In 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.