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.

  • Completely agree.

  • Fortune favors the bold. Except when it doesn’t work out, and the vultures can descend upon you, no? Belichick gambled and failed in a regular-season NFL game, and he’s going to take his criticism for it, but I love this decision because it was so arrogant and audacious as to be clever, and such a massive middle finger to the conventional wisdom that it has made me like Belichick a lot more.

  • Sure the Indy offense was red-hot, but the Indy defense had also completely shut down the NE offense in the 4th quarter.

    RT @FDC_MikeClay: “Prior to that 4th down try, NE offense had run 19 4th quarter plays, racking up only 54 yards. Indy D was on their game. Should’ve punted.”

    Furthermore, Indy did score on 2 long TD drives in the fourth quarter, but they also threw an INT between those 2 TD drives.

    I don’t think it was an insanely stupid call…but it was still the wrong call if you ask me.

  • Thank you for raising that point. I think everyone overreacted and is trying to make it seem like it lost the game for them. They completed the pass and if that wasn’t bobbled he had the first down and everyone is praising him.

    Also it is good to see some guts in the game. He knew that the blame would be in him if they lost, but he did it. I am sick of people coaching to not lose the game. I would rather have the game in the hands of my best player (Brady), even if it could blow up in my face, than anyone else.

  • This only confirms that Belichick’s balls are indeed the size of China.

  • Joey

    Absolutely agree with you. The media would be saying the exact opposite if the call worked. Pats have converted 63.5% of 4th and 2 plays since Brady has been at QB, and even if it doesn’t work, you still haven’t lost the game. The way Peyton was playing, it was definitely worth the risk, even if it wasn’t a conventional call.

  • The problem isn’t the call, it’s what it says to his defense. Even if they had converted and won the game, he’s basically saying to them, “I’m terrified of Peyton Manning. I don’t think we can keep him from tearing our heart out in the clutch. I don’t trust any of you to do a thing against him when it matters.”

    And that, IMO, is worse than losing the game, especially if they wind up playing against them again in the playoffs.

  • DMtShooter, do you honestly think NFL players, who are supposed to be professionals and happen to play for and therefore live in fear of Bill Belichick, will pout and pack it in because he “doesn’t believe in them”?

  • Skeptical

    Still disagree. Even if they had gotten the first down it’s still a stupid call; it just would have been a stupid call that worked. Instead, they fell short and the Colts are undefeated, potentially clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs from this. Punt it and let your defense redeem themselves from the last drive and make Manning work down the field. Arrogance killed Belichick this time.

  • Bill

    I don’t think they’ll necessarily pout and pack it in, but you can’t simultaneously praise it for ‘show[ing] faith in his own guy’ without acknowledging that it doesn’t show faith in some of his other guys.

    An interesting side point (raised on another mailing list) – why do this, but *not* go for it on 4th and 8 with 4 minutes left?

  • Jonathan

    MikeClay, I respect that, in that you have done some analysis instead of the whiplash reaction that is plaguing almost every other criticism of Belichick.

    Still, with Brady, Moss, Welker, etc., vs. backup defensive backs (no Jackson or Sanders) I like the chances. Exactly right to cite Herm Edwards. You play to win the game.

    I disagree, Mike Clay, but yours is the first respectable criticism of that call that I have seen all night.

  • Go Big or Go Home

    I like the move, and I think a c) has been left out of the top equation – if you don’t convert, and don’t stop Manning, you still have the chance of kicking a game-winning FG; a chance that goes up if they score quickly.

    In other words, had Meriweather let Addai score with 1:20 remaining (and no, it doesn’t look like he was about to pull an MJD), the Pats still would’ve had the opportunity to get the ball back and go for that FG.

    The decision was good; the time management (wasting the two timeouts, tackling Addai) was not, and that’s where the Pats will have to improve.

  • buzztheirazz

    belichicks balls are only half the size of paul johnsons

  • Corbin

    As good as Manning played in the 4th quarter, you have to punt the ball here. The 2 minute warning would’ve passed during the punt, leaving Manning just one stoppage of play (outside of passing to the sidelines). I’d much rather take my chances against Manning with 70 yards of cushion rather than 30+ yards of cushion.

  • Matthew

    While I ultimately agree with the analysis, there’s an important point I think you glossed over: (b) isn’t the chance that if you give Manning the ball on the 30, you’ll stop him; it’s the chance that you will first fail to make the first down, but then stop Manning. The former is a 47% chance, the latter 19%. (According to the link you edited in.)

  • Okay: going for a first down on fourth down with only 2 yards to go.

    Not okay: fumbling on a 1 yard touchdown run.

  • Francis

    Belicheck’s call (to use a poker term) had more “outs” than the option of punting. Punting has one out. . .stop the Colts (whom are hot, and will use all their downs as punting is not an option for them) from scoring a TD.

    Belicheck had these outs when deciding to go for it:

    1. Get the 1st down on the call;
    2. Stop the Colt’s on a short field;
    3. Score a FG with the time left after options 1 and 2 are unsuccessful.

    So to go for it gets you two more “outs” for the cost of 35 or so yards.

  • Devin

    In any event, it’s a close decision, which if you listen to the talking heads you’d think it was the worst decision in the history of anything, let alone football. The real mistakes that were made was the lack of a coherent plan from the Pats on that whole drive. Taking a timeout before first down should never happen, and if you are going to go for it on 4th down, you should figure it out before third down so that you can either run it twice or at least not burn your final timeout before fourth down. Once those mistakes were made I think I’d still go for it on 4th down, but if they hadn’t burned two timeouts before that play they could have had a better chance of winning even after they went for it and failed. The backlash to this does show why coaches are so much more conservative than any statistical study thinks is optimal, if this is the response that the best coach in football gets when he thinks outside normal football conventions, it’s no wonder that a coach of a .500 team would rather play conservative rather than open themselves up to this kind of criticism.

  • Tom Daly

    I agree on your point. They play to win the game–I think too often coaches shy at the choice to close a game out, when the other choice just extends the time they have to make that same choice later on.

    I wanted to ask about Ga. Tech and Paul Johnson’s offense. Has there been a variation to it that allows the a signficant passing game to complllliment it? I only ask this because Mack Brown made some comments when asked about the option/tripleoption/flexbone offense and how it would work at such prestigious program such as Texas. He basically asked the same question a lot of people would ask if you’re dependent on the run, what happens if you get behind by a few scores?

    And I noticed on Saturday how efficient Ga. Tech is when they are passing and their running game is clicking. My question is, if you get a better passer than Nesbitt to run the triple option, what’s to stop you from running a more balanced offense? I would think they’d be unstoppable. A base option offense who could always pull back to pass 50% of the time, seems pretty perfect. Anyways, just wanted your thoughts on this.



  • Big Mike

    The decision itself was fine.

    The play calls were horrible.

    Run it on third down. You either pick it up or you don’t pick it up and have the 2 minute warning to select your best play if you’re intent on going for it…and the opportunity to booth review the spot given no timeouts. The review aspect can’t really be considered in real time, however.

  • Brad

    I agree that Belichick was right to go for it but…

    1) He should have known that he would go for it on 4th and short before 3rd down, so he could run the ball and run the clock down to the 2:00 warning, saving his time out and leaving less time for Pey Pey

    2) The play call, I know the Patriots like to spread the field, but why not bunch your big receivers/TEs (Watson and Moss), with Welker or Faulk and throw on of them the ball behind some blockers, rather than Moss trying to throw a little half ass block on the corner, 10 yard away from the action?

    Otherwise it’s a totally defensible position for Belichick and proves that he is a badass out there trying to win football games, not cover his ass in the media.

  • Playing to win the game doesn’t mean taking a senseless risk that all but guarantees you’ll lose if you fail to execute. That’s why baseball teams will always walk Albert Pujols with the game on the line even though the percentages say he’ll fail 655 of the time.

    Of course pitching around Pujols doesn’t guarantee winning either, but it gives you more options, more breathing room. Making Peyton Manning go 65-70 yards gives you more options and breathing room.

    Sure Belichek’s decision maximized his team’s chances of winning the game at that moment, but it also maximized his opponents chances of winning the game at all. That alone makes it a poor decision.

  • So lemme get this straight. Manning has just “torched” your defense…and your chances of stopping him from torching it further are greater from 30yds than 70 yds if you fail?

    If nothing else, it’s simple math. The more plays Manning has to run, the greater the opportunity of him(or a teammmate) making a mistake would be.

    Manning had 13 drives/possessions that had the opportunity to score from 70 yds or more, and converted on 4, for a 32.5% success ratio. If I knew that a QB who had torched my defense had a 32% chance of torching it again and succeeding, I make him do that instead of allowing him fewer plays to torch it from closer if I fail.

    In other words, even by the authors own admission, the odds of NE failing to convert the 1st down were greater (35%) than Mannings chances of scoring from 70yds (32.5%)(even with your fuzzy math that places NE’s 4th down conversion ratio at 65%)

  • Bobby

    brdcstr even by your flawed methodology your math is wrong.

    The comparison is not chances of failing the 4th down conversion v. the chances of manning scoring, it should be the chances of failing the 4th down v. the change in manning’s chance of scoring by the change from 28 yards to 70 yards. So with your numbers, unless you think theres less than a 2.5% chance of stopping manning from the 28, you still have to go for it.

    (btw It is true that 9 of mannings Drive’s failed to cover 70 yards but it is also true that 9 of mannings drives failed to cover 28 yards, so you could easily say that Manning also only converted 4 out of 13 possessions with the opportunity to score from 28 yards or more and only converted on 4…a 32.5% success rate. )


    Townie, not converting the 4th down does not ‘all but guarantee’ you will lose the game. The yards between their 30 and your 30 are the hardest to protect in a prevent defense. Its the last 30 yards that you actually have a shot at protecting. You really aren’t giving up that much by not punting.

  • ed bryant

    NE did not have available a defense that had practiced for this eventuality. After a Walking Wounded Week of practice, Banta-Cain and Ninkovich were unavailable at the end, and there was no Jarvis Green, no Ty Warren, available to the defense.
    The offense, on the other hand, had available Moss, Welker, Watson, Baker, Faulk, and two rookie quarterbacks. Had Belichick or O’Brien called a play where Brady pumped once toward Welker and then hit Stanback for a twenty yard gain, Bill Belichick would be a smart coach.

  • Nik

    Chris, I disagree, and I have numbers to justify my dissent. I’m surprised that not many have mentioned that Belichick foolishly wasted a timeout on 1st down. One could also argue that he wasted the timeout taken prior to the 4th % 2. I’m convinced that, in his arrogance, his decision was made instantly. So why not save the timeout? At least he can now claim careful consideration.

    Had he made the first down, he certainly would have been the hero. But the mere fact that the called would have hailed as “gutsy” is proof in itself that it was a HUGE gamble. The Pat’s O had the ball for the majority of the clock in the 4th, so the D has to be as ready as can be expected in a 4th quarter. If Belichick doesn’t believe his D can stop Manning from what would surely be a 70 yard field after a punt, how can he justify risking a 30 yard field.

    I believe the 4th & 2 blunder began with the blunder of wasted timeouts. Had he conserved the 2 Timeouts, the game would likely have played out as follows: NE punts and has the 2 minute warning for a total of 3 chances to stop the clock. That gives NE 2 chances to win. (1)a chance to stop IND from scoring a TD. If that fails, NE’s 3 chances to stop the clock provides a chance for a NE FG, which still wins the game.

  • vince m

    i wrote this on my Patriot fan buddy’s facebook page immediately after the game…

    you cant put this on Bill…many ppl are b/c they are still in shock, but its all on faulk and the D for allowing Peyton to score on the previous drive…its simple, you’re Bill B…you got 2 options:
    A)Gain 2 yards (with Tom Brady under centre) and win the game
    B)Punt and try to stop Peyton Manning in a 2 minute drill

    When compared to keeping manning out of the endzone, gaining 2 yards doesnt seem that bad. the playcall was there, the ball was on the money…the rest is history
    8 hours ago

  • Tiger3

    I have had this argument all morning. People are claiming BB was displaying arrogance by going for the 4th & 2. I argue the opposite. He was sowing his respect for the Colts offense and his team’s lack of a defense in the latter part of the 4th quarter. I don’t disagree with the decision to go for it, although the play choice may not have been the best. The greater blunder in my opinion was time(out) management. The Pats wasted a timeout with (apparently) the wrong personnel on the field. Then before deciding to go for it on 4th down, they used another timeout. Since BB preaches so much about situational football, I think he should have had that contingency built in already. If it comes down to a 4th down to win the game, this is what we will do. The other idea I had is this: since he had no faith that his D could stop the Colts from ultimately scoring, why not, after the failed 4th down, let the Colts score. Now you leave Brady and the Offense a little more time (since they had no timeouts) and you only need a field goal. Just some thoughts

  • Snibb

    I disagree with the call. I have no mathematical reason for this-but, how do you give one of the best QB’s in football history the ball with a meager 28 yards to score a TD, and with plenty of time to do it? Never mind the fact that Manning has engineered numerous comebacks in his career from much further back than the 28 yard line. It would have been a poor choice if it was 4th and 1. Classic football-you have to punt it and then make them do everything perfectly-to go 70 yards for the score, not 28 yards. Very poor choice, and I agree, it was arrogance.

    Townie: great points

  • brs

    I just wonder how all of the people who are saying it was a stupid decision can continue to argue their point without addressing the odds at all.

    I have a feeling that these may be some of the same people financing the Casino industry. Whenever you think your common sense is as good as doing the math, you’re more or less doomed if the answer is mathematical…


    I wonder if Belichick went for it knowing full well if it failed, the criticism would all be on him, rather than the shredded New England defense.

  • brandon

    it was a gutsy call. get the 1.5 yards or whatever it was and the game is probably over. i have to wonder what Bill PARCELLS would have done. i imagine with a 6 point lead, the other team with only 1 TO, and about 2 mins left he would have played field position and made them go 70+ rather than the short field

    with Clark getting his ass kicked all night, Garcon and Collie with multiple mistakes, i think Wayne was the only guy that was going to win it for them. and he did. again, for me its field position and time left on the clock. i would punt but i do appreciate the guts to put the game away.

    either way you look at it though, its down to execution. if Faulk dosent bobble the ball he has the first down. this ones on the players, not the coach. so kudos to Melvin Bullet and better luck next time Kevin Faulk

  • Nik

    BRS can’t seem to read. The numbers/odds are talked about all over the place. Since BRS proclaims to understand the odds, I’ll attempt a different approach.

    This is the equilivent of the chip leader who is forced into an all-in bluff out of position because of a couple of prior bad decisions, and the luff is called and you lose.

    Time out called on 2nd down in (I believe) the 3rd quarter; not a horrible mistake, but it started the ball rolling. Lousy decision to call T/O on 1st down, but then same series, he calls T/O on 4th with 2 yrds to go!! He knew they MUST make a 1st down, so a good coach knows what his criteria for 4 down territory is when he starts the series. 2 yards to go when you’re barely outside of your own red zone is stupid on any given Sunday, but against Manning, and at the 2 minute warning!!!???

    If he had those two T/O’s and knew how to check his ego at the stadium door, BB would have punted and made Peyon work for a TD. If he gets it, then your T/Os have hopefully given you enough time for a winning FG. You want to talk Odds, the odds of Manning scoring once from the 28 is far greater than Manning scoring from his own 20 AND preventing a NE field goal. To contine the poker parallel, which scenario do you think would give them the most outs?

  • Jim

    The thing the statistics don’t factor in is the disrespect factor that comes with the call. The statistics don’t factor in the fire that disrespect creates in the other team and their fans. The writer completely underestimates the fact that football is a game of emotion more than anything else, fire someone up, and you’re asking for trouble. And you talk about the decision in light of what was happening in the game as if that made it a good call – that is exactly what made it a BAD call not a good one. You have to understand, you have the lead and the other team needs to take it from you and you have to make it as difficult for them to take it from you as possible. You’re playing in Indy, and you have a 4th down and 2 yards to go from your own 29 and you are telling me that isn’t going to fire up the Indy Defense, fire up the fans, and put your offense in a bind that they can’t get out of? Whether it was a good call statistically speaking or a bad one – you should use common sense because common sense intuitively factors in many things that straight stats don’t.

  • Nik

    To continue the good point that Jim brought up, what message did BB send to his defense? He essentially said, “Stay on the sidelines, D. I know you can’t stop Manning, even across a 70 yard field. I’ll stake the game on a gamble since I view a big gamle as a safer bet than relying on my D”

    That’s terrific for morale!!!

  • PK

    Nik addresses one aspect that hasn’t been touched on much: the fact that BB called two timeouts on that last 4-and-out. In Belichick’s mind, the probabilities that the Pats would convert were 100% because he thinks he’s God’s gift to football. If he thought the probabilities were any less favorable, he would’ve saved one (or two) timeouts in case they didn’t get it and had to score at the end. Run the ball on third down and at least let the clock get to the two-minute warning.

    If it was Art Shell that made those calls last night, I don’t think anyone would be praising him.

  • Jim

    You can’t even find statistics that are relevant here because you have to compare stats given the same situation. You can’t compare a 4th and 2 with the game on the line if you mess up with a 4th and 2 on the other side of the 50 with nothing on the line and plenty of time left in the game – That’s equivalent to saying that a golfer feels the same when when putting a 10 footer during a non-competitive round as he does a 10 footer for the Master’s victory. You have to compare apples to apples – to use general percentages here to assess whether this was a good decision is one more reason the author’s analysis is flawed (on top of the ones already mentioned above by Townie, Nik and others).

  • Mitch

    Good decision but they should have run the ball on 3rd and 2 and if they didnt get the first down.sneak or run it again. Kevin Faulk was finding creases all night

  • Devin

    For the record, if you wanted to bet on the game, the Colts were still a a slight underdog after the failed 4th down attempt. So even with a failed attempt, it’s not as though it was a guaranteed loss.

  • RU Fan

    I liked the call. I have more of a problem with his use of timeouts.

  • Nik

    I don’t disagree that you aren’t a champion without risks. If balls were all that is required to be a good head coach then tthe league would be full of a bunch of renegades at the healm; each trying to see who has the biggest cajones.

    What seperates great coaching from the average is knowing when to gamble. I heard someone justifying the decision by referencing another Belichick decision to go for it on 4th and inches in the 3rd quarter on the NE side of the field up by 6 and he made it. That is COMPLETELY different than his decision last night!!

  • Brian

    I don’t disagree with taking the risk considering how good Manning is in the 2 minute drill, but I do disagree with Belichek’s play calls on 3rd and 4th down. If the Patriots ran on 3rd, at a minimum the clock would have stopped at 2 minute warning, instead, they threw an incomplete pass (that was very nearly intercepted) saving the Colts a timeout and the 2 minute warning. I know Brady is a great quarterback, but Belichick’s lack of confidence in the run game is the main factor in the loss. Also, having no threat to run on 4th down simplified the defense for the Colts.
    When Paul Johnson went on 4th down in overtime against Wake Forest he took the same gamble as Belichick: play to win, rather than play to not lose. The difference in that game though was Georgia Tech was confident running the ball; they spread the field and pounded it right up the middle. I think that the Patriots lost because they put everything on Brady’s arm in the last series, at least running on 3rd down would have used-up more clock if Belichick was determined to go for it on 4th all along (the timeout at the start of the drive was also really poor game management).

  • Jim

    To add to the reasons that the Author is wrong, here is another:
    The author says,
    “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.”
    – Before deciding to go for it based on that logic, don’t forget,
    if you don’t go for it, Indy’s best likely scenario is about a 75 yard drive requiring near flawless clock management and play execution… by choosing option a as the author seems to want you to do, you’ve created the NEW possibility for Indy of an easy 30 yard drive where the clock won’t even factor in. With a lead, it’s not about what your high risk move can do for you, it is about the possibilities your high risk move could create for your opponent… When you have the lead, you should be more conservative, you never want to make a high risk move that yes would have given you a guaranteed victory, but much worse, gives the OTHER team new scenario for victory that it would otherwise not have had..

  • BigMongo

    “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.”

    This statement is actually false. The chance of the Pats winning is the sum of the Pats converting and the product of the Pats stopping the Colts from the 30 multiplied by the chances the Pats don’t convert.

    Pats convert chances = PC
    Colts don’t score from 30 chances = CS
    Pats win = PC + CS*(1-PC)

  • Eduardo

    I understand and agree with the math, but, if it was a playoff game, do you think he still did the same way?

  • Devin

    I think BB does it the same way every single time, he doesn’t seem like someone who is phased by the media disagreeing with him or by realizing the downside to that decision.

  • Scott

    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?

  • coldbeer4thesoul

    Agree with Go Big or Go Home with letting the Colts score.

    Also wouldn’t be surprised as an unintentional consequence,
    the majority of next week’s slate go UNDER the Vegas total
    with coaches playing it subliminally safe(r).

  • Michael

    Great debate and I fall completely on the side of a poor decision for several reasons already mentioned.

    The only reason I see fit to comment at all is to ask that we dispense with the notion that “…if he made it, everyone would be giving him praise.”

    I call BS. Not only was I plain shocked when the punt team failed to materialize, I was questioning the call regardless of the outcome and well prior to the actual outcome.

    Make your argument for why it was the right/wrong call and put away the conjecture about “what everyone would be doing” (…thinking or saying) if that outcome had been different. In my opinion and the opinion of most with whom I’ve chatted with about the topic, the decision was poor regardless of the outcome (whether we understand the alleged percentages or not).