Being Fair In Evaluating Belichick’s Decision

I didn’t start off with the greatest opinion of ESPN’s Colin Cowherd. I had heard, albeit belatedly, about his stunt in shutting down The Big Lead because of some perceived slight. This seemed like a petty, malicious, and extreme thing to do in a business that requires awfully thick skin. In recent months, however, I’ve softened my stance on Cowherd. His occasional interviews with Keith Law have drawn me to his show, and from these interviews I’ve decided that Cowherd isn’t the total schmuck I thought he was. He can be a little overbearing at times and he’s clearly impressed with himself, but I think he’s a sharp guy with some interesting opinions.

As I do with increasing frequency, I had Cowherd’s radio show on in the background as I did some work this morning. The topic of discussion, unsurprisingly, was Bill Belichick’s controversial decision in last night’s Patriots-Colts game. With a 34-28 lead and 2:08 remaining, the Patriots went for it on 4th and 2 from their own 28-yard line. They were stopped just short of the marker, allowing Peyton Manning and the Colts to take over possession deep in Patriots territory. The Colts ultimately won the game on the ensuing drive, creating nothing short of total uproar about Belichick’s decision. Like many of his peers, Cowherd hated the gamble, but isn’t buying the idea that Belichick’s skills are slipping or that the Patriots’ defense will remember this perceived slight for the rest of the season.

Cowherd then got an e-mail from a listener, who presented statistics that supported Belichick’s seemingly insane decision to go for it. I’ve forgotten the actual numbers, but it was something like teams should go for it in that situation more than 70% of the time. I was thrilled that these numbers were brought to Cowherd’s (and his huge audience’s) attention, because they touch on what is fast-becoming my newest sports crusade. In general, I think offenses are way too conservative on fourth down. Coaches are too quick to call for a punt or field goal attempt, when chances are they could get the yard or two necessary for a new set of downs. There’s a passing similarity here to closer usage in baseball. In baseball, many managers are convinced that the last three outs in a game are harder to get than the previous 24, thereby necessitating the development and use of a special reliever equipped with the special ability to get these special outs: the closer. While football’s analogue isn’t quite as extreme, it does seem like coaches are convinced that those two or three yards on fourth down are harder to get than most other yards in a game. So, they punt it or kick a field goal. Both tactics – closer deployment and kicking or punting – stem from a misguided belief, as well as fear of public criticism if their solid thought process yields an unfavorable result.

With that being said, I was interested in what Cowherd would say when confronted with these statistics. He’s one of the more open-minded talking heads out there, so I thought maybe he’d change his tune a little. Instead, Cowherd paid lip service to the probabilities and the general usefulness of statistics, but called these particular numbers “disingenuous.” He said that statistics must be taken in their proper context (which is true), and that the context in the Patriots-Colts game essentially rendered the probabilities useless. Cowherd said that the numbers don’t tell us game situations, and that in last night’s case, the mitigating factor was where the Patriots chose to go for it, not that they chose to go for it. It wasn’t the call itself that Cowherd disliked. It was where the call was made (on the Patriots own 28-yard line) that was problematic.

I’m still not sure if I agree with Cowherd or not, but I think it’s pretty disingenuous to call the listener’s statistics “disingenuous.” Upon receiving these numbers, Cowherd basically made an argument for considering context when evaluating statistics or probabilities. Well, it seems to me that Cowherd himself is ignoring a significant bit of context that might the probabilities more admissible in his eyes. If the Patriots punted the ball (as convention dictates), that gives Peyton Manning two minutes to drive sixty to seventy yards at home. This is the same Peyton Manning who has thrown for 48,500 yards and 353 touchdowns in his career, completing passes at a 65% clip. He’s having one of the finest seasons of his career this year, based largely on his 69.7% (!) completion percentage. I’m positive that this was a huge factor in Belichick’s thought process. The Patriots had a chance to win the game right there, and they went for it because of the quality of their offense and the quality of their opponent’s offense. If Cowherd is going to advocate decision-making based on the careful balance of probabilities and context, then that’s wonderful. But it’s just as disingenuous to ignore the quality of the opponent’s offense as it is to ignore the chances of converting on 4th and 2.

I think I just talked myself into liking Belichick’s call. Keep on fighting the good fight, arrogant coach of a team I loathe.

EDIT: Here are the numbers that the listener was most likely looking at, as linked to by ESPN’s Rob Neyer (of all people). Right now, NFL analyst and former quarterback Trent Dilfer is lambasting Belichick’s decision because it wasn’t as “calculated” as those made by Dilfer’s former coach, Tony Dungy. How ironic is it that Belichick probably made his choice based on these probabilities, and he’s being blasted for not being “calculated” enough?

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2 Responses to Being Fair In Evaluating Belichick’s Decision

  1. Kevin says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Stillman. The New York Times agrees with me!

    I’ve been getting more and more worked up about this as the day has gone on – way more than came across in my post. By any reasonable study of probability, Belichick made the right call. And yet every mouth-breathing former player and coach is absolutely crushing the decision, using pretty condescending language and tone in the process. (Tony Dungy: “You have to play the percentages there and punt.” My head just exploded. Play the percentages!)

    Look, I don’t like Belichick. But I really, really admire coaches that have the guts to go against the grain, especially if the odds say it’s the correct call anyway. I just can’t stand the absolute certainty with which most of these NFL analysts are scolding Belichick. These guys are remarkable athletes with world-class running, jumping, lifting, catching, and throwing abilities. By and large, however, they are not smart people, and should stick to analyzing what they know instead of what they think they know.

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