Patriots Weren't Crazy, Statistics Defend Choice to Kick in OvertimeDecember 29, 2015
Hindsight can be a bully.
Back in 2002, Detroit Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg famously opted to kick off to start overtime in a game against the Chicago Bears, leading almost directly to a game-winning Chicago field goal.
And although New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did the same thing on Sunday, and although that led directly to a game-winning New York Jets touchdown, Mornhinweg's decision was bad, while Belichick's was sound.
That's because ever since the NFL adopted its modified sudden-death overtime format in 2012, teams haven't had any edge whatsoever when receiving the kickoff to start overtime.
Prior to Sunday (i.e. when Belichick made his decision), there had been 67 regular-season overtime games played under the current format. Exactly 32 were won by the receiving team, 32 were won by the kicking team and three ended in ties.
But interestingly, the 2012 season significantly favored teams that got the ball first. Those that received the kickoff to start overtime in the first season under the new rules went 14-7-1, which means that recent precedents actually favor Belichick's approach.
Since the start of 2013, teams that have kicked off to start overtime have won 58 percent of the 43 games that didn't end in a tie. And only 10 of the 67 overtime games since the start of 2012 (15 percent) were won as a result of a touchdown on the first possession.
|Overtime under the modified sudden death system|
|Category||Since 2012||Since 2013|
|Wins on first possession||11 of 68||9 of 45|
|Record of receiving team||33-32-3||19-25-2|
|Pro Football Reference|
Throw in that both stellar defenses were playing strong games and that the Jets and Patriots had combined for just three offensive touchdowns on 20 regulation drives, and it's easy to see why Belichick wanted his D to take care of business first.
In regulation, the Jets had scored touchdowns on two of their 10 offensive possessions (and none of their last five), while the Pats had found the end zone on just one of their 10 possessions.
On the season, the Jets had scored 40 offensive touchdowns on 186 possessions (22 percent), while the Patriots had surrendered 29 touchdowns on 177 drives (16 percent).
Thus statistically, the Jets had—at best—about a 20 percent chance of scoring a touchdown to win on that first possession. But considering the way the game had gone and the fact that New York would likely be forced to start at the 20-yard line (that came to fruition), it was likely closer to 15 percent.
The Jets have at least scored a field goal on 36 percent of their possessions this season, while the Pats have held opponents to a scoring percentage of only 28.7. So the reality is there was a strong chance the Jets wouldn't have scored at all, giving New England an opportunity to win with a simple field goal.
Sure, there's something to be said for being in control, and it's somewhat surprising the Patriots wouldn't want quarterback Tom Brady to have the ball in his hands with the ability to win the game without having to give the Jets an opportunity. But it's hard to fault Belichick for utilizing a strategy that is actually in harmony with real-world odds.
Based on precedents, Belichick had reason to believe that his top-10 defense could keep New York out of the end zone eight or nine times out of 10 on that first possession, and that there was about a 65 or 70 percent chance New York wouldn't score at all. That would leave the Patriots—who have scored on a conference-high 45 percent of their possessions this season—needing just a field goal to win it.
So even without the wind being a major factor, the numbers favored kicking, and that's without even considering that the Jets have a higher turnover rate.
I think this debacle has only become a debacle because of the awkward exchange that took place after the coin toss between Patriots captain Matthew Slater and referee Clete Blakeman. Slater should have picked an end zone to defend rather than declaring first that the Patriots wanted to kick. When Slater said "We want to kick," the choice of field was forfeited immediately to the Jets. It probably didn't make a difference because wind wasn't a factor, but Slater was confused because he thought he'd have a chance to pick which side the Pats got to kick from, and Blakeman worded his question in a strange way.
His reaction made it look as though he accidentally chose to kick rather than receive, but Belichick has since said that the plan was always to kick. And considering the statistics above, there's no reason to doubt that.
In fact, Belichick did the same thing in New England's last overtime game, a victory over the Denver Broncos in 2013. And the Minnesota Vikings beat the St. Louis Rams after electing to kick off to start overtime back in Week 9.
It's too bad the Jets defied the odds and scored a first-possession touchdown Sunday (and that Slater's wording cost his team the wind in addition to the ball), because that will probably deter coaches from kicking off to start overtime periods in the future, even if it makes more sense on paper.
Had the Pats won, as they did in 2013, a lot of the folks utilizing hindsight in order to criticize Belichick right now would be using the same decision in order to rationalize calling him a genius.
In this case, a good decision still resulted in a loss.
That's just football for you.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.