Genius tag removed

Johnny K. Woo texted me seconds before it actually happened.

"Dumbest decision in the history of football...or at least up there."

I instantly texted back as the playclock was going down.


Frankly, I didn't believe it was happening. The Patriots were just trying to draw the Colts to jump offside right? They couldn't seriously be going for it leading 34-28 on 4th-and-2 with 2:08 left. Hold on...

The sports world will be buzzing about Belichick's decision for two main reasons. The first reason is obvious...the decision was ridiculous. The second reason is because the unthinkable decision was made by Bill Belichick. Bill Freaking Belichick. The genius. We're all a bit hesitant to question him. He's earned carte blanche in the minds of most fans and media members to do whatever he wants.

But let's not forget a couple of past decisions Belichick has made. In Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots led 7-3 midway through the third quarter facing a 4th-and-13 on the Giants' 31-yard line. Easy decision. Kick the field goal. Belichick decided to go for it, and Tom Brady's pass was incomplete. Final score: Giants 17, Patriots 14...think the Pats could have potentially used those three points? It has always amazed me how that decision wasn't discussed in greater detail.

In Week 3 this season against Atlanta, the Patriots were leading 13-10. Belichick decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 24 midway through the third quarter. The gamble worked, but the decision was still foolish.

Unlike those last two decisions, which didn't get a ton of attention, tonight's will be discussed ad nauseam. You can make a legitimate case that Belichick's decision cost his team the game.

We knew we wouldn't get much of an explanation from Belichick's presser. Predictably, the phrase he repeated over and over again was some form of "We thought we could win the game on that play. We thought it was a yard we would get."

First, not to be overly picky...but it was not ONE yard. It was a full two. And because of that, a running play wasn't even an option. The distance did come into play, considering the Patriots completed a pass SHORT of the marker.

Second, he didn't address the consequence of NOT making the first down. If they didn't get two yards, they would be giving up the ball on their own 28. The risk was enormous.

I wish the assembled media would have pressed Belichick a bit more on what he thought of his defense. Rather than simply asking that question once and listening to a non-responsive "We thought we could pick up a yard" and then moving on, the assembled reporters needed to follow up with the gruff coach. As uncomfortable as that would be.

That was the crux of this decision. As much confidence as Belichick has in the Pats' offense -- and rightly so -- the bigger issue at play here was that he displayed a truly alarming lack of support for his defense.

Belichick's reputation suffered a hit in this game. Such criticisms in the past have been of possible cheating, his personality and his wardrobe. For the first time since he was the head coach in Cleveland, he now will be under more scrutiny regarding true football decisions.


  1. I'm confident that Belichik had the probability of going for it vs. not going for it mapped out before making the decision, and I'm confident he made the right decision probabilistically.

    It probably goes something like this:

    Odds of Pats converting 4th down is greater than statistical advantage gained with 40 yards of field position. If they convert, game over. If they fail to convert, Manning has 40 fewer yards to go. Only one of those scenarios ends the game in the Pats favor, and again, I'm confident that Belichik has somebody who's worked out all the scenarios ahead of time. Just because it's unconventional doesn't make it dumb, and unless you have a map of the probabilities I think we should be cautious with our conclusions, because Belichik probably does have that map.

  2. Enjoyed your response.

    And I couldn't agree more with your caution that we shouldn't automatically call something unconventional dumb. I'll admit that the more I thought about the decision from a pure mathematical standpoint (and I guess you have to basically have to do that, even though one could make the case that Belichick may have totally lost the support of many defensive players with this decision) it wasn't quite as egregious as I initially thought.

    I'll throw out a few numbers. Tell me if you agree with the percentages I'm offering.

    Percentage chance of Colts stopping the Pats from making a first down first down in this scenario: 45%.

    Percentage chance of Colts scoring a touchdown from Pats 28-yard line: 80%.

    With those numbers, the chance of the Pats winning the game is 64%. (.45 times .80, which is .36, and then take the reciprocal)

    Percentage chance of Colts scoring from their own 32 (we can assume the punt has a net of 40 yards): 30%. (Pats winning the game is then obv. 70%).

    So, in my opinion, his decision only cost them by 6%, and I just made up those numbers off the top of my head.

    One thing I always like to do when a coach has a big decision to make is ask "What do you think the other team WANTS him to do?"

    The Colts actually may have wanted the Pats to punt because they were so desperate just to give Manning one final chance...so maybe Belichick is a genius after all. LOL.

  3. One final point. I can understand you wanting to give Belichick credit and think he did map this all out. I doubt it happened that way, however.

    My guess is that his reasoning went something more like this: "I think we can get a couple yards. My defense has nothing left. I don't want to punt to Peyton Manning."

  4. Can't say about the probabilities, though I think you're overestimating the TD from the 30 (no team in the NFL converts 80% of those chances, not even close). Here's a link to the 2004 red zone leaders, with San Diego leading the way with 69% of possessions in the red zone ending in TD's. Indy finished at 63%. And remember, those possessions include those that started after a long play ended inside the 5. So my guess is that the odds of a TD from the Pats 30 are more like 50%, though I would agree that the odds of a TD from the Colts 30 are more like 30%...

    here's a reasoned analysis, which concludes that going for it was easily the better choice.


    also, I think you're underselling Belichik. I really do think he had the probability worked out in advance. Just because he simplifies the explanation for the media doesn't mean the explanation is simple.

  5. The chances that a team will score a touchdown increase dramatically when you have four downs to work with instead of three.