I'm sure by now most everyone is tired of discussing Bill Belichick's decision from last weekend. But after watching the discussion amongst guys like Tom Jackson and Mike Ditka on the four-letter network yesterday and reading a recent post by the same network's Bill Simmons (that, as my esteemed colleague Mark Kamal said, made his head explode), I felt compelled to write my final thoughts on the matter.
Last Sunday, fresh off the Patriots loss and the incredible amount of Belichick bashing, I grew emotional and wrote a blog, entitled "Belichick Was Right". It angered me that so many media pundits could be so wrong in their analysis of the situation and I wanted to explain to the world that Belichick was right because the advanced numbers said so.
As I watched reactions to my blog and others with similar points of view, I had an important realization -- in this situation, there is no absolute right. One comment posted on my Facebook page by one of my former MIT Blackjack teammates, Matt Lau, brought along this realization:
All of this "proof" by statistics is ridiculous. People are pulling whatever relevant numbers they want from whatever source. Some articles are using the Patriots 4th down conversion rate vs. the league-wide scoring based on average field position. Other writers are comparing the NFL average for 4th down conversions vs. Manning's career scoring average on a 4th down drive.
There are far too many variables (and far too much variance in them) for the numbers to have any real meaning. As any good statistician will tell you, statistics will "prove" whatever it is you want them to prove.
To some degree Lau was right on point. There is a wide range of numbers being used in this argument and those numbers all have their weaknesses because of those weaknesses there really is no definitive "right".
It's not like my blackjack experiences where every decision that we made was proved definitively right by numbers regardless of the ultimate result.
So what I find far more interesting than whether Belichick was right or wrong was the actual decision itself and its aftermath -- a decision that defied convention to such an extreme that even a week after two pregame shows devoted entire segments dissecting it and an aftermath that polarized a community of fans and media alike. Some like Simmons vilified Belichick, calling him "a few miles off his fastball" and others like Economist/Author Steven Levitt praised Belichick calling him "great".
The decision was fascinating because it was so unconventional. It just isn't something that is ever done. Simmons makes this point in the negative:
In the biggest game of the regular season, when a football coach tries something that -- and this is coming from someone who watches 12 hours of football every Sunday dating back to elementary school -- I cannot remember another team doing on the road in the last three minutes of a close game, that's not "gutsy." It's not a "gamble." It's not "believing we can get that two yards." It's not "revolutionary." It's not "statistically smart." It's reckless. It's something that should happen only in video games, and only when you and your roommate are both high.
As on point as Simmons is on the rarity of this decision, he is equally wrong with his conclusion about its rarity. Going against traditional wisdom is hard. Just look at Economist Peter Schiff who as early as August of 2006 was predicting the mortgage crisis and recession that we are now in the middle of. People laughed at him then, like they are laughing at Belichick now. But simply because everyone thinks or acts one way does not make it right.
Belichick bucked the trend and challenged convention because he thought it gave his team the best chance to win -- three Super Bowl victories gives him the benefit of the doubt on this one. He is on one of the few coaches in the NFL that actually has the job security to ignore what the press and fans might say.
Recently, an NBA GM shared with me the difficulty of his job. "It's not like I'm a hedge fund trader simply trying to beat the S&P 500 each year. Instead, I am trying to be that one team out of 30 to win it all. And if anything I should take more risks not fewer."
Of course this doesn't mean that you should be reckless as some have called Belichick. Simmons uses an analogy of this recklessness which near and dear to my heart:
These are the things that happen when you double on a 12 against a six because you believe -- fervently -- that a slew of non-face cards are coming. You might be right, but you shouldn't do it.
This difference here is that unlike in Belichick's dilemma, there are no data or statistics that would tell you to double a 12 against a six and that's why it's not done.
Instead, I would equate Belichick's difficult decision with splitting 10s against a six. If you are counting cards there are situations where this is absolutely the right thing to do but actually doing it is another story.
I applaud Belichick for his decision as much because I personally didn't want to see Peyton Manning back on that field as because of his single-mindedness towards winning. As a fan I would always back the guy willing to split 10s because it is the right thing to do over the guy that stands on 16 simply because that's what everyone else does.