While Belichick's decision is certainly controversial, especially in hindsight, I would not be surprised if objective statistical analysis showed that in general teams punt too often on 4th and short yardage.

Taking the usual kick and runback, perhaps the defensive team takes over an average of 30 yards down the field. If the offensive team can make the short yardage, say, 75% of the time, in general that seems a worthwhile tradeoff. Of course, Belichick was ahead, with two minutes to go, on his own 29 yard line, so not the most favorable case for it.

I recently heard of a small college team where the coach nearly always goes for it on 4th down, and nearly always on kickoffs kicks an offside kick to try to recover the ball. I bet he comes out ahead, although his tradeoffs are more favorable than in the NFL where kickers kick much farther, less chance of a kick's being blocked, etc.

I know nothing about football, but sounds a strategy worth trying more, especially if gives the defensive team a lot more uncertainty.

Bill Egan comments:

Belicheck's decision is a lovely example of bad risk control. He risked everything on one play.There are those who might argue that risk management should of course be a matter of necessary discipline. And even though it may behoove one's survival interests to never wager everything on one unknowable outcome, ratcheting up the risk parameters when one clearly has the upper hand, should never be ruled out. That said, even though one may steadfastly never risk anymore than x percent on any one outcome, it would hardly be unduly irresponsible to risk somewhat more than x to wager that Belicheck will not do that again anytime soon.

Why, because there's a considerable qualitative element at work here.

He wasn't the inevitable victim of the inevitable 100-year flood, some of which will inevitably if soggily cluster. No, he was the victim of not having any faith in his defensive employees.

And he knows full-well that the flesh-eaters in the media would reduce him to dry bones but quick if he did it that egregiously again, and it didn't work again.

Therefore, it would be relatively safe to dutifully wager that it won't happen under those same circumstances anytime soon, and it would hardly be imprudent to risk more than the ordinary x.

(Provided that's in the prospectus. Never mess with the lawyers, they're a lot cagier than football coaches. And the odds are always in their favor.)





Speak your mind

8 Comments so far

  1. Rodger Bastien on November 17, 2009 3:53 pm

    I don't think you can consider the value of Belichick's decision out of context. Certainly, the same decision made if the game was not on the line would be perceived quite differently. Sure, the numbers suggest it was a percentage move; I posit that that is not the point. The fact is that at that point in that game he was ill-advised to take even the smallest amount of risk. Doubtless his message to his defense all year is that they are one of the best in the league. By not allowing them to do their job he risked a less tangible but real loss.

  2. Rocky Humbert on November 17, 2009 5:02 pm

    This paper by David Romer (UC Berkeley) is on point.

    From the abstract: "This paper examines a single, narrow decision — the choice on fourth down in the NFL between kicking and trying for a first down — as a case study of the standard view that competition in the goods, capital and labor markets leads firms to make maximizing choices."

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  3. Adam Hegstrom on November 17, 2009 6:17 pm

    One must accurately note the goals and parameters when looking at a situation like this in a probability sense. I guess that's another way of saying "context" as noted by the other posters..

    Keep in mind:
    1) The objective is to win the game, not to convert the first down. This should be a decision tree analysis with the end "leafs" being whether or not you win the game, not whether you convert the first down. a market example to this might be something like: the objective of speculating is to achieve the highest risk-adjusted rate of return, not to make the most money possible, as quick as possible.

    2) Games have time constraints (unlike trading markets). in this case, if you punt, the opponent has only a few plays worth of time left on the clock to come back and beat you. Not the infinite amount of try's in many textbook probability situations.

    3) Games have absolute outcomes: won or lost (by how much has no bearing, unlike trading markets). you get no extra utility if you continue on offense and score more points rather than punt and play defense.

  4. Steve Leslie on November 18, 2009 7:54 am

    We could debate whether the decision to get 2 yards was the proper one based on statistics and we can discuss the deeper issue.

    Arguments against punting.

    If B. had little faith in stopping Colts for 70 yards then his decision was just.

    Brady is the best in the biz and I want the fate of the game in his hands and not Colts.

    Pats offense playing well and keep it in their hands

    If I have faith in my defense, then 30 yards for a touchdown is no given.

    Arguments in favor of punting

    70 yards is a long way to go no matter who the team is.

    Pressure now shifts to Colts to perform at highest stress level.

    I have great faith in my defense to deny Colts touchdown.

    Colts just dont have it today and this give me the ad

    Three things happen when a team passes the ball, and two of them are bad.

    The deeper issue is what was Coach B. thinking and what propelled him to make this decision. This can be only speculative on our part since his is so elusive in his discussion of his thinking.

    Lesson learned. As a trader we find ourselves in these situations all the time. Should I sell or hold on. The important issue is to be in constant control win or lose and manage the trade to the best of our ability.

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  5. Steve Leslie on November 18, 2009 8:21 am

    one last thought on B. from a psychological viewpoint.

    At least on the surface Coach B. displays a calm, stoic demeanor completely calculating and devoid of emotion. He does have a history of trying to go for fourth down conversions on occasion however. So it is not out of his character to attempt this. It does seem curious that he would do so with so much time remaining and should they not succeed it opens the door wide open for the Colts to win the game.

    I speculate that he had a temporary loss of confidence and fear took over. Rather than looking to win, he overthought the situation and tried not to lose. These are vast opposites.

    One sees this many times in other sports. In baseball, a closer known for his great fastball comes into close out a game and tries to fool the hitter with off-speed pitches.

    In basketball, the Lakers break their time out and call a play with Kobe Bryant as a decoy.

    Football teams switch to a prevent defense abandoning the defense that has been successful for the whole game.

    Jean Van de Velde with one hole to play in the British Open completely blows up by taking out a driver instead of a 3 metal to close the deal and whacks it into the deep rough.

    In the Main event of the WSOP Darvin Moon has a 2-1 lead in chips and goes all in on a lousy hand and loses the tournament as a result of an erratic play.

  6. Adam on November 19, 2009 12:49 am

    I know on Madden (a football computer game) where the goal is the same (to win) but the cost of failure is a reset button or some small reputational loss, it’s pretty rare to punt on all but the longest 4th downs. It was enough that they added additional rules that force you to punt on 4th if it’s an NFL punting situation. That tells me NFL coaches are leaving something on the table, however they’re probably rational in doing so, if the gambit fails, blame falls on the coach, if they punt and the colts still score, it mostly falls on the defense. Belicheck is very secure in his job, most NFL coaches wouldn’t survive the season after a play like that.

    However, the big mistakes in my view, were wasting two time outs immediately before the attempt, and passing rather than running on the 3rd down play. Also once the Colts running back makes it to the 1, they should have let him score and use the last minute or so to drive down and attempt a field goal, rather than let the Colts run all the time off the clock before scoring.

  7. walter on November 20, 2009 6:41 am

    What happened to the days of prof. athletes being in condition to go 4 quarters without a coach doesn't want his defense on the field because they are tired. If I was coach of those million dollar pro's I'd have them doing wind sprints instead of heading to KFC after the game for a bucket. They should be able to go 8 quarters. And that is also Belichecks fault, team conditioning

  8. vniederhoffer on November 20, 2009 1:08 pm

    we've found our metier. no one on the web is interested in our philosophic thoughts about markets and connections and ballyhoo. but we all are amateur sagsportametricians and have a million good ideas about how the sports should be played. I am the chief novitiate with my ideas on racket sports, especially with my weak backhand, just now turning to top after the disastrous foray into the slice backhand that the squash players at old ivy learned from their still most revered coach. vic


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