Bill Belichick Is Great

I respect Bill Belichick more today than I ever have.

Last night he made a decision in the final minutes that led his team the New England Patriots to defeat. It will likely go down as one of the most criticized decisions any coach has ever made. With his team leading by six points and just over two minutes left in the game, he elected to go for it on fourth down on his own side of the field. His offense failed to get the first down, and the Indianapolis Colts promptly drove for a touchdown.

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. Economist David Romer studied years worth of data and found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, teams seem to punt way too much. Going for a first down on fourth and short yardage in your end zone is likely to increase the chance your team wins (albeit slightly). But Belichick had to know that if it failed, he would be subjected to endless criticism.

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. (I’ve seen the same thing in my research on penalty kicks in soccer; it looks like kicking it right down the middle is the best strategy, but it is so embarrassing when it fails that players don’t do it often enough.) 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.


Jeff

The Romer study would be relevant only if Belichick made a point of going for it on all, or nearly all, 4th and short situations. Betting an outlier just once doesn't make much sense and as a one-off, the decision yesterday didn't make much sense.

On the other hand, by introducing an element of seeming randomness to his decision-making, Belichick has put opposing coaches on notice: don't expect the expected. He thus takes them out of their comfort zones, guided by the accumulated conventional (and often wrong) wisdom of the sport. Success in football is measured by seasons, not games, and over the past few games especially Belichick has made the Pats much harder to coach against.

lt

Agree 100%, he absolutely made the right call. If you do any reasonable probabilistic analysis of the outcomes, Belichick's decision comes out equal or the clear winner. What's interesting is many of the people I've seen defending the decision are Colts fans who went from excitement to crapping in their pants once they realized NE was going for it.

Colts Fan

Yes, three cheers for Bill!

Alex

While the data says one thing, you can't give peyton manning the ball with only 28 yards to a touchdown. You need to trust your defense in that situation and give him a long field and expect a stop. But I do agree teams should go for it more often than punt.

Joel

It was not so much the he went for it. The play that was called was bad. Moss and Welker had been torching the Colts all night. It also did not help that they burned a timeout *before* the series even started so they could not challenge the spot. The call by the officials seemed correct but the way the NFL refs have been making calls lately it might have been overturned.

Stephen Andrus

Correct! But don't miss your own point, that overall he will get the win more often.

Woody Hayes

Turnover margin and field position correlate most closely with winning percentage. Never give a team a short field unless you HAVE to do so.

adam

I'm familiar with Romer's study (and several others like it) and am all for coaches going for it more often on 4th down, but there is just no way the data says this particular choice was a good idea. Punting the ball in that situation all but assures a win as the Colts would have had to drive around 80 yards in two minutes. Going for it was an unnecessary risk.

WLT

Going on 4th down was the right call. Yes, he should have called a different play, but that wasn't his biggest mistake. The mistakes were two fold. First, he should not have called 2 timeouts on the last drive, that is inexcusable. Second, he should have let the Colts score thier touchdown on the first play after 4th down, giving his offense almost 2 minutes to kick a field goal.

Julian Schreibman

Before we give all the plaudits to Belichek, please note that Friedgen did a similar thing in a Md football game a few weeks ago. It didn't work either and he isn't being touted as a genius which is not fair! Why? Because he's not a pro coach?

GTAGS

Right on! Belichick rolls the dice and wins more than he loses. One call in one game is a drop in the bucket of a life time of demonstrated genius. Beware of having a hero...you may be diminishing yourself.

Jake

While it was definitely refreshing to see a coach make such a gutsy call, and I'm sure your statistics are accurate, I also think Alex has a point above.

It makes a huge difference which team is on the other side of the ball. I'm assuming your stats don't account for the opponent, and in this case, the guy they were potentially giving the ball to is arguably the best quarterback of the last decade. Therefore, the potential for total failure (i.e. not making the first down + a loss) is much greater in this situation than if the opponent was, say, JaMarcus Russell and the Raiders, in which case, even if you don't get the first down, maybe you still win.

Tom

I don't even need data to know that it was the right call, although I'm glad that it backs him up. All I'm saying is, Peyton Manning on his own 30 or so, 2 minutes and one timeout to win the game. Are you going to bet against him? Didn't think so, and neither did Bill, and that's why he went for it.

JS

Hear, hear. Classic case of dichotomy between process/strategy and outcome. The odds indicate that going for it on 4th down was the right strategy to pursue, but the outcome will not always follow the odds. BB and the Pats were simply unlucky that it did not work out this time. (Actually they were unlucky primarily due to the ref's spot of the ball...it looked like he might have actually made the first down). Once the Colts took over at the 29 yd line, an even better strategy for BB and the Pats would be to let Colts score immediately, thus ensuring Brady would get the ball back in time to have a chance to drive for a winning FG. Instead, they let the Colts run the clock all the way down before scoring. Poor clock mgmt (including lack of timeouts) killed BB and the Pats, not the 4th down call.

Brad Johnson

Romer's study only looked at 1st-quarter 4th down decisions. It obviously does not apply to yesterday's scenario, no matter how much you'd like it to do so.

drew

You can't give Peyton Manning the ball with only 28 yards to go. But you also can't give Peyton Manning the ball with 63 yards to go. It was the right call.

Eli

Peyton would have led the Colts to a touchtown no matter what. It was the right call.

Paul

You summarize Romer's conclusion as "Going for a first down on fourth and short yardage in your end zone is likely to increase the chance your team wins (albeit slightly)."

The specific situation in question, however, is "a fourth and short WITH A 6 POINT LEAD AND 2 MINUTES LEFT." It seems that there are clear arguments to be made that going for it is much less beneficial in this specific subset of 4th and short scenarios, as opposed to the broader set of 4th and short scenarios in general. It would be interested to see what a Romer-ish empirical analysis would say about such situations.

Nick J

Does anyone remember when years ago the Detroit Lions coach choose to KICK the ball and play downwind rather than to receive during an OT game and end up losing without touching the ball? My guess is that Belichick will always choose to receive the ball in OT.

J.P. Steele

He had a bit of a more subjective call to make in this critical situation....he could "feel" that his team was nearly out of gas and the momentum had shifted. Thus, he took on more risk and was about one foot away from breaking the back of the Colts and winning the game. Trying to quantify "cajones" fails to grasp what makes coaches with them....exceptional.