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Belichick, Peyton Manning, and 4th down decisions

Posted by Chase Stuart on November 16, 2009

Internet message boards, twitter feeds and sports media are blowing up over Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th and 2 from his own 28-yard line, up by six points, with 2:08 remaining. First, a quick review of the play.

The Pats came out with three WRs to Brady's left, with Wes Welker the nearest receiver to Brady on that side of the field. On Brady's right was Randy Moss isolated out wide, with Kevin Faulk in the backfield. Indy came out looking like they were going to blitz six -- they had the four WRs in tight, man-coverage, and safety Melvin Bullitt about fifteen yards deep to Brady's right. Brady then sent #33, Kevin Faulk, to go line up as the inside WR on the right side, and #33 (Bullitt) for the Colts came in to line up against him. Indy was now going to rush six against NE's five, while NE knew all five of their WRs were in single coverage. Brady recognized that he was going to have to make a quick and accurate pass.

It turns out that Faulk was the primary read all along, as he took twp steps, did a quick fake left, and then curled right just a yard or so past the first-down marker. Since the drive started after a touchback, the Pats needed to get to exactly the 30-yard line for the first down. The ball hit Faulk's hands but he bobbled the ball; Bullitt pushed Faulk backwards, and by the time he landed with possession of the ball, he was on New England's side of the 30-yard line.

So... did Belichick make the right call by deciding to go for it on 4th and 2 from his own 28? It goes without saying that New England made a significant blunder by using two timeouts on that drive, including an inexplicable timeout called before leaving the huddle on first down. Had the Pats had even one timeout left, they could have challenged Kevin Faulk's catch (based on the replays we saw, I don't think there was enough evidence to overturn the call, but NBC viewers hardly got to see every angle of that play).

Just about all of the players, former players, and members of the mainstream media are blasting Belichick's decision. JKL told me he thought it was the right move last night. Neil posted this morning that he agrees. Brian Burke strongly supports the move. Here's how I view it:

1) Over the past five NFL seasons, the average conversion rate on a 3rd- or 4th-and-two is 56%. Now what factors make this different than average?

  • The Pats were on the road, in a very loud and hostile environment. On the other hand, the play is taking place in a dome, where it's a little bit easier to pass.
  • Indianapolis has a very good pass defense statistically, but the Colts secondary had been depleted due to injuries in the past couple of weeks. The Colts pass defense was probably below average at this point, and Brady was 28/41 for 374 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT (9.5 AY/A) on the night heading in to that play.
  • The Pats had just failed in this exact position a few seconds ago. Additionally, this was a high-pressure play, but I don't see why the pressure wouldn't affect both teams evenly on this play. I don't think either of these factors are significant.
  • This was harder than your typical 3rd- or 4th-and-two situation because the defense was only going to be playing for the first down. In a normal 3rd-and-two, the defense has to still worry about a big play, and can't sell out to stop a two-yard gain. Here, the Colts could do that. In effect, that makes this much more similar to a two-point conversion than a 3rd-and-two. Last year, Brian Burke said that two-point conversions are successful about 44% of the time in the NFL.
  • On the other hand, this was still a little bit easier than a typical two-point attempt. The back of the end zone isn't an extra defender, you can send two WRs deep to take two DBs with them, leaving the WRs you care about with more room to operate. And the Colts could have only showed blitz and faked it (which they did with one of their two blitzers), allowing NE the time to take advantage of that.

After factoring in all of those things, where do you put the percentages at of NE converting the first down? I don't know the answer. The best I can do is estimate, and I'll estimate those odds at 60%. Now we need to know the odds of the Colts scoring the game-winning touchdown from either the Pats 28-yard line or, roughly, the Colts 32-yard line (following a 40-yard net punt). What are those odds? Going 28 yards in 2 minutes with one timeout is certainly easier than going 68 yards in 2 minutes with one timeout. But how much easier?

The table below shows the break-even probabilities necessary for the 68-yard drive, assuming the given probability for the 28-yard drive.

28 yds	68 yds
90%	36%
85%	34%
80%	32%
75%	30%
70%	28%
65%	26%
60%	24%
55%	22%
50%	20%
45%	18%
40%	16%
35%	14%
30%	12%
25%	10%

So, if you think the Colts had a 75% chance of scoring from the Patriots' 28, then if you think the Colts had a better than 30% chance of driving 68 yards for the score, Belichick was right; if you think the Colts had a lower than 30% chance of driving that far, Belichick was wrong. If you think the Colts had a 90% chance of scoring once the Pats missed the conversion, then if you think the Colts had a better than 36% chance of scoring the game-winning touchdown from the 68, then Belichick was right; if Indianapolis' odds would have been lower than that, Belichick was wrong.

What are the actual odds? I don't know. You don't know. I'll never know. You'll never know. But we can think this through a little bit more carefully.

We know that the last few yards of a drive are always the toughest, because the field gets a lot smaller the closer the offense gets to the end zone. Therefore, we can stipulate that driving 28 yards is NOT half as easy as driving 56 yards. Think of a 56-yard drive as a 28-yard drive to the 28, and then a 28-yard drive to the end zone. The first "drive" is always going to be easier than the second one. Let's assume you have a 70% (just picking a number) chance of scoring from the 28; you must have a greater than 49% chance (0.70*0.70) of scoring from your own 44-yard line, ignoring things like time on the clock. We're talking abstractly here. If you have a 70% chance of scoring on the short drive, you probably have something closer to a 55% chance of scoring on the longer drive.

Now here, we're looking at a 28-yard drive vs. a 68-yard drive. Here, I think the long drive is about "twice as hard" to convert as the short drive. If you have a 70% chance of converting on the short drive, maybe you have a 49% chance of scoring on the long drive. The big element we're leaving out here is the time on the clock: Peyton Manning only had two minutes to drive his team, not all day. On the other hand, the Pats were much more likely to have time to kick a game-winning FG following a Colts score if they went for it than if they punted; on the short field, Manning's more likely to leave some time on the clock. Do these two factors cancel each other out? I don't know.

So what are the odds of the Colts driving 28 or 68 yards with 1 timeout, 2 minutes to go, at home against that New England defense? I don't know. Brian Burke says teams needing 66 yards to go (he assumed a net punt of 38 yards) convert around 30% of the time; surely for Peyton Manning, it would be much higher. Conversely, while here Manning has four downs and won't settle for a field goal (things that make the Colts more likely to score a TD than normally), the Colts have nowhere near a 2:1 ratio of offensive drives to offensive touchdowns. As good as the Colts offense is, they don't normally score TDs on half of their possessions that begin on their side of the field. And while that extra down (and motivation to not settle for the field goal) helps, they're also up against the clock.

I think a reasonable prediction for the Colts to drive for a TD following a punt is 40%; better than league average, but I still would have expected the Pats to win the game if they punted. Had Peyton Manning driven the Colts down the field to win, it would have been an outstanding drive, not one I would say was more likely than not to happen. Giving the Colts a 40% chance of scoring the long touchdown basically ends the analysis; only if the Colts were exactly 100% likely to score a touchdown following a failed 4th-down-attempt would it make the probabilities even. Since the Colts were not guaranteed to score on the short drive, going for it was the right call.

To assign some final probabilities to the situation, punting would give the Pats a roughly 60% chance to win (ignoring things like blocked punts, quick IND scores followed by NE scores, etc.). Going for it would give the Pats a 70% chance to win (60% chance to win following a successful 4th-down play, and a 1-in-4 chance of stopping the Colts the other 40% of the time). While we're using very fuzzy math here, I doubt you can come up with convincing math that says it was overwhelmingly a bad call to go for it here.

I will say this -- and not just because I don't like the Patriots. Thank goodness the play went down the way it did. Can you imagine the reaction if Faulk cleanly caught the ball?

Michaels: "And do they make it? Yes the catch is made. Kevin Faulk is there. First down New England!

Collinsworth: "Wow! Can you believe it! Is there ever any doubt that when you need a big play to be made that Kevin Faulk will make it?"

Michaels: "Time after time Kevin Faulk has been a hero for the Patriots, and quite often against these Indianapolis Colts. Just a terrific play by one of the most underrated players in NFL history."

Collinsworth: "Kevin Faulk can do it all. And let me tell you one guy who doesn't underrate Kevin Faulk; that's his QB Tom Brady. It says quite a lot about how valuable the Patriots think this guy is to their team that with the game on the line, on a team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, they trust Kevin Faulk to make the catch."

Michaels: "And why not? He always does."

Well, except this time. Faulk's catch wasn't easy, but it should have been made cleanly. He was one-on-one with a backup safety. The pass hit his hands. If he catches the ball, the Patriots win and he's the hero. If he drops the ball, Belichick becomes the goat. And that's why most coaches never go for it in that situation.