Monday, November 16, 2009

Risk Management Is What People in Suits Call Gambling

The math professors, Internet smart-alecks, and other football quants who are always writing about how the numbers show that coaches should go for it more often on fourth and short now know why coaches mostly don't.

Bill Belichick chose to go for it on fourth and two with the game in the balance last night. The Pats' subsequent failure to convert and the Colts' even-more-subsequent 35-34 victory means that decision was and will continue to be the subject of some talk, especially hereabouts. It being a second-guesser's universe, the call is destined to go down in history as the equivalent of putting one's life savings in a big chuck of Bear, Stearns stock in January, 2008. The nice prudent punt that would have given Peyton Manning the ball needing to go 70 yards in two minutes to win will be held up as an example of why the phrase "conventional wisdom" does contain that last word.

The second guess is as overwrought as those "damn the torpedoes" equations arguing that teams essentially don't need punters at all. Calls that don't work aren't always bad calls. Math and the in-game human circumstances facing Belichick were on the side of the decision he made. They just didn't justify the size of the bet he made with the call.

It is, in a way, a tribute to the Pats' coach that he ignored the primal reason 999 out of 1000 NFL head coaches would have punted when he did not. Belichick did not start his decision-making process with the question, "What happens if this doesn't work?" Most coaches' strategic choices in all sports are in effect decisions to postpone the decision. Play for time, extend the game and put the burden of winning or losing on the other guy. Playing the percentages means postponing them.

Belichick, to his credit, saw the situation from the positive side of the equation. Faced with the choice of having Tom Brady try to make one play to win, or trying to stop Manning from making five or six plays to keep from losing, he went with his best player as the preferred option.

Belichick forced the issue. THIS will be the play that decides the game. He went all-in with a good hand, with aces, and the Colts defense cracked them. In the World Series of Poker last week, Phil Ivey went all-in with A-K against a guy he perceived correctly had Q-J, and got toasted on the flop. Nobody then said, "Boy, that's the worst call of Ivey's career." They said, "that's gambling." Poker is a game built entirely on percentages, and the smartest people in it know that the ultimate truth about percentages is that they're ratios, not guarantees.

And yet, while I understand Belichick's decision, and it would be satisfyingly contrarian to defend it wholeheartedly, I cannot. Based on the Pats' performance during the game to that point, I believe the coach underrated the viability of the prudent punt. In other words, he dissed his defense more than was warranted.

At that moment, the Colts had had 13 possessions. Four had been shockingly easy, and more relevantly, quick, touchdown drives. But seven had ended in punts, and two in interceptions. Leaving aside how much more difficult game-winning TD drives are than drives for game-winning field goals, the Pats' D already had a better than 67 percent success rate against Manning. I believe Belichick let the memory of Indianapolis' last possession, one of those very quick scores, affect his judgment.

But then, he was there, looking into the eyes and feeling the collective will of the defense. If Belichick truly thought those guys were gassed, I can't argue with that assessment. I would say, however, that a precedent has been set, and not a good one from the Pats' point of view. Game plan meetings for the Jets this week, and for all future Pats' opponents, are going to begin with the statement, "Belichick doesn't believe his defense can stop us when it counts." That's an exaggeration, as Manning does not lead just any NFL offense, but it has a grain or two of truth. The Pats are going to win with offense, and they know it. Imbalanced football teams are easier to prepare for -- and to beat.

Or maybe I'm overthinking this entirely (gosh, it's great the way the Internet has space for equivocation). Perhaps an extraordinarily competitive man got caught up in the frenzy of an extraordinary competition. Maybe Belichick just WANTED to gamble.

After Pickett's Charge, another late-game play call that didn't pan out for the visiting team, three Confederate generals had three different postgame thoughts, all of which can be applied to to Belichick's decision.

Richard Ewell, commander II Corps, said "It took a dozen errors to lose the battle of Gettysburg, and I committed a good many of them."

No one point loss hinges on a single play. Two turnovers in the Colts' end zone and wretched time management (which is on Belichick) were as responsible for the Pats' defeat as the choice to go for it.

James Longstreet, commander I Corps, said of his immediate superior and commanding general, "When the hunt was up, his aggressiveness became overwhelming."

Robert E. Lee, commander Army of Northern Virginia, said "It is all my fault. I thought my men were invincible."

No men are invincible. Not even Hall of Fame quarterbacks. That's why punters have steady jobs.


At 4:08 PM, Anonymous rakeback said...

Great coach/terrible call. Whether the play succeeded or not, you just cant go for it on 4th down on your own 28 yard line with a 6 point lead this late in the game. Make the Colts go 80 yards to beat you.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Hieronymus said...

I disagree with the assessment that going for it on 4th & 2 was "dissing" the defense. Leigh Bodden said it best, when he said that it meant Belichick felt the defense was up to the task of stopping Manning on a short field if the play didn't work, a far cry from dissing the defense.

Still believe it was a good, defensible play that just didn't work out.


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