Commentary

Belichick's fourth-and-reckless

Updated: December 4, 2009, 9:56 AM ET
By Bill Simmons | ESPN.com

In baseball, statistics permeate every aspect of the game. And they should. It's an individual sport. You are on your own. If a major league team hired a computer programmer to build a GM program over hiring an actual human being, the GM program probably wouldn't embarrass itself. It would be like the auto-pilot option in a fantasy draft. The computer believes we need a higher OBP guy who takes a ton of pitches, and it believes we can sacrifice above-average defense in an outfield spot. It recommends that we pursue Bobby Abreu. Do you even need to watch baseball anymore to have an educated opinion? It's unclear.

In football? Statistics can help. Absolutely. But you still need to watch games to have an educated opinion. After my beloved Patriots threw away Sunday's Colts game with one unnecessarily dangerous decision, my educated opinion was this: "That's the second dumbest thing I have ever seen any Boston team do." It trumped Darrell Johnson pitching Jim Burton in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. It trumped K.C. Jones playing Fred Roberts ahead of Reggie Lewis for the entire 1988 playoffs. It trumped Raymond Berry starting Tony Eason in Super Bowl XX. It trumped everything except Grady/Pedro in 2003.

At the time, I remember watching the Patriots line up -- fourth-and-2, up six, 123 seconds to play, own 28-yard line -- and thinking, "It's OK, they're trying to get the Colts to freak out and burn their last timeout." Then, they snapped the ball. Huh? Kevin Faulk hauled in a pass on the 30.3-yard line. It was spotted at the 29. These are the things that happen when you double on a 12 against a six because you believe -- fervently -- that a slew of non-face cards are coming. You might be right, but you shouldn't do it.

Colts ball. You know the rest.

I spent the next 15 minutes in a surreal state: part anger, part confusion, and part "What the eff just happened?" The good news? I finally understood how Eagles fans felt rooting for a team helmed by Andy Reid. When your coach lets you down with a decision that makes no sense, it's like riding in the passenger seat of a friend's car and helplessly watching as he plows over a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

Wait, what just happened? Didn't we hit that guy? I could swear we just hit that guy. (Everything slowly starts registering.) Wait, we have to go back!!!! GO BACK! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, GO BACK!!!! WE HIT THAT GUY!

That's the thing: There's no going back. I always thought we were in good hands, especially in close games, thanks to an incredibly prepared coach with a knack for making shrewd moves at the right times. Can we say that anymore? The Patriots have five monster defeats since winning Super Bowl XXXIX -- 2005 (Denver, playoffs); 2006 (Indy, AFC title game); 2007 (Giants, Super Bowl XLII); 2008 (Indy, regular season); 2009 (Indy, regular season) -- in which they self-destructed in decidedly un-Belichickian ways. Five years of bad luck and bullet-ridden shoes are starting to add up. So are the soul-crushing last-minute drives by other teams.

Did I throw my remote control on Sunday night? Of course I did. Did it break? Sadly, not the way I wanted. Did it feel good? Not really. I walked my dog, did some robo-sulking and went to sleep believing I would wake up with a nation of football fans who agreed that, yes, the fourth-and-2 call was one of the dumbest in recent sports history. When my editor e-mailed me asking whether I planned to write a column about it, I thought to myself, "Column? About that? What would the angle be? Should I interview the remote control I broke?"

There was no angle other than "What the f--- was Belichick thinking?" None.

Or so I thought.


See, I never expected that fourth-and-2 call to turn into a lively sports debate. And I certainly never expected statistics to back up what seemed to be an unforgivable decision. The numbers were crunched by a variety of people, including ESPN's own Alok Pattani, who reported the win probability variables for all three scenarios on fourth-and-2.

Scenario A (if the Pats converted): "The Patriots' average win probability [was] 92 percent." Before Sunday night, "the league average going for it on fourth-and-2 over the past two seasons [was] 55.7 percent (49-for-88)."

Scenario B (if they failed to convert): "[Colts ball] on roughly the New England 29-yard line with 2 minutes to go. The Patriots' win probability in this situation would be 66 percent."

(Important note: If you were sitting next to a bookie after the Pats blew fourth-and-2, and that bookie said to you, "The odds of the Colts winning here are 34 percent; I will give you 3-to-1 odds that they score," would you have taken that wager in a millisecond or a kajillasecond? I think we can throw that number out. Whatever.)

Scenario C (if they punted): "Using Patriots punter Chris Hanson's average of 44 net yards per punt in the game, the Colts would have gotten the ball at the Indianapolis 28. The Patriots' win probability in this situation would be 79 percent."

Combine all these variables and what do we have? According to a formula called "Expected Win Probability When Going For It," Pattani believed that the Patriots had an 80.5 chance of winning the game. By punting, they had a 79.0 chance of winning. So my argument (made on Monday's podcast) that Bill Belichick should have "played the percentages and punted" was technically wrong. Barely. Belichick did play the percentages if you took those percentages at face value.

I am not disputing the numbers or the methods for achieving them. But by Monday night, based on various columns and message boards (as well as e-mails to my reader mailbox), you would have thought Belichick was a genius for blowing the game. He played the percentages! It wasn't as crazy as it looked! By this logic, Belichick also should have held a loaded pistol to his head on the sideline, spun the chamber and tried to shoot himself like Chris Walken in "The Deer Hunter." If those 1-in-6 odds came through and he succeeded, we could have said, "Hey, he played the percentages: 83.6666 percent of the time, you don't die in that situation! You can't blame him for what happened!"

Which brings us back to statistics. Yes, they enhance the discussion. Many times. (FYI: The "to punt or not to punt" numbers, in general, are interesting. You can make a strong case that good offenses should almost always go for it on fourth-and-short beyond their own 40.) There are also times when statistics make that same discussion dumber. For instance, a former Mavericks statistician named Wayne Winston recently debuted a complicated plus-minus statistic for basketball that included the following two revelations:

1. Kevin Durant made the 2008-09 Zombie Sonics worse.
2. Tim Thomas is underrated.

(Deep breath.)

I don't want to get into my thoughts about plus-minus data and all the inherent problems with it. Some other time. We'll ignore the Durant lunacy for now. But to argue, insinuate or even blink that Tim Thomas is underrated -- by any metric -- cannot be allowed.

Forget statistics; here are hard-core facts. Thomas mailed in five years of a six-year deal in Milwaukee and Chicago, tried hard for four months in Phoenix, roped the Clippers into another four-year deal, then went on cruise control again. You know how I know this? I went to the effing games. I watched Thomas jog up and down for 48 minutes with the intensity of a drive-through attendant. I watched him stare at JumboTrons during timeouts like a stoned college student gazing into a fish tank. I watched one game in which I was convinced he had made a bet with someone that he could play four quarters without ever crossing either 3-point line. He sucked defensively, made no effort to connect with teammates, reacted to loose balls as though he was allergic to them and took ill-advised shots at the worst possible times. The losing bounced off him like a racquetball. Two years into his contract, I nicknamed him "The Thief" because he was basically stealing from the Clippers.

If you're creating a formula that determines Tim Thomas is underrated, the thesis has to be this: "You might think Tim Thomas is totally useless and a one-man swine flu for how he infects a team spiritually and psychologically, but actually, he's only 96.7 percent useless, and here's why." That, I would accept. Anything else? I cannot accept it unless it's offered with the caveat, "As soon as my formula told me that Tim Thomas was underrated, I erased that formula from my hard drive, then set my computer on fire with a blowtorch."

The "Belichick made the right move" argument was nearly as dense. In the biggest game of the regular season, when a football coach tries something that -- and this is coming from someone who watches 12 hours of football every Sunday dating back to elementary school -- I cannot remember another team doing on the road in the last three minutes of a close game, that's not "gutsy." It's not a "gamble." It's not "believing we can get that two yards." It's not "revolutionary." It's not "statistically smart." It's reckless. It's something that should happen only in video games, and only when you and your roommate are both high.

Again, this wasn't a blackjack-type situation in which you can have a computer break down those fourth-and-2 variables a katrillion times, then break down the percentages definitively. Let's examine every possible defense of that decision.

Inane Angle No. 1: "Statistically, it was the right move"

So we're saying 55.7 percent, huh? That's the success rate for a road team playing its biggest rival, in a deafeningly loud dome, coming out of a timeout -- a timeout that allowed the defense to get a breather and determine exactly how to stop the obvious five-receiver spread that was coming because the offense's running game sucked -- along with that same defense getting extra fired up because it was being disrespected so egregiously/willfully/blatantly/incomprehensibly. I say lower. By a lot.

Statistics can't capture the uniqueness of a particular moment, and in this case -- with the Pats self-combusting, with a sure victory suddenly slipping away, with the crowd going bonkers, with a fired-up defense gearing up to stop them, with an obvious play looming (a short pass), and with everything happening during a drive that was already so disjointed that they had called two timeouts -- I find it really, really, REALLY hard to believe they would have completed that play 56 times out of 100 times with how they lined up. They spread the field with five receivers, eliminating any chance of a run. The Colts brought pressure -- happily -- ensuring a quick pass and a short field (so Indy's D-backs could hug the line of scrimmage). Given these realities, if you're feeding me "Here's what happened in this situation historically" numbers, shouldn't we be looking at the data for two-point conversions?

After all, this was essentially a two-point pass play. The Patriots went five wide, stuck Tom Brady in the shotgun, shortened the field and tried to find a quick-hit mismatch. Sure sounds like a two-point play. So what's the recent history of teams passing for a two-point conversion on the road? Peter Newmann from ESPN Research crunched those numbers for me.

2009: 9-for-28, .321 (overall); 3-for-10, .300 (road).
2008: 23-for-52, .442 (overall); 13-for-32, .406 (road).
2007: 14-for-38, .368 (overall); 6-for-23, .261 (road).

Yikes. In the past two and a half years, road teams successfully executed two-point passes 22 of 65 times (34 percent). Admittedly, the Patriots have a better passing offense than just about any other team; they also were throwing the ball effectively against Indy's battered secondary. Which is what made that specific decision so frustrating: By not showing even a threat of a run, they eliminated the possibilities of a draw, a play-action pass, a delayed screen, a designed rollout or anything else that would have made the Colts say, "We have to be prepared for anything here," and soften their coverage.

That decision unwittingly dropped New England's odds for success to 1-in-3; by settling for a quick bam-bam pass, they also increased their own odds for a deflection, drop or bad spot. Statistically, it was a dumb choice. Their biggest assets on a fourth-and-2 were the field, the threat of Randy Moss going deep, the threat of a draw or a delayed screen, and the threat of a run. They ignored all four things. You cannot tell me the odds for success here were 55.7 percent for that specific formation at that specific moment in time. You cannot. Just stop.

One other note: The "disrespecting the defense" card doesn't show up in stats. There's no way to measure the collective ability of a defense to raise its game for one play, as the fans shout the team on with every ounce of air in their lungs, while being fueled by a legitimately mind-blowing slight. In postgame interviews, four Colts defensive starters mentioned the words "disrespect" or "disrespected." And they were. We cannot account for this variable, just as we can't account for the difference of trying a fourth-and-2 in a deafening dome versus trying it at home against a lethargic Falcons teams in mid-September. I know it's fun to think stats can settle everything, but they can't, and they don't.

Insane Angle No. 2: "If they punted, Manning would have rolled down the field and scored, anyway."

Really? That's what would have happened? He would have needed something between 65 and 72 yards, with one timeout and no help from a two-minute warning, against a relatively rested New England defense that was thin in the front four. The Colts had run only 22 plays in the second half; the Patriots had run 37. It's true. And it's not as though Indy's passing game had been lighting it up. The young guys flubbed a few relatively easy catches during the game; on their drive to cut the lead from 34-21 to 34-28, the biggest play was a dubious 31-yard pass interference penalty. Of their previous seven drives, two ended in interceptions and three in punts, and two were six-play, 79-yard drives for touchdowns.

Put it this way: The Colts weren't exactly on fire. Admittedly, I am terrified of Manning and have written as much. But Indy had already started and completed two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter against a good defense. Had the Patriots punted, Indy would have had to pull off a third long touchdown drive to win the game. I asked Peter Newmann to research the number of times a team started and completed three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to erase a double-digit deficit and win an NFL game since 2005. Here's how the list looked before that fourth-and-2 call.

2005: 1
2006: 2
2007: 0
2008: 1
2009: 0

In 78 weeks of football dating back to 2005, it happened a whopping four times. Four! If you're playing the statistics card, why not play that one? By punting, the Patriots would have been asking Peyton Manning to pull off something THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN EVEN ONCE EVERY EFFING SEASON. You're damned right I just went all caps. Hold on, I have to repeatedly bang my head against my desk again.

(Ow.)

(Damn!)

(Ouch!)

(Uh-oh, my left eye is starting to swell up like Brad's after Darrell whupped his ass on "The Ruins" this week. Let's keep going.)

Insane Angle No. 3: "I thought we could get the 2 yards."

That's what Belichick said after the game. Look, I'm glad he felt that way. But isn't life about resisting the urge to try something reckless just because you thought you could do it?

For instance, I had to drive from Seattle to Portland on Wednesday morning. The following factors were in play:

A. I like to drive fast, as you know. We were going to visit Nike, located in Beaverton, Ore., exactly 169 miles from our Seattle hotel. Our Nike connection made the mistake of telling me that it would take about three hours to get there. This was like telling the Colts defense, "We're going for it on fourth-and-2." My driving felt disrespected. I decided we could get there in two hours. Easy. My two friends with me (Lewis and House) were alternately terrified and excited by this proclamation. I didn't care. Like Belichick, I thought I could do it.

B. I had just polished off a 20-ounce coffee from Tully's -- no Starbucks on this Seattle stop, in honor of all the Sonics fans who swore off Starbucks because Howard "The Traitor" Schultz sold the team to someone who obviously planned on moving it -- and felt as though I had just done three rails of coke. I was wired and zoned in.

C. I was driving a white Grand Marquis that looked like a car Big Pussy would have driven in Season 1 of "The Sopranos." When am I ever going to drive a white Grand Marquis again? FLOOR THAT SUCKER!!!!

D. Seattle loves me for defending its Sonics after Clay Bennett hijacked the team and moved it elsewhere. If there was ever a place I could get out of a speeding ticket, it's Seattle. Or so I thought.

Anyway, I shot out of Seattle like a bat out of hell. We were weaving between lanes and going about 90. Twenty minutes into the drive, still in the outskirts of Seattle, we were arguing about why navigation systems don't come with different voices -- for example, we should be able to have Morgan Freeman be our nav-narrator-or, even better, Sam Jackson as Jules in "Pulp Fiction" ("I told you to take a motherf---ing right, you dumbass!) -- and I stopped paying attention to things like "Is there a cop car behind me?" Which there was. He pulled us over, walked over to my driver's side and somewhat angrily asked why I was going so fast. I explained that we were trying to get to Portland and apologized for my speed. He asked for my license and registration. Then we had this exchange:

Me (big smile): "Were you a big Sonics fan? Because-"

Him (frowns): "No."

And he walked away with my license.

Now, did I just have bad luck here? Yeah. A little. But I was also relying on two variables that weren't certainties: One, that I'm good at sniffing out cops when I drive too fast, and two, that I'd be able to weasel my way out of any speeding ticket in Seattle. Both variables failed. I was reckless. And now, I owe $299 to the state of Washington for excessive speed and failure to signal while changing lanes.

"I thought I wouldn't get caught" is no different from "I thought we could get the 2 yards." It's just not. You either know or you don't.

Insane Angle No. 4: "The Pats acted like men! They went for the kill! Had they converted that, they would have made a strong statement to everyone that they were back on top and everything was right with the world!"

Stupid. Last time I checked, winning makes the strongest statement. As the great Herm Edwards once said, "You play to win the game. YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!" That's really it. The Patriots dominated that entire game, played better football and deserved to win. And they lost.

The bigger issue: Let's say they punt, then Indy rolls down the field and scores for the victory. We spend the next few days saying, "Wow, I can't believe the Pats blew that game, they had it, Manning is so great, holy crap." Then the whole thing dies. This happens all the time in football. Every week, at least one team dominates a game but urinates it away. There are never significant aftereffects because it's a long season and, really, those defeats can happen to everyone.

But losing because you went for it on fourth-and-2 on your own 28? Much more damaging. The reward (of converting it) did not match the risk (the fallout from a demoralizing loss and a week's worth of "What the hell happened?" questions, not to mention its impact on the team's psyche). This week, the Pats made a big stink about looking forward and not letting that defeat affect them. How can it not? How? Isn't the impact much deeper than that of simply losing because Peyton Manning is great and he drove 70 yards to beat them? In the playoffs, when it's life or death, maybe that risk is more defensible. In the regular season, when you're building your team's collective confidence like a bunch of Jenga sticks and can't risk knocking the stack over? No.

Just … no.

Insane Angle No. 5: "The decision might not have worked out, but it came from a well-thought-out place."

No, it didn't. The Patriots were a mess for that entire drive. They called a timeout after a kickoff return because they had the wrong personnel on the field. HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN? (Sorry, my Caps Lock keeps sticking.) On first down -- by the way, the best down to take a chance if you're going to be reckless, simply because Indy had stacked the line and expected a run -- they ran Faulk into the line for no gain. On second down, Brady hit Welker on a nice out for 8 yards. On third down, the Colts brought the house and Welker screwed up -- instead of cutting over the middle (totally empty), he cut right, and Brady hurried the throw (incomplete, and almost picked off).

Let's look at third down again. If Belichick knew at this point, "I am not punting the ball," then they were in two-down territory. Liberating, because the Colts would have no idea it was two-down territory -- because, again, it's insane to go for it on fourth down there. But let's say he did decide it was two-down territory. Wouldn't he run the ball there (either by pounding it or with a delayed draw or just a draw) and knock it down to the two-minute warning whether he made a first down or not? Sure. Yes. Absolutely. Which makes me think that, to that point, Belichick still hadn't decided on fourth down yet.

On fourth down? Total confusion. Some offensive players were running off the field. Some punt team guys were coming on. Belichick wanted to go for it. Nobody knew what was going on. They had to burn another (and even more deadly) timeout, their second of the drive. That's when Belichick stuck to his guns and went for it.

Did anything you just read suggest a team that was anything other than completely discombobulated? After the kick return and TV timeout, had Belichick told his team, "Look, I know this sounds crazy, but I don't want to punt. We are in four-down territory. I can't give Manning the ball back. He's going to beat us. Let's go with a four-play sequence here, and don't screw this up" … I mean, at least then, I would have felt as though this was anything other than rash and poorly thought out.

More than anything else, that's why the Patriots lost. And that's why it ended up feeling bigger than just a defeat. There is a larger pattern here. Remember in Game 6 of the 2009 World Series, when the Yanks and their crappy bullpen made it out of the seventh inning unscathed, and everyone in Yankee Stadium started celebrating because they knew they had just won the title? Why did they know this? Two words: Mariano Rivera. They knew he would take them home. They knew it. They were positive. And that's exactly what he did.

By the fourth year of the Brady/Belichick era, Patriots fans felt the same way about their team in close games. We were money. We owned crunch time. We didn't shoot ourselves in the foot. We didn't take unnecessary risks. We thrived on making other teams beat themselves. We were reasonably aggressive but never dangerously so. We always had a plan. Our players were prepared for any conceivable situation. In a close game, Belichick, Brady and our defense would take us home. Every time.

Not Sunday night. The Patriots looked rattled and unprepared. The Colts did not. They do not keep statistics for this.

Did it feel like the end of an era? Yeah, a little. The truth is, Belichick is 57 years old. I doubt he's banking those famous 19-hour work days anymore. I doubt he possesses the same hunger that fueled him when he was trying to escape Bill Parcells' shadow and make a name for himself. Everything is gravy for him at this point. His place in history is secure.

Career security can be damaging in one of two ways: either you stop taking chances, or you feel emboldened and start taking too many of them. Belichick's recent history shows that he would rather roll the dice than do something conventionally. He made so many trades in the draft this past April that I can't even remember where we ended up picking. Right before the season, with the Patriots picked by many as the clear Super Bowl favorite, he dealt one of his defensive pillars (Richard Seymour) to Oakland for a future first-round pick. On Sunday night, he went for the jugular in Indianapolis when the situation demanded prudence.

Were these events connected? I can't tell. Statistics can't help us here. Bill Belichick might just be a coach who climbed the mountain a few times, then decided he needed to cement his legacy by being the ballsiest football coach any of us have ever seen. If that's true, he failed Sunday night. This Sunday, he might succeed. He keeps plowing ahead. Either way, he remains the most fascinating coach in professional football -- something that hasn't changed since 2001, by the way -- and I remain thankful that he runs my favorite team. Give me Belichick with a few miles off his fastball over just about anyone else.

Just don't tell me this Sunday night didn't mean … something. In the aforementioned Game 6, I remember watching those Yankees fans celebrating after the seventh and thinking, "There is absolutely nobody in my sports fan life now that makes me feel as secure as those Yankee fans feel with Rivera right now."

I used to feel that way about the Patriots. I did. And now we're here.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos and more, check out Sports Guy's World. His new book, "The Book of Basketball," is now available.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.

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