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Belichick was Right (and Personal Finance Links)

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Do we have any football fans in the house? If you aren't a fan, just skip down to the links. If you are a fan, hopefully you caught the Patriots-Colts' "Rivalry of the Decade" game. Whenever these teams get together it's always comes down to the wire. As a Patriots fan, losing a game with a 17 point fourth lead is pretty harsh. There are a lot of reasons why it happened, but everyone wants to talk about the controversial call by Bill Belichick to go for it on 4th-down in an attempt to run out the clock.

Before I get to that, there were two previous plays that should get attention. They simply are being overshadowed by that call. The Patriots had the ball at the Colts 1or 2 yard line when Lawrence Maroney fumbled and the Colt recovered. That's the kind of play you look back on in a 1-point loss. The other play was a 36 yard pass interference call - on a very late flag. I thought it was straight up defense with little or no contact. Two ESPN analysts said it was a "dicey" call and Deion Sanders of NFL Network said it was "a questionable call". The Colts went on to score a touchdown in the next couple of plays. Patriots fans everywhere remember the phantom pass interference that proved to be the difference in the 2006 AFC Championship game that got the Colts into the Super Bowl over the Patriots. The heavily favored Colts ran away with the game.

The play everyone is talking about is the Patriots' decision to go for it on 4th down from their own 28-yard line. The Patriots didn't get the necessary two yards (though replays show it was pretty close with the receiver's foot over the 30 yard line after securing the ball) and the Colts got the ball back with a short field. Deion Sanders later said it was a bad spot by the referee. The Patriots couldn't challenge the spot because they had used up their timeouts.

The alternative was to punt the ball away. On a SportsCenter.com 58% of the people say there is no excuse for the call, 27% say it was somewhat understandable giving the flow of the game, and 15% say it was right call.

Tedy Bruschi, a former Patriots defensive player who could become the mayor of Boston if he wanted to, said that . Bruschi said that the decision didn't give the Patriots' defense the chance to win the game and wrote that Belichick dissed his defense. With all due respect to Bruschi, I don't believe the defense was a large thought in Belichick's mind. I think Belichick had a couple thoughts in his head:

  • We have a great QB and offense - The strength of the Patriots is the offense. It still has the key players that made it the highest scoring offense in the history of the NFL in 2007. The defense has a lot of young players drafted in the last 2-3 years on it.
  • They have a great QB and offense - Peyton Manning has already secured himself a spot in the Hall of Fame and some can argue he is the best QB of all time. Punting the ball gives him more than 2 minutes (plenty of time) and four downs on every set (the Colts wouldn't punt or kick a field goal down by 6). It is always a smart move to keep the ball out of Manning's hands - even if you have the 1985 Chicago Bears defense.

Another way to look at it is this. Since 2001 (Tom Brady era), the Patriots get a first down on 4th and 2 or less 76.4% of the time. That's a 76.4% chance that you'll be able to run out almost all the clock, virtually guaranteeing the win. An average punt typically nets 38 yards of field position... very close to the 36 yards that can be erased on a dicey pass interference call. Advanced NFL Stats broke down the probabilities of going for it on 4th down vs. punting and found that an average team had a 9% better chance at winning (79% vs. 70%) if they go for it. However, if you plug in the Patriots' 76.4% on 4th and 2 or less, it goes up to 95% win probability in the Patriots favor. Of course that 76.4% may be artificially high since he it likely includes a lot of easier to convert 4th an inches.

In the end, analysts seem to be starting to realize that Belichick made the right decision to go for the win. The difficulty that some people are having is that it so unconventional to go for it on fourth down on your own side of the field with a lead. This is a case where the conventional wisdom is simply wrong.

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18 Responses to “Belichick was Right (and Personal Finance Links)”

  1. FMF says:

    As a Colts fan, I loved the call. ;-)

  2. Evan says:

    Just like a Pats fan to write up a whole post complaining about a few calls – blaming others

    Yours truly,

    Falcons Fan

  3. Rick says:

    Just so you know, spotting a ball isn’t where the foot is when he secures the ball. It’s where the ball is. Yes it was close. Yes the Patriots shouldn’t have used 2 timeouts in 17 seconds. None of the replays were conclusive though.

  4. Leah says:

    Pats fan, here. Devastated. FI and I woke up our landlord with four-letter words. Admittedly, I’m not up on the finer points of the game, but it seemed like we went back and forth with sloppy playing and questionable calls. Aside from the two glaring issues, there were a whole bunch of times we could have made a difference but just fell short. Ugh.

  5. Brian says:

    Love the article and oh yeah, the links :)

    As a former college coach I can attest to it being one of those you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t calls.

    Having said that, I can see the confidence in Brady and the offense to get two yards. I mean it’s two yards with arguably one of the best offenses in the last few years. I also understand not wanting to give Peyton a chance to drive and win the game.

    However, I’d rather make Peyton go say 80-90 yards in 2 minutes if we punt the ball, instead of 30-40 yards if they don’t get the first down.

    I completely agree with your point that there are at least two other pivotal plays in the game where it can be won or lost. It’s always easy to look at the last pass, the last shot of a basketball game or the last matchup in baseball game. You can find at least 10-20 other points in a game where things never would have gotten to that point.

  6. Lazy Man says:

    Evan,

    I’m certainly biased, you’ll get no argument from me. I tried to balance that bias by stating what journalists are saying about the calls. I also mentioned Maroney’s fumble so I did blame the players.

    Leah,

    I was devastated as well, but actually I felt the game went better than I thought. I think I would rather have the loss in a game where the Patriots showed that they are the dominate team vs. a fluky win. The Patriots now know that they have the talent to win big in Indy by having a near 24 point advantage (if Maroney doesn’t fumble on the 1).

    Brian,
    I don’t think there was an opportunity to make Peyton go 80-90 yards. That would assume that you can punt from your own 28 and pin the other team inside their 20. That’s a 52 yard punt with no return. I think Peyton would have more likely got the ball around the 35 or 40.

    The wild card here is that you know that you don’t have to stop Manning for three down as you were trying all night. You have to stop him for 4 downs.

    And actually, the last shot the Patriots had to win the game would have been to let Indy score with a minute-plus left instead of tackle them on the one and letting them have first down on the goal line.

  7. Lazy Man says:

    Rick,

    I know it’s where the ball is, but I think you can draw a line from the feet and the ball and figure out where he was. I don’t think he was slanted backward, where the feet and the ball were significantly different.

    I realize the replays weren’t conclusive and the referees wouldn’t overturn the call. However, if the referee spotted it past the 30 and called it a first down, the Colts would have challenged and lost on the same inconclusive replay.

    So really the referee was very much deciding the game with the spot of the ball. If you just have the replays to by, I think the refs had a bad spot of the ball. Then again, I have the luxury of the replays and they don’t so it’s easy for me to say.

  8. Punt the damn ball. You’re paying the punter and defensive players – why not utilize them? .

  9. Lazy Man says:

    I think you are paying the offensive players more. The punter and defensive players did get utilized in the game.

  10. NE “defensive possessions” prior to final: 12
    Failed NE defensive possessions prior to final: 4
    Defensive success rate prior to final possession: 67%

  11. Lazy Man says:

    The defensive success rate is skewed. In the previous drives Manning has 3 downs to succeed or fail. In this situation, Manning has 4 downs to succeed or fail.

    Even so, the Colts had two 79-yard drives that took less than 2 minutes in the quarter… and that was with the standard three downs.

    I still think the Patriots have one of the NFL’s best offenses against a Colts pass defense that is inexperienced. That match-up is in the Patriots’ favor, while giving a Hall of Fame, and MVP favorite, quarterback the ball against a defense whose starters mostly have less than 2-3 years of experience in the NFL, is less than ideal.

  12. True, but Manning would have the clock ticking against him in this situation, which would add pressure. Scoring quickly would no longer be a convenience, but a necessity.

  13. Lazy Man says:

    Is the pressure against an MVP/HOF QB worth it? I think trusting one of the best offenses in the game to seal the deal is the right call.

  14. “Is the pressure against an MVP/HOF QB worth it?”

    Hmm. Too bad they don’t publish the number of times QBs have been in a position to drive for a winning TD and have failed (maybe they do somewhere). It would be interesting to see how often Manning has failed to drive 60+ yards for a winning score in that amount of time.

  15. Lazy Man says:

    Some people do publish “the number of times QBs have been in a position to drive for a winning TD and have failed” at least to a large degree – http://www.advancednflstats.com/2009/11/belichicks-4th-down-decision-vs-colts.html.

  16. Geez. A 4th and 2 in that situation is successful 60% of the time? It sure seems to occur less often than that – at least when my team is trying it.

  17. I am a Colts fan so definitely biased. The Pats outplayed Indy but lost. It wasn’t the play on 4 and 2 that lost the game. It wasn’t a dicey call of pass interference (the refereeing was pretty good though calls were missed on both sides). It was the culmination of two teams and the individual efforts they put together for the entire length of the game. Just like in personal finance, the end result is from many small decisions made over a period of time leading to the final conclusion.

    The Indy offense did not start out strong (or the Pats defense played very well in the beginning). Maybe you haven’t started out strong on personal finance. You have dug yourself a hole and simply want to quit.

    Don’t. Settle down and find a plan that has worked before. That’s what Indy did late in the game. They started playing like they knew how too. The offense starting making some good plays. The defense stepped up (or the Pats took the foot off the pedal). Indy took advantage of opportunities. You should to in your own life.

    Never quit. Never think the game is over. Keep playing hard until the very end.

    Oh and don’t take this to mean I think the Pats quit. You have two excellent football teams who battled back and forth. I am sure they will meet again this year.

  18. Doctor S says:

    Agree with you 100% in support Coach Hoody on this one. I took off of work on Monday and all the entire world was talking about was the mistake Hoody made and how the statistics told him to punt the ball.

    However, none of those statistics factored in the variable that is known as Peyton Manning getting the ball back and marching downfield with THREE TIMEOUTS!

    Must be nice to have a QB that leads comebacks in the 4th quarter.

    Sincerely,

    An Eagles fan whose starting QB has a .250 winning percentage when trailing by 7 points or less in the 4th quarter.

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