Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th and 2 from his team’s own 29

belichickIn tonight Colts-Patriots game, with the Pats up by 6 with just over two minutes to go, Belichick directed his team to go for it on fourth and two. Tom Brady threw a short pass to Kevin Faulk just past the first down marker, but he bobbled it, and the officials ruled that by the time he corralled the ball he was short of the first down marker. First down Colts. They then drove the thirty yards and managed to pull out a win in a game where they had trailed by 17. Peyton Manning again led an incredible fourth quarter comeback.

Yet the focus is on Belichick’s call. Before, during, and after it, the announcers panned the decision. Tony Dungy all but said it was stupid, and Rodney Harrison pretty much did say that. But was it so bad?

I don’t think so. I haven’t crunched the numbers but the call doesn’t strike me as being as stupid as everyone seems to be saying. But if you are going to say it is stupid, at least do the analysis.

The goal is, obviously, to maximize your chance of winning. If you punt, your chances of winning are your odds of stopping a streaking Manning who has just torched your defense the whole fourth quarter. He will have to drive about 70 yards. Because of his excellence in clock management, the two-minute warning, and their timeout, time was not really a factor. (The analysis would be much different if there was only, say, a minute left.)

If you go for it, your chance of winning hinges on two outcomes: (a) if you get the first down, you win the game; and (b) if you don’t get it, you still have a chance to stop manning. So your chance of winning if you go for it is the sum of (a) your chance of converting; and (b) your chance of stopping Manning from the 30 yard line.

My best estimation is that the odds of converting on fourth and two (around 60% for the league, so probably closer to 65% for New England) plus stopping Manning from the thirty are greater than your odds of merely stopping Manning from seventy or so. Remember, the decision is also context specific: Manning was playing great and they had a gassed defense.

But feel free to disagree with me, though if you do I want to hear your reasons, not conclusory statements that it was stupid. I will say this: Agree or disagree, it was the ultimate compliment to Manning and showed similar faith in his own guy. I don’t have a problem with the call. As Herm Edwards says, you play to win the game, not to satisfy someone else’s preconceived notion about what makes a good football call.

Update: Brian from Advanced NFL Stats confirms the analysis. Great work from him:

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You’d have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats’ 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it’s pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash.

  • Topher

    Was it me or was that game a virtual replay of the 2007 AFC Championship game?

    In any event, the story was the same for NE – allowing Indy back into the game before the end of the first half, inability to run the ball in the fourth quarter (Maroney fumbled a TD and was basically worthless down the stretch), logistical failure with the game-clinching first down on the line (12 men in the huddle in 2007, timeouts this time) and massive injuries killing depth, especially on defense.

    Even with the lead, once the D got tired it would have been a miracle for the Pats to win it. I don’t think any team has lost as much critical material to injury the last three seasons as New England (including two power tailbacks and a QB on offense).

  • Topher

    “the decision was poor regardless of the outcome (whether we understand the alleged percentages or not).”

    That doesn’t make any sense – you’ve just said “it was wrong, even if the analysis shows it to be right!”

    It’s a judgment call, where both decisions are justifiable. That’s what NFL head coaches get paid to do. They manage risk for a living; most suck at it but Belichick has shown himself to be excellent at doing just that so I doubt he cares about “my opinion and the opinion of most with whom I’ve chatted with about the topic.”

  • john stumpf

    My biggest problem with this decision is would belicheck go for it on 4th and 2 with 5 minutes to go in the 3rd? Im saying no, so why would you change your philosophy with the lead in the 4th quarter? Now i know that manning was playing well, but your not going to challenge him by making him drive the length of the field? This reminds me of the 06 Rose Bowl with Pete Carroll going for it on forth and short on texas’ 40.

  • RtownCoacher

    This one will be remembered for a while, what a turn of events

  • Rob

    I believe the stats you are citing about 4th down conversion are being applied improperly. The 60%-65% conversion rate is compiled in many situations, a very small percentage (if any) of those situations are 4th and 2 with the game on the line in your own territory. The situation change the way that defense plays the down and therefore the likelyhood of conversion.

    I don’t have the numbers but I would guess that most 4th downs are gone for are with less than a yard to go (QB sneaks or full back dives).

    To use a football analogy, this is like taking NFL kickers successful FG attempts at 25 to 30 yards but not taking into account the situation. Like a pressure kick in OT, snow on the field, excessive winds, the ability of the defensive line to push, etc.

  • Jim

    To argue that it was a good decision using math is suspect because there is nothing remotely similar to compare this decision to and therefore you are using percentages based off of completely different scenarios. We don’t have much data that reflects a similar call from a similar point in the game, with a similar point lead. The reason why the data is so hard to find is because the decision is so insane that it is practically unprecedented. If someone can dig up any NFL coaches decisions that are even remotely similar to what Belichick did, field position wise, score wise (with the LEAD nonetheless) and similar time left, please give us all the link. I recall may teams going for it on 4th and 1, late in a game where they were behind and there were few other options remaining, but this, with the lead and two minutes left from your own 29 – I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined that Belichick or any other coach would do that.. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anything like Belichick’s decision because its so outside conventional football wisdom.. and I have to agree with those that think it was a downright bad decision because it was.. Making those kinds of decisions, you may as well have lost anyway because you’ve indicated to your defense that you’ve lost hope in them.

  • Teo

    What i did not like was not the decision (ok im a patriots fan so i was pissed, but still it does make some sense statistically) but the play, or specifically the formation…by going 5 wides (with brady at least) you are telling the defense, hey im passing; at least with a running back in the backfield it’s not THAT obvious. But again im not a coach so i might be missing something 😀

  • Erik

    Scott says:

    >>Would not another aspect of the strategy have been to let the Colts score immeadiately once you didn’t convert the 4th down?
    >>Then at least you have a chance with more time to let your offense move the ball into FG range?

    While this flies even more in the face of traditional football common sense (heck–sports sense in general–how can you willingly surrender a lead?), I was pondering the same strategy–Once you’re willing to pretty much concede the game if you don’t make the conversion, why not then bet that your high-powered offense can move the ball 50 yds in 2 min (own20 to opp30) and take a game winning field goal attempt? (We’ll ignore for the moment the fact that said offense just failed to go 10 yds in 4 plays) The Patriots offense would then take the field with an altogether different mindset from the previous drive: no longer “get a first down, kill the clock”. And the Colts defense may fall into the dangerous “protect” mentality which then has a good chance of getting surgically decimated by Brady and his receivers.

  • Topher

    BB is getting criticized for “insulting his defense.” I think this is putting the cart before the horse. The defense was already playing poorly and he made a decision based on the facts in front of him, that the defense was unlikely to stop the Colts if they had to go back on the field.

    The likelihood that the D, exhausted and with momentum against them, was going to rise up and delivering a dominant last drive is very low.

  • Mr.Murder

    Don’t forget that a lot of punts get blocking penalties called, you might have added five to ten yards to the punter’s average in any estimate for such a reason.

    IMO if he really commits to this he has to do it on third down by running(if it is three or less yards) then going with whatever he team deems on the final play.

  • James

    I agree with Cris Carter on NFL Today; if the Patriots convert it then it was clearly the right decision and no one is talking about this today. The percentages are close enough where the coach must go with what he believes will help his team win. The real problem was a poor throw by Brady and a bobbled catch by Faulk.

  • Scott

    Actually I think the real problem was the mis-managed timeouts!

    Burning one on 1st & 10 was bad… but the one just prior to the 4th & 2 was worse.

    If they have a TO… they challenge – and perhaps get a better spot… then who knows?

  • Randy

    The real mistake is thinking the entire game hinged upon one call. The Pats (unfortunately) were kicking the Colts around pretty good for most of the game. They got into trouble when they went to a prevent defense. The Colts took what was given and got back into the game. Was the one call stupid? I think it was not because of the percentage breakdown, but due to the message it sent to the NE defense that Belicheat didn’t trust them to stop the Colts. That has to play with their heads a little, and you can’t give Manning even a modest advantage or, well, look what happened. Enough said.

  • Aboojum

    You can crunch the numbers all you want. NE was dominating this game with the exception of a prevent D touchdown that they all but granted to the Colts as a trae off for time. This ranks as one of the most rediculous calls in NFL history.

  • What nobody seems to pay attention to and what would change everyone’s minds is that if you look at the replay (in my opinion), Faulk bobbled the ball and regained possession beyond the first down marker. It is pretty clear to me. The problem was that the Patriots had no challenges remaining and the play started before the two-minute warning. If the Patriots get a first down, nobody is second guessing Belichick.

  • I, but I’m not alone, say that Belichick actually made the higher percentage decision by going for the first. The situation is all important, including time left. I have a relevant post on my blog ( I have more respect for Belichick than before really. It’s not a gamble to go with the odds. But unless it’s a sure thing, you can lose in any one incidence.

  • Pizzabob

    The decision I would question was the field goal the Patriots kicked late in the fourth quarter to stretch the ten point lead to thirteen. As I recall, it was fourth and one inside the ten yard line with less than five minutes to go, and the three points still allowed the Colts the chance to win with two touchdowns in plenty of time.

  • Nainoa

    I agree 100% with you Chris. I also agree with your earlier analysis that risk averse coaches who get criticized, praise, hired, or fired as a result of taking risks are too pressure to always take the safe route when statistically it may not be the best. There is no reason in hell you shouldn’t be able to get 2 yards against a defense. Instead of putting it into the hands of Peyton he gave it to his offense who executed well, almost. I personally don’t like that sort of pass on fourth and 2, but coaches should go for it much more often, in my opinion.

  • steve sharik

    Disagree with the OP.

    1. The particular situation is a subset of overall stats. The stats needed to be considered is the success rate of teams converting from their own 28 with a 6-point lead and 2 min. left. I doubt the success rate is the same.

    2. The overall statistics don’t take into account the psychological effect of the decision. Both Rodney Harrison and Teddy Bruschi have been on TV saying how they thought it was a horrible decision. It’s reasonable to assume that Patriots’ players were at least questioning the decision in their own heads at the time, thus reducing the chances for success on the conversion attempt. After the failed attempt, the psychological impact on the success rate of stopping the Colts from 29 yards away is huge.

    State of mind plays a role. If I bet you $100 that you couldn’t throw an egg 12″ in the air and catch it, would you take the bet? What if the bet was $10 million? What if you lost, your arm would be amputated? Or you were executed? In all scenarios, it’s throwing an egg 12″ in the air and catching it. Do you still think the success rates are the same?

    To use statistics as a predictor, one must use statistics that EXACTLY match the upcoming scenario.

  • Bman

    At this risk of going off topic..might be interesting to compare/contrast with Paul Johnson’s call when Georgia Tech recently played Wake Forest. Georgia Tech was down by a field goal in overtime. With 4th and short yardage, they had an opportunity to kick a chip-shot field goal to tie the game and extend overtime. However, they would risk giving Wake Forest another shot to win. Instead, despite failing on four prior 4th and short conversions, they went for it on 4th and converted. The next play was a over.

    Johnson was successful and received much credit for a “gutsy” call (and rightly so). Both coaches played to win and gave their team the chance to decide the game based on their strongest option. If I was a Pat’s fan, I would be glad to have a coach who was both smart and fearless.


  • patspsycho

    While that may have been premeditated, after further consideration, I would think BB should have taken into account that he was out of timeouts and couldn’t challenge anything from the forthcoming play because it was still occurring outside the 2 minute warning. That alone did not factor into the number crunching, yet it was the big difference.

    The line judge who claimed it was a “bobble” was in BACK of the play, i.e., Faulk had his back to this line judge, so how would he know? It was in fact not a bobble as subsequent replays showed and the ball should have been spotted at forward progress not where the play was dead.

  • Topher

    BTW, does anybody have an opinion on the pass interference call that set up Indy’s second-to-last touchdown? A deep pass over the middle was underthrown, and the Pats defender was called for PI for simply boxing out the receiver while keeping his eyes on the football. It’s as if contact between receiver and defender is all that matters for pass interference, regardless of who caused the contact. (It’s like an alimony settlement in that way.)

    Even the announcers said the DB did nothing to interfere and was simply in the way of the receiver due to the underthrow. That it went off as a legitimate call was a classic example of how the pro-passing rules changes have distorted the pro game.

    Of course, you can’t sneeze on a Colts receiver without getting a flag the past few years.

  • don

    coach Belichick gets paid a lot of money to male decisions like that.
    However what i would say is that going empty increased the chance of pressure and the route ran by Faulk was the wrong one.
    Whether he was told to just cross the gain line or not surely he should have got 3 yards past the sticks which would have gained the first down, but if Faulk hadnt bobbled it then we would not be having this discussion. I would have punted though, but hey im sat here watching the game in scotland not coaching in the nfl!

  • Chris

    Faulty math: “So your chance of winning if you go for it is the sum of (a) your chance of converting; and (b) your chance of stopping Manning from the 30 yard line.”

    You have to multiply (b) by the chance of not converting. Otherwise you could have a greater than 100% chance of winning! Example, you say New England would convert on 4th 65% of the time. What if you are overly optimistic about your chances of stopping Peyton if you don’t get the 4th, say 40%. Then you have a 105% chance of winning?

  • Actually, one major thing that is overlooked is the defense has a much greater advantage defending a shorter field than a longer field. So putting Manning at the 28 yard line makes it easier to defend the pass because there is a lot less field to cover. Defending the Colts in the red zone is a little easier when you factor in the Colts don’t have a physically dominating receiver that they can throw jump balls to. They needed to outscheme and out execute the Pats. That’s just what they did.

    If I were calling the shots, I would have punted, but I don’t think it was a bad call. I have no problem with playing to win rather than playing to not lose.

  • Mehdi

    I love you guys…please send your resumes to ESPN. They could use some good analysts.

  • Jim

    @Anthony Kuehn: “Actually, one major thing that is overlooked is the defense has a much greater advantage defending a shorter field than a longer field” .. Anthony makes a true statement – it is easier to defend a shorter field. The statement is mathematically correct. The statement is statistically correct. But finally, the statement is OUTLANDISH and RIDICULOUS when used to justify whether going for it was the right decision. Why? because what he’s doing (and those blindly going by statistics without inserting there brain) is missing the fact that a team 70 yards away will eventually get to the 29 yard line!!! Anyone who doesn’t realize that when they make a ridiculous statement like that – it’s no wonder that they don’t realize how dumb Belichick’s call was!

  • Mr.Murder

    “The opponent in the second half is the clock.”
    -Bill Walsh

    So he was playing to win vs. the clock.
    The tactic put the time into favor of the Colts.

    The odds of the play being run right were high, the pass was thrown where it would convert. The odds of stopping them were being shortchanged with extra field position and the clock against them.

    People are comparing it to a playoff loss in their previous meeting? That’s fine if everything from those seasons is consistent. Some of the receivers and defenders changed.

    Variables were also denied. You could have probably pooch punted and got all kinds of bounce yards on that turf to make time tick away inside of two minutes had you run it down. Or, you could have placed the Colts into play action position.

    Lining up to pass from a pure pass form is allowing the defense critical situational leverage.

    Still you want an outcome to be determined by best player. Thus they call a Brady pass. The thing to really shock them would have been to run a Wildcat with Stanbeck since he’s played the position of quarterback when in college and is now a wideout for the Pats. He had a reception in the game so it wasn’t like he’d come out there cold.

  • Topher

    “Anyone who doesn’t realize that when they make a ridiculous statement like that – it’s no wonder that they don’t realize how dumb Belichick’s call was!”

    As I said before, the call was not “dumb.” It was a judgment call, with comparable pros and cons for both options. That you would have made a different call than Belichick does not make him dumb, or the people who agree with him dumb.

  • Patriot ball boy

    the Pats went for on 4th and inches against the Falcons earlier this year, up by 6, and made it. in the 2006 AFCC the Pats punted it away with about the same amount of time left as in this game and Manning went 70-80 yards. in this last game Manning had back to back TD drives prior to the Pats going for it on 4th. i would have rather had a back in the backfield who would have at least threatened the run instead of going 5 wide.

  • Will Creager

    The thing that u failed to mention, Chris, which u should know if u claim to b an educated football fan, is that the Colts have one of, if not the, best defenses in football and came in with the best defense in the NFL in terms of points allowed per game. Their defense is better than the pats offense is good, so converting on 4th down would actually be below 60%

  • Kings

    would the Pats still have gone for it if they were playing the Browns instead of the Colts? I’m guessing no due to the Browns poor offense. Not saying it was the wrong or right call, but the stats to back up the “right call” argument are incomplete/wrong if the decision changes based on the team.

  • Ketch Rudder

    Belichick was wrong, 100% wrong. All who back him, also are wrong, 100% wrong.

    Jump for joy because can see how all of the Belichick apologists get demolished on the Gridiron Grotto:

  • Josh

    The reason I believe it to be the wrong call is because it puts the entire game on one play. That shows your defense that you have 0 confidence left in them and that takes a psychological toll. Football is a very emotional game and once that 4th & 2 went against the Pats it was over and everyone knew it. Whereas a punt leaves a lot of football left to be played and the defense has received a vote of confidence from the “defensive genius” they have as the head man.

  • The Potter

    Dungy might actually be correct when he said it was a “risky gamble”.

    Burke’s probabilities refer to the longterm,but there is no longterm here. The situation is so specific it’s unlikely to be repeated much for New England in the future.

    When you’re looking at single events or a limited number of similar events the average probabilities aren’t very useful.Instead you have to look at the variability of the play options available.

    The punt has very low variability,most of the time the ball will be with Indy around their own 30.If you punt you almost always end up with a field position that’s very likely going to be close to the average probability for the punt.

    The “go for it” option most likely gives you the ball with Indy at the New England 28 and a WP of 47% for the Pats OR a NWE 1st down and a WP of around 100%.That’s a very high variability around the average WP of 79% for the Pats if they go for it.

    Billy Beane puts it best in Moneyball where he says “My “stuff” doesn’t work in the playoffs.In the playoffs it’s just luck”.

    Replace “the playoffs” with “small sample size events” and he’s describing the way everyone’s tried to apply Burke type probabilities to what Belichick did on Sunday.It doesn’t work and you have to go instead with the variability.If you pick the high variability,”go for it” option you’re trusting to luck that you end up not converting……just like Dungy said.

  • Ketch Rudder

    Belichick was wrong, 100% wrong.

    No correct analysis shows that Belichick decided right. Those who claim he have fallen for faulty, misuse of statistics.

    The correct statistical analysis shows that Belichick was wrong. The only relevant data from which Belichick should have made his decision comes from that game alone and never from any game played in the past.

    To learn why Belichick was wrong, 100% wrong, check out Gridiron Grotto

  • old man river

    Another sterling example of the statistician’s hubris–or, “how come I’m smart and you’re dumb” revisited.

    It is very often the case that a statistic, or a collection of statistics, is peripheral to the issue it examines. What quantifies the momentum of, say, Indy in the fourth quarter of this game? What might such a decision do to the morale both of my opponent’s defense in this immediate circumstance, and my own defense later? Instead of disdaining Dungy’s cautious and conservative response, based on years of experience and a respect for these kinds of intangibles, perhaps the stat man should try understanding it. Seasons are lost by decisions like these, and football teams to the coaches who make them. Where is the discussion of risk/reward? This play may cost the Patriots a Superbowl appearance, by putting them on the road in a play-off game. It’s like being offered an 80 percent chance to double one’s money–it’s much more significant if we’re trying to make a billion by losing a billion. The risk so far outweighs the reward (I have a billion already), it’s absurd to even consider it. How many chances has the Patriot defense to stop the colts from 70 yards vs 30 yards? Really, the relevant factors are only partially quantifiable; and the subtle ones not even recognizable. Myself, I neither approve nor question Belichick’s decision–what’s the point? I don’t think I would have made it, but who am I?

    old man river

  • Mrs Jenny Holley

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