November 16, 2009

TWO 1-YARD RUNS AND HE'S A GENIUS:

Going For It (Joe Posnanski, November 16th, 2009)

[I] fully understand Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th and 2 in Sunday’s night’s remarkable Patriots-Colts game. You already know the situation: The Patriots led by 6, they were deep in their own territory — the first down marker was at their own 30 — and there were just a few ticks more than two minutes left.

The conventional choice there is to punt. In fact, “conventional choice” does not begin to describe it. It was the obvious choice. The incontestable choice. I suspect 29 31 other NFL coaches would have punted there without even thinking twice about it. I suspect that had Belichick decided to punt there, nobody — not one interviewer, not one talk show host, not even one radio caller — would have second guessed him there (and anyone who would second guess him there would have been mocked and told to learn about football). I simply cannot remember any team going for it in a similar situation. You punt the ball and make Peyton Manning and the Colts go 70 yards to try and score the game-winning touchdown. It’s as obvious as bringing Mariano Rivera in the game in the 9th.

But … Belichick went for it. And here’s the reason: He doesn’t care about any of that stuff. He doesn’t care about sentiment or history or what every other coach would do. He doesn’t care about anything at all except winning the game. The best explanation I’ve read of the decision so far this morning comes from Brian Burke in the New York Times fifth down blog. Burke was a Navy pilot, and now he writes the Advanced NFL Stats blog.

His explanation is simply this: A team picks up fourth and two about 60 percent of the time — and we all know that a fourth down conversion in this case means certain victory. On the flip side: A team would score a game-winning touchdown from the 30 about 53 percent of the time. This leads to this formula — the first part is the 60% multiplied by 1 (1 signifying the certain victory if the play is converted). The second part is 40 percent multiplied by the chance of winning the game if the 4th down play fails:

(.60 *1) + (.40*(1-.53)) = 78.8% chance of winning.

There you go. Burke then estimates the chance of winning if Belichick punts — that is the chance of a team going 66 yards for a touchdown in the final two minutes. He says, historically, teams get that about 30% of the time. So a punt gives the Patriots a 70% chance of winning.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 16, 2009 3:14 PM
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