicked for three quarters, yet pulled it off in the fourth.

Rovin on November 17, 2009 at 11:27 AM