Not a Bad Call

The math supports Belichick's ploy
November 23, 2009

The fallout from Bill Belichick's ill-fated decision to go for a first down on fourth-and-two at his own 28 with a six-point lead late in New England's 35--34 loss to the Colts proves one thing: The moneyball mentality hasn't yet made it to the gridiron. Belichick was widely pilloried for the call. The reaction of NBC's Rodney Harrison, a former Patriot, was typical; it was "the worst decision" he'd ever seen.

But what do the numbers say? Within two hours of the end of the game, the New York Times website had a post from Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats, who calculated that the Pats had a 70% chance of winning by punting and a 79% chance of winning by going for it. If the math of a Navy pilot turned blogger seems fuzzy, consider that the next morning the Times had a pair of professional computer-programming number crunchers run the data, and they came to the same conclusion: Belichick made the right call.

The play hit close to home for Kevin Kelley, an Arkansas high school coach who has ridden a strategy of "never punt" to much success (SCORECARD, Sept. 21, 2009). He's long run up against the Old Guard mentality that prefers custom to empirical data. "To me, it's a shame they didn't get it," says Kelley, "because now it means coaches will be less likely to make that call—the right call—in the future."

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (PATRIOTS)DOWN PAT Indy's Melvin Bullitt (33) stopped Kevin Faulk a yard short.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)