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?