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Monday, November 16, 2009
The dangers of consequentialism

Everyone is talking about Bill Belichek's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 from the Pats' own 28 with around two minutes left (sorry Mike). And most people (including the NBC commentators speaking three-and-a-half minutes after the game) have concluded it was a bad decision. But the only reason they offered as to why the call was bad is that it did not work. Had it worked, it would have been called gutsy and a brilliant decision.

This is the problem--in both sports and law--of pure consequentialism, in which the a priori wisdom of a decision is evaluated solely by the outcome. But the decision to go for it cannot be right or wrong based solely on the result. The result is good or bad; but the decision must be evaluated independent of the outcome. Evaluating a decision as right or wrong must be based on the quality of the reasoning that went into it. Since 2001, the Pats have converted 63.5 % of attempts on 4th-and-2-or-less, a higher percentage when Brady is the quarterback. And on a day in which the offense racked up more than 400 yards and generally had moved at will, those sound like pretty good odds. Plus, in the situation, the Colds defense would be particularly worried about jumping offside, so their aggression may be ever-so-slightly-restrained. All-in-all, it strikes me as a highly unconventional, but hardly unreasonable or reckless decision. And, in fact, the play worked, except Fault did not catch the ball cleanly, thus losing forward progress as to the spot.

Gregg Easterbrook writes the Tuesday Morning Quarterback feature for and he is constantly arguing that coaches should go for it on 4th-and-short, particularly around midfield and deep in opposing territory. I am looking forward to what he has to say about this one.


The folks at Advanced NFL Stats, who know stuff about mathematical analysis that I don't, say that Belichek made the right decision. (H/T: Deadspin) The success rate on 4th-and-2 is 60% and teams score a touchdown from the opponent's 28 with 2:00 remaining approximately 53% of the time. This puts the Pats in a statistically better position than punting would have.

Further Update:

Easterbrook weighs in: Belichek was absolutely right to go for it (although he questions some of the other calls and moves, particularly the call on 3d-and-2). Easterbrook also takes on one of the sillier memes about this--Tedy Bruschi saying Belichek showed a lack of faith in his defense--by pointing out that what Belichek did was to show faith in his offense to get two yards on a day in which it averaged more than 6 yards a play.

The "lack of faith" meme rests on the assumption (which Easterbrook has been fighting) that going for it on 4th down is so far out of the norm that it is justified only in special circumstances. The assumption is that an offense really only has three downs to get a first down ordinarily and to use an additional down shows desperation of some sort--here, lack of faith in the defense. But if the mindset is that four downs means four downs and the percentages favored New England, there was nothing insulting to the defense here, just a faith in the offense within the normal rules of the game (four downs to try to get a first).


I think that the plaintiffs here involving KU might have a legitimate claim related to Title IX. Consequentialism might be more relevant here in sports law than going for it on 4th down:

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/16/2009 8:38 AM  

Easterbrook Preview: The entire sequence makes no sense. 1st Down: Pass Incomplete. Pass on first down? You need one first down, and to run out the clock.

Pass on 2nd down: now required. Gains 8. Forces Colts to use TO. Fine. If you had gained two yards on the first play, the clock would be around 2:00 and you would have four more downs.

Pass on 3rd down: What, you can't run for two yards?? Incomplete again, stops the clock, almost guarantees the Colts get the ball back with 2:00 to go.

4th down: Now you're stuck. You have several choices, none of them great. (1) Punt--opponents have the ball, probably around their 35 or 40, needing a TD. Your defense has been strong until that last drive. (2) take the hike from the shotgun run into the end zone and run out as much of the clock as you can until tackled. Clock down to around 1:30-1:40 probably worth it, since you're kicking from pretty much the same spot as a punter would have, without risk of being blocked, and the clock is more on your side.

(3) Go for it. When you have conceded on 3rd down that you don't believe you can do it with a run. (See: otherwise, would have managed time and TOs better.)

If you're passing, why are you passing SHORT? Oh, right; the Colt defense knows you don't think you can run.

A disaster of one's own making.

Blogger Ken Houghton -- 11/16/2009 9:14 AM  

I didn't see the post game interview, but there was clearly something strange going on with Belichick/Brady. There was no reason for using those 2 timeouts, it looked to me that if they could have challenged then the play would have gone their way.

I still think it was a good decision, its just those timeouts that killed them. For a statistical analysis of why that was the right call, check out this link:

Those guys do a great job and really prove Belichick's point.

Blogger Doc J -- 11/16/2009 12:23 PM  

What was the Vegas point spread in the game? Hate to ask, just curious because I have not heard that brought up yet...

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/16/2009 1:41 PM  

Indy was a 3 pt favorite if I remember correctly.

Blogger Pbenn001 -- 11/16/2009 2:29 PM  

@ Ken Houghton

I think they ran Faulk up the middle on first down for no gain. then passed on second.

As for the call, I am all for it. Coaches need to put more pressure on defenses. There is nothing worse for a defense to know that you need to play all 4 downs every series. Forcing a 3 and 3 should not be victory for a D.

Blogger Chris -- 11/16/2009 4:38 PM  

What bothered me most was Trent Dilfer's analysis of the call, when he said that it was a terrible decision. Then asked what he would say if they had converted, he said it still would have been crazy. But that doesn't mean its wrong. It's too bad that everyone thinks that unconventional equals dumb.

Blogger Dylan Murphy -- 11/17/2009 12:41 AM  

What is th success rate for touchdowns after a punt? Granted, there was a 60% chance of making a first down (i.e., winning), but, if a team only makes a touchdown after a punt, for example, 35% of the time, then the chance of winning after the punt would be 65% - percentage of teams that do not score a touchdown and hence a separate path to a Pats win. Until we know the probability of the other path to a Pats win, it's hard to judge whether the path they chose was the correct one.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/17/2009 12:58 PM  

Yeah I completely agree. Using the thing to prove the thing is pretty circular. To spout a cliche "hind site is 20/20"




Blogger Mikethelawstudent -- 11/17/2009 5:54 PM  


With 2:08 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful 4th-and-2 conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A conversion on 4th-and-2 would be successful 60 percent 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 percent of the time from that field position. The total win probability for the 4th-down conversion attempt would therefore be:

(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP (WP stands for win probability)

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their 34. Teams historically get the TD 30 percent of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.

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