Strong opinions, weakly held

Which analysis is worth paying for?

Last night offered a perfect illustration of one of the many reasons newspaper journalism is in trouble. In last night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, the Patriots, up 6 points, went for it on fourth and 2 with 2:08 left in the game. They failed to make the first down, and Peyton Manning took the Colts in for the score, winning the game 35-34.

Let’s look at the analysis offered by a major metropolitan daily, the Houston Chronicle.

Here’s their NFL reporter, John McClain:

I still can’t believe what I just witnessed. Belichick is getting ripped because of his clock management and his unbelievable decision to go for a first down when he should have punted. They didn’t make it, and they gave Peyton Manning the ball at their 29 trailing by six.

And here’s Jerome Solomon:

There won’t be a much more exciting finish than this year’s Colts-Patriots. Of course, there won’t be a much more idiotic call than Bill Belichick electing to go for a fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line despite his team holding a six-point lead. There is no legitimate excuse for such a move. It wasn’t gutsy, and even if it had worked, it just wasn’t smart. Is the pressure of not winning a Super Bowl in five years starting to wear on the Hooded One?

So, according to them, Belichick is “idiotic” and his decision was “unbelievable,” but neither of those adjectives are accompanied by any analysis whatsoever. On the other hand, here’s some quick postgame analysis from a couple of blogs. First, Smart Football, which analyzed the decision without crunching the numbers:

The goal is, obviously, to maximize your chance of winning. If you punt, your chances of winning are your odds of stopping a streaking Manning who has just torched your defense the whole fourth quarter. He will have to drive about 70 yards. Because of his excellence in clock management, the two-minute warning, and their timeout, time was not really a factor. (The analysis would be much different if there was only, say, a minute left.)

If you go for it, your chance of winning hinges on two outcomes: (a) if you get the first down, you win the game; and (b) if you don’t get it, you still have a chance to stop Manning. So your chance of winning if you go for it is the sum of (a) your chance of converting; and (b) your chance of stopping Manning from the 30 yard line.

Here’s Advanced NFL Stats with the numbers:

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You’d have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats’ 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it’s pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash.

Are we really going to miss those guys I quoted at the top?


  1. Just out of curiosity, do you have any data or impression on when the newspaper-based commentary was available versus when the blog-based commentary went up?

  2. They were all up last night within an hour of the game ending.

  3. I’m no football fan (in fact, I don’t care for any team sports) so take this with a grain of salt, but it strikes me that the commercial commentators and the bloggers have different goals. The bloggers are looking at the game rationally; the commercial commentators have a vested interest in football as entertainment, hence their more emotional, less rational, commentary. It sounds like punting would have been the more entertaining option.

  4. Quite the contrary. Punting is the conservative choice. It follows the conventional wisdom. Had New England punted and the Colts scored anyway the story would have been about what a hero Peyton Manning was to drive down the field in the last two minutes. But as it is, they see their chance to ridicule a guy widely regarded as the best coach in the NFL for being an idiot, and they’re taking it. Columnists love to complain about guys playing it by the book and not taking risks, but when you take a “risk” and it doesn’t pan out, they’re the first to kick you in the face.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not a Belichick fan, but I hate the know nothings in the sports media more. I find this pattern very much holds up with other forms of news reporting as well.

  5. Remarkably, this very choice has been in the news recently, and the statistics are in favor of ditching punting almost completely.


    Which is fascinating, on a nerdtastic, Nate Silver level. On the one hand, we could talk about cigar chomping newspapers vs. calculator punching blogs; but I’m sort of more interested in either what’s changed about the game of football that makes the punt less effective, statistically or if the punt was never effective at all and it was simply one of those psychological things that seems right but isn’t?

    But that’s a whole-nother post.

  6. I didn’t even know there was a National Sports Journalism Center. That’s cool.

  7. My first impression was based on the colorman (Cris Collinsworth I think) of last nights game, who was decrying it loudly.

    However, in thinking about it later, I realized that Manning didn’t just score, he had to actively burn the clock down. Two minutes was actually too much time from that range.

    In the end, the Pats defense was just worn out, figured out, or both.

  8. This game was just fantastic. So exciting, it lived up to the hype.

    The 4th and 2 call was definitely all or nothing, I don’t mind the call Belichick made. I don’t think it was lack of confidence in his defense as much as more confidence in his offense. And it is Peyton, he would’ve went 65 yards as easy as he went the 30 or so.

    Hope they meet again in the playoffs.

  9. You didn’t provide it, but here is Solomon’s blog entry.

  10. Added that, thanks.

  11. And the best written / most in-depth article on the subject goes to a guy that used to have a blog:



  12. I was not particularly impressed by Bill Simmons’ take on the issue. I did find his analysis of the play that was called interesting, though.

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