But this is the Internet. And so a contrarian view began to spread yesterday, virally. A view I believe started with someone's desire to take a fresh angle on the obvious story, but that's neither here nor there.
Every one of these analyses seems rooted in a statistical argument encapsulated in a Deadspin post entitled "Bill Belichick Was Right."
With 2:00 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A 4th and 2 conversion would be successful 60% of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from that field position. The total WP for the 4th down conversion attempt would therefore be:
(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP [win probability]
A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their own 34. Teams historically get the TD 30% of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP
I wasn't going to harp on it anymore, because it's ultimately a matter of opinion, not fact, and I can scream my conclusion till I'm blue in the face and it's not going to make anyone agree with me, nor should it. But I've been irked to see this argument passed along uncritically, and spent so much time repeating myself on Facebook, on IMs, etc. having this same conversation that I just want to put my argument up here and then be able to send someone a URL whenever I want to continue making the same points.
First off, this isn't baseball. The sports are apples and oranges, to begin with. Also, football is far behind baseball in terms of the fine-grained statistics that are gathered (though places like Football Outsiders are doing a great job of changing that picture).
Thus I find especially suspect the reliance on the calculation that "Historically, in a
situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams
get the TD 53% of the time from that field position."
Not Peyton Manning, specifically. Not the Colts. Not within the opponent's territory, or from the 30. Historically, teams. This means that throughout all time, teams, which means everyone from the Sisters of the Poor to the top flight of the league, have a 53 percent chance of scoring. Note that statistic doesn't take into account the ball being on the opponent's 30. Or it being in the hands of Peyton Manning in particular. Or it being within the final 2 minutes of the game. Etc., etc., ad nauseam. I think that statistic is debatable, to say the least.
Similarly, it was brought up yesterday morning on WEEI that the Patriots have a 63% fourth-down conversion rate this season (also heard 60%, 73%...) But that statistic also doesn't account for time to go and game situation. It's not a stat that's representative of situation the way baseball stats are -- where you say with less than 2 outs or with a man in scoring position. This is just conversion rate each time they've faced a fourth down, not accounting for the yardage to go, score, time remaining, opponent...
D&C's point was that you can't go by that statistical
calculation, because in many cases when a team goes for it on fourth
down, they're behind significantly and the other team is playing a
softer containment defense, or the game is imbalanced in some other
way. This wasn't a decision you could make in a vacuum just looking at
the overall conversion statistic.
In short, if you could tell me that on fourth and 2 in the final three minutes of a game against AFC opponents ranked 5th or higher overall, the Patriots, specifically, have a 63% conversion rate, that might be different.
I will concede the point that focusing overmuch on the 4th and 2 decision isn't wise, either, since there were so many other factors that led up to that situation, and a series of decisions that followed it that were in some ways equally inexplicable.
But if the percentages really line up in favor of Belichick's decision, if it's really been mathematically demonstrated it's the right call to risk giving it up on downs deep in your own territory up by less than a score with two minutes to go in the game, why does the punt exist in football at all?