Surprise! Belichick Going For It Was Smart Move

In the wake of last night’s COACHFAIL in the Pats-Colts game, the universe and its mom have been leveling unvarnished invective at Bill Belichick. Rightly so, at first blush; with a few seconds before the 2 minute warning and protecting a dwindling 34-28 lead, Belichick opted to go for it on 4th and 2… from New England’s own 28 yard line. The try failed by a slim margin, the Colts took over, and Peyton Manning calmly guided his team to the winning touchdown with 13 seconds to play. Ballgame.

Bill Belichick needs a hug. Or a married woman.
(Wanna get away?)

So, yeah. Going for it and failing from the hinterlands of Obvious Punt Territory - soon to become the USA’s 51st state -  and watching the game slip away immediately afterwards is an unforgivably bad decision, yes? Well, not so much. Contrary to immediate intuition, it was, in fact, the Patriots’ best chance at winning the game.

Here’s the thing: punting and going for it and failing accomplish the same thing: giving the ball back to the Colts. The only difference is where they get it on the field. Oh, Peyton Manning will accept your charity, no questions asked, but he certainly doesn’t need it.

Let’s let SMART FOOTBALL explain:

If you go for it, your chance of winning hinges on two outcomes: (a) if you get the first down, you win the game; and (b) if you don’t get it, you still have a chance to stop Manning. So your chance of winning if you go for it is the sum of (a) your chance of converting; and (b) your chance of stopping Manning from the 30 yard line.

My best estimation is that the odds of converting on fourth and two (around 60% for the league, so probably closer to 65% for New England) plus stopping Manning from the thirty are greater than your odds of merely stopping Manning from seventy or so. Remember, the decision is also context specific: Manning was playing great and they had a gassed defense.

Lo and behold, NFL ADVANCED STATS agrees:

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.

Obviously, these are baseline numbers that are subject to being perverted by the influence of terrible offenses; the Colts’ chances of scoring from either part of the field are substantially higher, but the sample size isn’t big enough to put a reliable number to it.

Is this to say that Belichick’s coaching was just fine and in no way contributed to the loss? Hell, no. In fact, he made multiple calls on that last possession that doomed the Patriots and put them out of a position to win. Yes, he should have gone for it, but with 3rd and 2, your opponent treating time outs like gold, and punting out of the question, run the f–king ball! Vince Verhai of FOOTBALL OUTSIDERS has more damning details:

I’m fine with going for it on fourth down, but if you’re going to do that, the third-down call MUST be a running play. Even if it fails, you’ll probably still gain one yard, and that makes the fourth-down conversion easier. Going into the game, New England’s offensive line was fifth in power situations; Indianapolis’ defensive line was 26th. If they run twice, it’s almost inconceivable that they don’t pick up the first down.

And yet Belichick went with two impotent pass plays instead. That, friends, is his biggest mistake by far. Bemoan how he went about it, not that he went about it. Anything else is just knee-jerk, uninformed hindsight. It’s bad when media members do it, and it’s bad when fans do it.

Oh - and are we sure Kevin Faulk was still bobbling the ball when he was pushed back from the 30? He did bobble it when he first caught it at the 31, but it sure looked like he had possession before getting pushed back all the way. Observe:

A little dicey there, no?

The point is this: Belichick put his team in the best position, statistically speaking, to win. Was it the right call? Obviously not, because his team didn’t convert and they lost. Was it the smartest call? Yes. Know the difference.