Commentary

It's all good (It's not all good)

Question Bill Belichick? Not unless we're willing to question that face in the mirror first.

Originally Published: November 23, 2009
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?
--Anton Chigurh

A couple of quick thoughts this week about cognition and risk and reward, about French movie stars and American innards and about statistical voodoo and about you and about me.

Think of Bill Belichick, and the Dobie Gillis sweatshirts, and think of New England's win yesterday. Now think of its loss the week before, and of everything you've heard and read about it since, and about how crazy or sane "The Decision" was, and about the jittery New Age of Belichickian Recklessness it must usher in, and about how rolling the dice on fourth-and-2 and coming up craps maybe means he's lost his mud or he's lost his mind, but that it All Must Somehow Mean A Very Great Deal To Those Of Us Who Think And Write And Derive Deep Meaning From The NFL.

OK.

Me, I'll just start with a page out of last season's football sketchbook, the night of a game between the limited-edition Brett Favre Jets and the New England Patriots. This is on a soft evening in September, early in an undecided season, still warm, the Meadowlands sky slowly edging to black above the lights, and the Pats have just put the Jets away 19-10.

Most of the players are still cycling in and out of the showers, still doing their interviews, not yet headed for the buses. The first few out of the locker rooms stand in the tunnel, huge, their hair still wet, chatting. The fans are gone from the seats, working their way out to their cars. The parking lot is a slow river of lights, and there's a breeze blowing like the last of summer across it all.

I'm standing in the tunnel with a notebook on behalf of The New York Times, waiting to chase ol' Brett Favre to that bus for a quote.

[+] EnlargeBelichick
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonWhat is Bill Belichick listening to on that headset? His gut, or his knowledge of football?
That's when he walks past me on his way back out to the field. Unrecognizable in a perfectly cut, perfectly draped three-button suit.

Not Brett Favre.

Bill Belichick.

Immaculate. The suit looks custom cut, dark, deep gray, and falls across his shoulders like it was poured there, as weightless and beautiful as music. His jacket is open and his necktie is loose at the collar and on his arm is a stunning blonde, and they walk out into that light and onto the green of that field like Fred and Ginger and they smile at one another and laugh and that breeze lifts Belichick's tie and it streams out behind him like the pennant on a cutter, like a pirate's kerchief, all swash and buckle, and for a moment the Great American Football Cerebrum, the heartless Dark Lord, is transformed into something more human than human, wind in his hair and all movie-star sex and provocation, all manly dental enamel and easy style and careless bravery and all he needs is a Gitane pinned to his lip and he's Yves Montand or Jean-Paul Belmondo and it's Paris, 1960.

Strangest thing I've ever seen.

But it explains completely -- to me, at least -- his decision more than a year later to go for it on fourth-and-2 against the Colts, to try to win a game by protecting a lead by taking a calculated risk.

Because the Belichick we almost never see or hear about -- the riverboat high roller in that well-cut suit of shantung silk, all id and appetite and with a smile like new money -- is as much a part of those sideline decisions as the 200-gig risk/reward processor we've been taught by convention and the failed imagination of American sports writing to expect.

Montand
Reg Lancaster/Getty ImagesWere Yves Montand and Bill Belichick ever seen in the same room at the same time?
With the percentages on his side, even if only by a single point, Belichick makes the right choice. (Think of it this way: If someone offered you a 1 percent upgrade in your outcomes at any casino in the world -- an improvement that cost you nothing -- you'd be a fool not to take it, right? That's all we're talking about.)

But this is America at the turn of the 21st century, which means that we love science -- except when we disagree with science. We love numbers -- except when we disagree with numbers. We love risk -- except when we disagree with risk. (You want reckless? Here's reckless.)

In fact, for a nation that engineered its fortune on risk and ingenuity, America remains weirdly schizophrenic and unconvinced by the assertions of either its guts or its science.

But whether blog or tweet or big-city byline, we've all got to make our word count this week, right?

So as the sports page and the business section teach us, if you trust the gut, we'll rub the numbers in your face. Trust those numbers and we'll sucker punch you in the gut.

Because in a nation of 300 million harebrained schemers and critics, it's not Bill Belichick that's crazy.

It's us.

The problem is not that we as a species are in possession of these two sets of conflicting faculties, intuition and cognition, but that after a thousand human generations we have yet to reconcile them.

[+] EnlargeJean-Paul Belmondo
AFP/Getty ImagesWWJPBD? (What would Jean-Paul Belmondo do on fourth-and-2?)
So here on the sports page, that means we repeatedly fail to integrate evidence with empathy, or temper numbers with guts, or leaven science with superstition. And we hedge these failures by staking out positions of convenience rather than conviction.

Thus it becomes the bedrock premise of bad sports writing -- both old-skool and new -- to mock what we do not understand, and to condemn what we cannot ourselves embrace. To question decisions we have no stake in, and to second-guess everything except ourselves.

(Which over the last few decades has led us away from actual insight, and toward inert, empty spectacle and the creation of more precise new sporting statistics with which to obscure the nature of the games we play and to better misunderstand one another. And more broadly has led us also into Iraq and Afghanistan and crippling debt, but that's another column.)

To question decisions like the one Bill Belichick made that weekend -- and made again last weekend and will make again next weekend and hundreds of times every weekend thereafter until the day he retires -- is to admit a kind of childlike egocentrism about outcomes.

You need to win?

You can't afford to lose?

That's not about Bill Belichick.

That was never about Bill Belichick.

That's about you.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.