Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ignoring the facts

I don't write about the NFL, but there are some things that cross the college/pro median and are relevant to football in general. In case you've been under a rock for the last 72 hours, Bill Belichick decided to go for it Sunday night on fourth-and-2 at the Patriots' 28-yard line with a six-point lead over the Colts and 2:08 left to play.

They didn't get it (well, they did, but the officials gave Kevin Faulk a terrible spot), and the critics (read: sportswriters and ESPN analysts) jumped at the chance to extol their own brilliance, rant about why the Patriots should have punted and explain why Belichick is an idiot.

I have just one response to those criticisms: Bullshit. The basic argument is that Belichick should have punted because it was the "safe" play, the thing most coaches would do. And this is true ... the problem is that those people are ignoring the fact that punting would have given the Patriots less of a chance to win.

I know what you're thinking: Punting would have given the Patriots less of a chance to win? Let’s go to the numbers (courtesy of Advanced NFL Stats):
Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from the 28-yard line. The total win probability for the fourth-down conversion attempt would be: (0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their own 34. Teams historically get the TD 30% of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.
So the Patriots had, based on average NFL numbers, a 79% chance of winning by going for it and a 70% chance of winning by punting. It’s obviously close, but saying that going for it is the WRONG move is statistically incorrect. If anything, the numbers -- based on the quality of both offenses (a higher chance of getting the first down but a higher chance of the Colts scoring) -- should be skewed more in favor of the Patriots going for it in that situation, because Indianapolis had been moving the ball at will and it seemed extremely likely that, regardless of field position, Peyton Manning was going to lead the Colts to a touchdown.

Just for argument’s sake, let’s say the Patriots had a 70% chance of getting the first down while the Colts had an 80% chance of scoring from the 28-yard line and a 50% chance of scoring from their own 34.

In that case, the numbers would be adjusted to (0.70 * 1) + (0.30 * (1-0.80)) = 0.76, or a 76% chance of winning by going for it. In the event of a punt, it’s 50/50. In other words, based on the way that game was played and the quality of each team's offense, going for it gave the Patriots much better odds of winning.

The only reason not to do so there is to avoid criticism, and anyone in the media who doesn’t acknowledge this is just demonstrating their lack of football knowledge. Decisions like the one Sunday are why Belichik is one of the best coaches in football, and in a way, I’m glad it didn’t work. All the criticism will just cause the brain-dead coaches to continue to "play it safe" while the truly smart ones – guys like Belichick in the NFL and Brian Kelly, Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer in the college game -- will keep taking advantage of the conceptual edge they have over everyone else.

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