Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Morning Quarterback

Last night's Patriots-Colts game ended in spectacular fashion, with the majority of the sports world coming down hard on Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th and 2 from his own 28 yard line with just over two minutes remaining.  The Patriots led by 6, and Indy had 1 timeout remaining.  The Colts had fought back from deficits of 17 points to start the 4th quarter, and 13 points with only 4 minutes remaining.

After watching Indy put together two quick 79 yard touchdown drives, each taking roughly two minutes (5 and 6 plays respectively), Belichick didn't want to give Indy QB Peyton Manning a chance to win the game, and elected to try to convert a first down, which would have sealed the game for the Patriots.

Obviously, when Belichick's gamble failed, the entire Monday Morning QB universe came down on him for his "horrendous decision."  Advanced NFL Stats, however, attempts to quantify the expected value of the decision to go for it instead of punting:

"With 2:00 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A 4th and 2 conversion would be successful 60% of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from that field position. The total WP for the 4th down conversion attempt would therefore be:

(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their own 34. Teams historically get the TD 30% of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You'd have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats' 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it's pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash."

What seems like an asinine decision is actually probably pretty close when you run the numbers.  Obviously, the probabilities are not exact - Indy may be more likely (maybe 70%)  to score from the Patriots 30 yard line, and less likely to score from their own 35 yard line with 2 minutes and one timeout.  New England may be closer to 70% to convert the first down attempt.  Indy also may get better field position if New England punts - or they may fumble the punt (like Buffalo fumbled the Pats' kickoff with 2 minutes remaining in week 1!) - it's not an exact science.  The point is that perhaps Belichick's apparently insane decision wasn't quite as crazy as it seemed.  I'd use the estimates of 70% for New England to convert the first down, 70% for Indy to score if the Patriots failed to get the first down, and 30% for Indy to score if they got the ball inside their own 35 yard line.  Those assumptions yield a win percentage of 79% for "going for it" and 70% for "punting."  I think we actually need to DECREASE the win percentage for "punting" though, because Indy may get better field position.

Now, what I have a problem with is the strategy change the Pats made in the fourth quarter - playing a softer defense - not quite a prevent D, but one that allowed Manning to pick them apart for two quick scoring drives.  Against many teams, when you're up by 17, this strategy is ok - but against Peyton Manning and the Colts, who run a precision no huddle offense, taking less than 12 seconds to re-snap the ball after each completion, time just doesn't become an issue for them.    Similarly, when the Patriots had the ball on their final two drives, they shouldn't have tried to kill the clock - they should have kept up the offensive pressure that Indy couldn't stop all game long.

Anyway, this was a gutwrenching loss for Pats fans - it will be interesting to see if the anger at Belichick is tempered over the next week as fans try to understand his likely considerations - or if they will view him as having jumped the shark and become a crazy old man.



Bayne_S said...

If I am a defensive player for the Pats I am pissed at the lack of confidence the coach showed.

If I am offensive player I am disappointed that we failed to execute when coach showed such confidence.

But as an outside I am impressed that Coach was willing to make a decision where he will be lauded or shredded post game instead of players.

SirFWALGMan said...

Good Analysis. I am not a numbers guy (as my poker game shows) but I liked Bill going for it. Sad it did not work out. Indy had been KILLING the Pats all quarter. Why anyone thinks the punting would have made this huge difference is odd to me. Obviously if we win he is the hero, if we lose he is the villain. It is always that way in Boston.

getyourselfconnected said...

Thanks for the unbiased look. Here in Patriots nation everyone is all whining about the call, but it was the right one. That call on Faulk was one of the more outragous subjective referee decisions I have ever seen, but thems the breaks.

Anyone that thinks the Colts would not have scored with 2 full minutes left obviously were not watching the same game I was. The Colts would have scored from anywhere and that was what Bill B was thinking.

You are right about the changed defensive set. Just as in the AFC title game in 2006, the Patriots were blowing out the Colts last night and Manning looked regular. Swap in a stupid dime zone defense instead of the press play they were playing and Presto! 21 points. Puzzling indeed.

I am a confused, angry, and dissapointed Pats fan today. Still, good to see the offense putting it together finally. Maybe a rematch in the playofs? Can anyone beat the Bengals!?

Sorry for the long comment, but that game was wild.

Kid Dynamite said...

@bayne - that's a whole other issue - the fact that BB now has to explain himself to his defense, and explain that it wasn't about a lack of confidence (even though it was!)

@Getyourselfconnected: i'm glad my view came across as unbiased - i'm anything but - i'm a huge pats fan, and I was on the phone with my dad as they were lining up to go for it screaming "WHAT THE FUCK ARE THEY DOING!?!?"

and yes, i think that spot Faulk got was a total hometown call, and that the offense gets that spot at least 95% of the time in the NFL, but it's also a rule i hate (super generous forward progress marking) so I can't complain

getyourselfconnected said...

had no idea you were a big Pats fan so yes, your opinion seemed clear to me!

They lost fair and square and all that but...
I cannot help but wonder if the refs were like "they are going on 4th down, bad idea but could be a huge finish" and set that spot accordingly.

Mitch said...

Probably the most exciting game ever for the season. Loved it. Indeed, one team's victory is a just the fans' reward. Things happen for a reason. Let's just stop bothering Bill anymore. Thanks for sharing.

Kevin said...

I think the analysis is weak and is deliberately skewed toward making it look a good decision, since that is what is what will get those guys press (they were featured in the Boston Globe today).

The key element is that they have stats for fourth and 2 from different parts of the field. But this is not a typical fourth and 2 from your own 28. In normal 4th and short situations (early to middle of the game) teams cannot overcommit to stopping a short yardage play and risk giving up a big play. In goal line 4th down situations this is also the case, which is why the conversion rate is lower as you get closer to the defense's end zone.

It's also the case here, since there is no difference in outcome between a 3 yard gain and a Pats TD on the play. Thus, the pats make a conservative play call (they have no incentive to risk tyring to make a big play) trying to maximize any gain over 2 yards and Indy plays a more risky defense trying to stop a short gain. This is much more like 4th and goal from the 2 then a normal 4th and 2 in your own territory. Indy's defense still has to defend a long field, but they have little incentive to defend it well.

So I disagree the pats are 70% to get the first, I think its closer to 50%.

I looked and tried to find where they got their TD percents for two yardlines, 2 minutes left and 1 timeout and could not find it. But 30% and 53% seem not right. My intuition is that this spread should be bigger. I'd love to see the data that backs it up.

None of this is going to change that it is a close decision, but they are overstating one side.

Kid Dynamite said...

great points, Kevin, and Steve Young made another good point last night on the MNF pregame - he said that he'd like the decision if it was made in the "normal flow of the game" - since Indy would have been caught totally off guard - but once N.E. called timeout, it gave Indy a chance to consider that the Pats might actually snap the ball, and the element of surprise was essentially lost