Belichick: genius or madman?
The talk around the NFL is about New England Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick's decision on Monday night. For those who haven't heard, his team was up by 6 points with about two minutes left in the game. It was 4th and 2 from their own 30 yard line. In other words, almost everyone making the decision would have punted. But Belichick decided to go for it. He is either being accused of being arrogant for taking the risk or of not having confidence in his defense.
The play came up about 6 inches short (officially), Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts got the ball back, and proceeded to score a touchdown with 13 seconds left to clinch the win.
Immediately after the game, the reaction on various internet forums that I visit was 99% against Belichick; I was one of the few sympathetic souls. Over the last 24 hours since the game ended, a few more people are coming to his defense.
The reason I believe very few people support Belichick's decision is that most people are not very good at probabilistic thinking. Hindsight is 20/20. As I see it, the decision is as follows:
A) Punt the ball. Colts get the ball around their own 30 or 40, and Peyton Manning has to go 60 or 70 yards in 2 minutes. I'd rate the chances of the Patriots stopping him at about 70%.
B) Go for the 4th down conversion. I'd give the chances of success better than even, say, 60%. If they get the first down, Patriots win. On the 40% chance that they don't get the first down, Peyton Manning has to go 30 yards in 2 minutes. I'd give the chances of the Patriots stopping him in that situation 30%.
Note that choice A yields a 70% chance of winning. Choice B yields at least a 60% of winning (converting the fourth down), and probably more (stopping Manning even if they don't convert the fourth down).
Now, I have no problem with anyone who agrees with all this and still thinks the right decision was punting, or anyone who thinks my percentages are off. Heck, I probably would have punted. But my points are:
1) It was a calculated risk.
2) Whether the decision was the correct one is evaluated regardless of the outcome. The correct decision often results in failure.