Monday, November 16, 2009

Football, Math, and Cowards

So everybody and his grandmother is piling on Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 from the Patriot's own 28. It's the "safe" attack in sports talk right now, like when you want to make fun of Mike Tyson for being a cannibal or Al Davis for being a rotting mummy.

Only, the people criticizing Belichick are wrong. They're not only wrong, they're airing their math ignorance as proof of the righteousness of their cause.

Typical is Peter King, who as always is not afraid to slavishly follow where the pack has led him. He compares it to Grady Little's call in the MLB playoffs to leave in Pedro Martinez and says it indelibly blots Belichick's resume.

Firstly, let's explore King's math: he puts the odds of the Patriots making the 1st down "at 60, 65 percent." Then he says in the very next sentence that "the odds of Manning going 72 yards to score a touchdown in less than two minutes…that's maybe 35 percent."

Um, dumbass? 65 plus 35 is a hundred. So the outcome of the two propositions is exactly equal. Even if we accept the lower value of 60, our precision is so poor that it seems like these are pretty similar propositions.
And this is before we begin considering what can go wrong on a punt: blocked punt, return for TD, long return, illegal block in the back, etc. It's true that the receiver could fumble it, but more punts go badly for the punting team than go well. So there's a significant (even if minor) element of risk for the Patriots by punting.

Putting that side, though, consider this: if the Patriots make the play, they win. So the chance of the Patriots winning on offense is 65%. If they punt, and the Colts have a 35% chance to score, then the chance of the Patriots winning on defense is 65%

As proof, King enters into the ledger the Colt's previous seven drives, of which two were touchdowns, two were interceptions, and three were punts. So the Colts had scored on 28.6% of their previous seven possessions. If that trend continued, then we could concede that the Patriots had a slight edge to win on defense (71.4%) over offense.

But football, as King surely knows, is a game of momentum. And teams that are on a comeback are dangerous in the 4th quarter, when the defense begins to flag. In the fourth quarter, the Colts had scored twice and had an interception. That's a whopping 66% chance to score. If that is the real metric to watch, then the Patriots definitely should go for it: they have a 65% chance to win on offense and a 34% chance to win on defense.

And the math from the seven possessions is certainly not accurate, as we know that Indy will not punt in this situation. So we have 7 possessions, but we must ask ourselves: what would have happened on the three punts? Well, if they would have scored a TD one time out of those three, then the chances that they'll score now are 3/7, or 43%. So the Patriots have a 60-65% chance to win on offense, and a 57% chance to win on defense.

The team with the ball gets to decide what happens; the defense can only react to what the offense does. Belichick knows this. He has a 65% chance to seize a win, or a 65% (or less) chance to hope that Indy does not seize the win. So he chooses to go for it himself.

It's a courageous play, not an arrogant play. Those who are excoriating him now are cowards, who would rather kick the ball away and hope that the other team either screws up or doesn't score, secure in the knowledge that if they do score, then you can fall back on "well, that's why Manning will be in the Hall of Fame one day."

Screw that! Belichick went to seize the win, Manning be damned, and his team didn't come up with two yards. Sometimes life is like that. We were all so excited about Brady and Moss both being healthy, and we've been drooling over their record-setting offense that blew the doors off opponents two years ago.

Where did that energy from pundits go? Did they forget that this is the Patriot's strength? Why should the Pats meekly kick off and "hope for the best"? When did this become a quintessential American value?

Fools, cowards, and morons are criticizing Belichick. Others, more mature and inclined to understand strategy, should appreciate a logical move made to control your own destiny that, as is sometimes the case, didn't quite work out.

One last word on King's cowardly illogic: he compares Belichick to Grady Little because Little is hated in New England and his name despised for costing them the World Series. But you know what?

It's King and his ilk who would advise going the Grady Little route, not Belichick. A tired defense has yielded two quick scores to a resurgent offense that is undefeated, so King wants to roll the dice and fall back on it for "one last try" and "make Manning earn it." Meanwhile, Belichick would rather go with own offense, which was having a great day, and play for the win, now, and keep control in his own hands.

It's the difference between controlling your destiny and "hoping for the best", which is essentially what King advises that they should have done.

And is what Little did when he left Pedro Martinez in one pitch too long.


Shifty1 said...

"Why should the Pats meekly kick off and "hope for the best"? When did this become a quintessential American value?"

November 2008!

Dave said...

I also believe that part (if not most) of the backlash against Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th and 2 is against Belichick himself. I mean, Belichick is one of the most hated coaches in the NFL, and I think that his decision on that play, and getting stopped on it, created a lot of schadenfreude amongst the talking heads and other folk who were happy to see the "great" Bill Belichick get one wrong.