Bill Belichick Shows Genius With Tough Call

Todd FlemingAnalyst INovember 17, 2009

JACKSONVILLE, FL - FEBRUARY 4:  Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, speaks in front of the Vince Lombardi trophy at a pre Superbowl press conference February 4, 2005 at the Prime F. Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Almost the entire sportswriting universe has turned on Bill Belichick with a vengeance.  Peter King, who I think is a very good sportswriter, called his decision hubris.  It was just Belichick pridefully showing off. 

The irony is that if the Patriots had converted the fourth-and-2 and run out the clock, those exact same sportswriters would be gushing about the genius that is Belichick. 

They would be saying how he operates at a completely different level.  And they would be right.

As a Steelers' fan, I’m the last person who I ever thought would be defending Darth Vader, but I think it was a smart call.  The hooded one played the percentages.  In this case, he lost. 

Belichick was armed with one of the best quarterbacks in league history surrounded by some of the some of the best receiving weapons in the game and needing to go all of two yards.  If Derek Anderson was his quarterback, I'd be more inclined to question the call.

The Patriots barely failed to convert and the Colts scored to win the game.  But, in no way does that make it a bad decision. 

Too many people just want to look at the outcome when judging a decision.  We can only see what happened as a result of the decision.  We will never see, or know, what would have happened as a result of the decision he did not make.

And the percentages still favored him.  If more coaches would adopt Belichick’s mentality, they would win more often.  I wrote a previous article on how nearly all teams punt more often than they should.  The math bears that up.  The same concept is at work here.

It is impossible to run straight percentages, so if you have to make some shrewd guesses.  The Patriots are talented enough on offense that I would put their chance of converting a fourth-and-2 at about 70%.  Their defense is decent, although not exceptional.  If they fail to convert, I put the Colts’ chances at scoring a touchdown at around 75%. 

The Colts are an offensive juggernaut who would have had three timeouts and a two minute warning.  If they had gotten the ball back, I would have put their chance of scoring at about 40%. 

So, if this math is right, punting leaves you with about a 35-40% chance of losing.  Going for it leaves you with about a 23% chance of losing, give or take a few percentage points.

I’m quite sure some will take offense at those numbers.  Again, this is an inexact science, but I’d be surprised if any honest analysis, one that was taken without the benefit of hindsight, flipped the percentages to where it actually made more sense to punt.

Some of the writers, like King, pointed out how previous Colts’ drives had stalled out.  But, that is a bad comparison.  The Colts have an extra down to play with on a final drive.  That is a 25% increase in offensive potential. 

In today’s offensive oriented NFL, in a game featuring two offensive powerhouses, the last team with the ball has a huge advantage. 

Nearly all coaches will punt in that situation because they don’t want to take the heat if the decision backfires.  But, they shouldn’t.  They should make the decision based on their own mathematical calculations guided by their instincts.

Frankly, I think a team is almost always better off going for it around midfield on fourth-and-2.  Even on their own 40, I think teams should almost always go for it on fourth-and-2. 

If a team is buried deep in its own end, say, at the 28?  That’s where it gets a little harder.  When a team has a powerhouse offense and a nonexistent defense, like last year’s Cardinals, they are probably better off going for it even deep in their own end.

If a team has a spectacular defense and a marginal offense, like last year’s Steelers, the numbers will work out altogether different.  And, of course, you also have to factor in the competition.  There are plenty of variables at play when making these decisions.

The primary point I’m making here is that this decision was not nearly as bad as it looked.  It all comes down to a judgment call. 

And I admire a coach that has the courage to go with his gut after analyzing the variables, even knowing that he will be criticized if the decision goes south.

A coach that is willing to make the tough calls without fearing the criticism of a fickle sportswriting community with a herd mentality is the coach who I want coaching my team in the biggest games.