Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What I Read Today - Tuesday November 17, 2009

From: The Wall Street Journal

What's So Great About Punting?

Belichick's Decision Draws Fire, But Number Crunchers Are in His Corner; the Blackjack Table.ArticleComments (18)more in Sports Main ».


In the past 24 hours, Bill Belichick has been ripped and ridiculed, caricatured, called a fool and even accused of falling asleep on the job. "I seriously think he might be losing interest," wrote one fan.
Getty Images New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick moments before deciding not to punt in Sunday night's loss.
But before we run the head coach of the New England Patriots out of town for the tough decision he made in Sunday night's 35-34 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, let's look at the nature of his crime.
Faced with a fourth down in his own territory late in the game with a vulnerable lead, Mr. Belichick decided to let his offense try to win the game with one play. If the Patriots had gained two yards, they would have had a first down and likely been able to run out the clock. The other option, of course, was to punt and, by doing so, leave the outcome of the game in the hands of quarterback Peyton Manning and the Colts.
Put simply, Mr. Belichick is taking flak because he decided, in the middle of a close, hard-fought and emotionally charged game against a major rival, to throw caution to the wind. In other words, he's being pilloried for not being a wimp.
Somehow in American football, the punt—a clear and unambiguous symbol of surrender and retreat—has become the hallmark of sensible coaching.
After the game, many football traditionalists—even some of Mr. Belichick's former players—rushed to denounce the move. Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi wrote a column about how the decision showed a lack of confidence in the team's defense, and former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said afterward that it was the worst coaching decision he'd ever seen Mr. Belichick make.
"I thought it was our best chance to win," Mr. Belichick said at a news conference on Monday.
At the same time, however, football statisticians and the coaches who lurk on the game's cerebral fringe thought Mr. Belichick's decision was heroic.
"I would've thought about [going for] it too," says Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, a law-school graduate who is renowned for his counterintuitive approach to football. "Who cares what people think?"
"Of course I thought it was the right decision," says Kevin Kelley, a high-school football coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark., who has become famous for his strategy of virtually never punting. "If anybody was going to do it, it had to be Belichick. What went through my head was, 'I hope he makes it, because if he doesn't, all the naysayers will say they were right.' But they're still wrong."
The truth depends, of course, on how you slice the numbers. Brian Burke, a statistician who has studied the results of fourth-down situations in the NFL, says a team in the Patriots' situation had a 79% chance of winning by going for it (either by converting the fourth-and-two or stopping the opponent thereafter). That compares favorably to a 70% probability of preventing a foe from driving down the field for a touchdown following a punt.
The human factors can cut both ways. Given that New England's worn-out defense had just allowed a 79-yard touchdown drive to the Colts in under two minutes, Mr. Belichick's gamble made some intuitive sense, too. But at the same time, a punt would have forced Mr. Manning—who'd thrown two interceptions already—to direct his team down the length of the field with two minutes left.
Above all, though, the essence of Mr. Belichick's "crime" may be something simpler than all this: His decision went against the natural instincts of all human beings when they're forced to make high-stakes decisions. In a recent study, researchers from Duke and UCLA found that when faced with a decision involving risk, people have an overwhelming tendency to make the supposedly safe choice—to err on the side of caution—even though doing so may lead to worse results.
By studying thousands of hands of blackjack played by random people, the researchers found that when they strayed from the "book" or the optimal strategy, those players who did something aggressive were more successful than those who did something passive.
In fact, the subjects made four times as many passive mistakes as they did aggressive ones. And these passive mistakes—holding on a 16 when the dealer has a king showing, for example—were more costly: They cost $2 for every $1 won, versus $1.50 for every $1 won on aggressive mistakes.
Why do people embrace caution? "It's because of the regret that people face when they take an action and it doesn't turn out well for them," says Bruce Carlin of UCLA's Anderson School of Management, who worked on the study.
At issue, it seems, is the very idea of what constitutes gambling. If going for it gave the Patriots a statistically better chance of winning—and if aggressive deviations are often better than passive ones—then the gamble would have been to punt, even though that was the seemingly safe play.
"I thought it was nice to see somebody go for it rather than going for it only when it's a no-brainer," says David Romer, a Cal-Berkeley professor of economics who has studied fourth downs in the NFL. "I'm disappointed it didn't work out."
"I'd like to think I would have had the courage to do what Bill did," says NFL Network analyst and former coach Mike Martz.

—Carl Bialik, David Biderman and Phil Izzo contributed to this article

Write to Darren Everson at darren.everson@wsj.com and Reed Albergotti at reed.albergotti@wsj.com

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