Bill Belichek, Randian Superhero
Though my heart belongs to the Redskins, I am an unabashed Patriots apologist (I mean, you have to find a team to root for in the playoffs, right?). I admire their consistency. I admire their ability to plug just about any gap in the lineup imaginable. Last year, they lost a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback and still finished 11-5. Compared to Snyder, Zorn and Cerrato, the Patriots front office and coaching staff are models of understated competence.
And yes, I admire the misanthropic Bill Belichek. His absolute imperviousness to public criticism is a sight to behold. From his fellow coaches to the fan on the street, he just doesn’t give a damn.
So, contra Freddie, I think his decision to go for it on fourth-and-two from his own 28 yard line is entirely defensible. I don’t know if it was the correct call, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking the received wisdom of the NFL’s overwhelmingly mediocre cadre of former and current coaches is always right. The logic of Belichek’s decision is at least as compelling as the alternative:
The truth depends, of course, on how you slice the numbers. Brian Burke, a statistician who has studied the results of fourth-down situations in the NFL, says a team in the Patriots’ situation had a 79% chance of winning by going for it (either by converting the fourth-and-two or stopping the opponent thereafter). That compares favorably to a 70% probability of preventing a foe from driving down the field for a touchdown following a punt.
The human factors can cut both ways. Given that New England’s worn-out defense had just allowed a 79-yard touchdown drive to the Colts in under two minutes, Mr. Belichick’s gamble made some intuitive sense, too.
At the end of the day, the Patriots had a pretty good chance of converting fourth-and-two and winning the game. If they punt, they had a decent shot at stopping the Colts’ offense from scoring. Both decisions are eminently reasonable – the only real difference is that going for it flies in the face of conventional wisdom while punting would have insulated Belichek from criticism even if the Patriots had gone on to lose the game.
Some sectors of society – I’m looking at you, Wall Street – aren’t risk averse enough. Others, however, err too far in the opposite direction. The professional coaching cartel is a perfect example of the latter tendency. Its members are overwhelmingly drawn from the same pool of former coaches, sons of coaches, and people who have come up through the system. Outsiders are the exception, not the rule. Hidebound tradition makes these “experts” well-nigh incapable of rational cost-benefit analysis on fourth-and-short situations.
My roommate inadvertently said it best when he admitted that Belichek’s decision was “a good call in Madden.” Of course, the only difference is that going for it in Madden won’t get you pilloried by a national press braying for blood and controversy, whereas having the stones to make that call on national television will. Professional mediocrities like Tony Dungy inevitably argued after the game that you “have to punt” on fourth-and-two – after all, echoing a stultifying consensus is basically a job requirement for post-game commentary. But there’s a reason Dungy couldn’t win the big game in Tampa and was only able to eke out one mediocre Super Bowl contest while coaching the greatest quarterback of the decade – he absolutely embodies the safe assumptions of his profession. Belichek, on the other hand, is unafraid to buck that trend. He’s made mistakes and he’ll undoubtedly make more, and his limp handshakes and willingness to run-up the score against inferior opponents pretty much embody bad sportsmanship. But I’ll be damned if I don’t admire his willingness to throw caution to the wind and make a gutsy, intelligent call when the game is on the line.