Football picksNovember 16, 2009

Belichick’s 4th down call: moron or genius?

Bill Belichick is catching a ton of heat for going for it on 4th down late in last night’s game. New England owned a 6-point lead and had the ball 4th and 2 on their own 28-yard line with 2:08 on the clock. Conventional wisdom says punt the ball. After all, that would give the Colts a long-field with two minutes to go, needing a touchdown. The announcers and analysts including Tony Dungy were unequivocal about their belief that punting was absolutely the right thing to do.

I disagree! Belichick made the right decision. It didn’t pan out for him, but who says punting would have kept the Colts out of the end zone? The way to judge the decision is not just on the result, but to analyze the options in detail.

The key to the question is, what was the chance that Indianapolis would score a touchdown in the two scenarios: NE punt or NE go for it. Here’s the answer:

If New England punts it
Assuming a 40-yard net punt, the Colts would have taken over at their own 32-yard line with two minutes to go. Historically, teams needing to march this far to get a touchdown to win, actually get the TD about 30% of the time. Now, Peyton Manning and this offense is not an average offense. Let’s say they are 35% better than average and have a 35% better chance than average to actually march down and score. That would give the Colts a 40% chance of winning the game (30% x 1.35). That means New England has a 60% of winning the game if they punted.

If New England goes for it
The NFL average conversion rate on 4th and 2 is 60%. But, with Tom Brady (one of the best QBs ever) behind center, we have to agree that the percentage is higher than the NFL average, which includes average and horrible QBs and offenses. Let’s say Tom Brady is 20% better than the average QB. That would give us an expected 1st down rate of 72%. That’s a 72% chance to lock in the win right there! Now, even if they don’t convert, they still have a chance to stop Manning and the Indy offense from marching 30 yards for the score. Let’s assume that on average, this Colts offense will score a touchdown about half the time from the 30-yard line with two minutes to go. Heck, since it’s Peyton Manning, let’s up that to 60%. Given there is a 28% chance that Indy gets their hands on the ball, we need to give then a 17% chance of scoring a touchdown (28% x 60%). So, in the end, by going for it, Belichick had an 83% chance of winning the game.

By punting the Pats had a 60% chance to win, and by going for it they had an 83% chance. That’s a huge difference and Belichick made the right call! Even if you adjust the assumptions above in favor of Indy, it’s really hard to find a way to make the numbers work out in favor of the punt. Really, it’s virtually impossible.

So, get off Belichick’s back. He made the right move. It was the tougher move that opened him up to a ton of criticism. But, it was the right move. Making tough but right decisions is really what we ask for in our leaders, isn’t it?