Tuesday, November 17, 2009


There's been an unusual amount of discussion this year about whether football teams should punt on 4th and short situations. As intelligence has finally invaded the sports realm, people have increasingly criticized received wisdom. This first happened in baseball and increasingly we are seeing it in basketball as well. This kind of analysis is still in its infancy with football. Just this year, we've seen these discussions of punting. The odds show that your chances of getting a 1st down on 4th and short are quite good and give you a better chance of winning than punting in these situations.

Bill Belichick has evidently been listening, because he went for it on 4th and 2 on his own 28 against the Colts. He failed and the Colts won. Now, maybe the Colts would have won had the Patriots punted. But giving the ball to Peyton Manning inside the 30 is basically a guaranteed loss. People are defending Belichick's call, but they are wrong. The problem that statistical analysis has with football is that each game is too important to take the chance. There are 162 games in baseball and 82 in basketball. If you play the odds when they go against conventional wisdom, you might lose, but in the long run you will win more often. That's not acceptable in a 16 game football season. 1 game means a lot. It might mean making the playoffs, it might be a home playoff game. In this case, it basically eliminates any chance the Patriots of hosting the AFC Championship game, which may well come against the Colts. Failing to make it on 4th and 2 was a total disaster for the Patriots, one that might change the season.

I'm all for statistical analysis, but football is a different animal and the context of going against the grain has to be much more central to this kind of analysis. There was no excusing Belichick's decision, arguably the worst of his coaching career.