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4th and Too Much to Risk

Colts Defense

George disagrees with John, and thinks we should be praising Bill Belichick. Charlie challenges John’s claim that Belichick’s call was “risky.”

Coach Belichick fancies himself a powerful wizard when it comes to making gutsy but logical play calls, but on Sunday, the wizard didn’t find himself taken seriously. 4th and 2, up by six, 2:08 left in the game, what to do? Controversy reigns supreme, with some opinions saying punting was the only way to go, while the math supposedly says Belichick did the right thing. But, let’s consider a few things first before deciding what to do.

Field Position

First, we have the position, with the Pats on their own 28. Belichick obviously believes in his offense, which is why many people said he went for it (like he has been known to do before). The rumor mill has also accused Coach Belichick of not having faith in his defense to stop Peyton Manning and the Colts from marching downfield in two minutes for a touchdown. Say the Pats go for it and make it. Great; game over. But what if they miss? We saw the obvious answer play out Sunday.

Peyton and Indianapolis breathed new life when faced with certain defeat. They easily marched the short 29 yards for the score. And why wouldn’t they? The Colts had a huge morale boost from this turn of events, at the expense of Patriots’ morale from blowing the play.

Use of Timeouts

Comparing the levels of risk with a rational risk averse utility function, one has to punt. You might get the first down, but Brady is human and doesn’t always make the play. The Colts are a great passing team and could score no problem from close. Add to that, the Colts had one timeout left to work with. With short yardage left to go, the Colts could go for short passes and runs, and could stop the clock once just in case they couldn’t get to the sidelines. It worked like charm for the Colts, leaving the Pats with 16 seconds to do something they couldn’t with that time.

The Pats used two timeouts on that final drive, leaving them unable to stop and think or challenge the deciding 4th and 2 play. An interesting theory when it comes down to it, but the Pats know their plays, they know what works, and timeouts aren’t much of a big deal except for clock management.

The Third Down Play

Of more importance is something that has escaped the media’s scrutiny. Before 4th and 2, the Pats had 3rd and 2, and went for a pass which fell incomplete. Knowing you have two downs left to work with, and knowing how good the Pats usually are with Belichick’s tendency to go for it, passing was unnecessary. I say sneak it, or at least a quick FB dive up the middle or QB draw or something like that. You don’t need to get the first down on third down, but a yard or yard and a half would have changed the game completely. If that happens, another similar play would certainly get the ball over the line for a 1st down and end the game.

Why Not Punt?

Of course, if you still end up with 4th and more than 1, punting is a good way to go. Think about it. The defense had its moments, especially two interceptions on Manning. That had to have been lurking in his mind. And to add to it, punting would have made him have to go 70 or so yards in two minutes with just the one timeout. Pretty demoralizing if you ask me.

Plus, what the calculations don’t take into account is the obvious need for medium to large pass plays, especially near the sidelines. Keeping this in mind, you can leave a smaller contingent of defenders behind and concentrate the bulk of your force stopping the big plays from happening. Even giving up completed passes would require spiking the ball and sacrificing a down on the Colts’ part after the timeout was used. It’s not a random formation; you just have to know where to defend.

What Can We Learn?

So what can we learn from this analysis? There are plenty of scenarios and intangible variables that went unaccounted for in mainstream media analysis. Sure, Belichick took a risk, which is fine when it is a calculated risk. When calculating with the unaccounted for variables, punting starts to look like a better thing to do, if events brought the game to 4th and 2 from deep in your own end anyway.

Therefore, all things considered, the Pats should have kicked it away, shown confidence in their defense as well as offense, and fed Belichick a well-deserved slice of his own brand of humble pie. Though at least Belichick didn’t make the worst decision in football history…

Did Belichick make the right decision on 4th down against the Colts?

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3 comments for “4th and Too Much to Risk”

  1. […] 4th and Too Much to Risk […]

    Posted by Why We Should Be Praising Bill Belichick | Sports of Boston | November 17, 2009, 6:35 am
  2. […] 4th and Too Much to Risk […]

    Posted by Rebutting “Conventional Wisdom” | Sports of Boston | November 17, 2009, 5:48 pm
  3. […] calling. And if you have 3rd and short, run it instead of passing. And if you have something like 4th and 2 and you’re deep in your own territory, punt. It leaves the opponent with limited options. It’s […]

    Posted by Bill Belichick: Fallible or Perfect? | Sports of Boston | January 12, 2010, 7:01 am

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