Daniel W. Drezner

There’s more to statecraft that expected utility calculations

Last night, the Indianapolis Colts stormed back from 17 points down against the New England Patriots to win a gripping game by the score of 35-34.  After the game, the most talked-about play was the Patriots’ decision to go for it on a fourth down play with two yards to go at their own 28 yard line with ...

Last night, the Indianapolis Colts stormed back from 17 points down against the New England Patriots to win a gripping game by the score of 35-34.  After the game, the most talked-about play was the Patriots’ decision to go for it on a fourth down play with two yards to go at their own 28 yard line with a little more than two minutes remaining and the Colts down by 6 points. 

Rather than punt the ball, Patriots coach Bill Belichick defied coventional wisdom and decided to go for it.  Had they converted the down, the game would have effectively been over.  Instead, they fell a yard short.  The Colts therefore gained possession about 35-40 yards closer to the Patriots’ end zone than if the Pats had punted. 

The Boston press and national press have raked Belichick over the coals for this play call.  You know, stuff like, "Everyone knows by now he should have played the percentages and punted the ball from his own 28-yard line with just two minutes left in regulation against the Colts." Are they right to do so?  Over at his Freakonomics blog, Steve Levitt defends Belichick:

Here is why I respect Belichick so much. The data suggest that he actually probably did the right thing if his objective was to win the game. Economist David Romer studied years worth of data and found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, teams seem to punt way too much. Going for a first down on fourth and short yardage in your end zone is likely to increase the chance your team wins (albeit slightly). But Belichick had to know that if it failed, he would be subjected to endless criticism.

If his team had gotten the first down and the Patriots won, he would have gotten far less credit than he got blame for failing…. What Belichick proved by going for it last night is that 1) he understands the data, and 2) he cares more about winning than anything else.

Is Leavitt correct?  Thanks to Football Outsiders, you can fill out your own percentages and see which decision maximizes your expected utility.  Or you can read the Boston Globe‘s Adam Kilgore and appreciate the historical percentages:

According to [AdvancedNFLStats.com Brian] Burke’s tabulation, going for the first down gave the Patriots a 79 percent chance of winning. Punting gave them a 70-percent chance to win. Even after Burke made tweaks, the win probability never dipped in favor of the punt. If anything, factoring in how explosive the Colts’ offense is, the team-specific adjustments only made going for it more favorable.

“A lot of criticism is probably way over the top,’’ Burke said. “At the very least, it’s defensible. It’s not crazy. It’s not reckless.’’

Of course, the problem with football — and politics — is that decision-makers are usually judged by the quality of the outcomes rather than the quality of the processes.  So, the result in both worlds is often excessive risk-aversion. 

And so this blog post might end with absolution for Bill Belichick and a plea for a stronger appreciation for expected-utility analysis.  Except life is not that simple.

On that play, it appears that Belichick made the right call.  Except that Belichick also did the following things before making that call:

  • Called his last two time-outs during the series, thereby removing his ability to challenge a ruling on the field during the crucial play;
  • Decided, on third down and two, to call a pass play rather than a running play, which would have run more time off the clock and made the fourth down percentages a little easier.
  • Traded Richard Seymour to the Raiders in the pre-season, stripping his defensive line of any depth.  Not surprisingly, his starters were pretty gassed by the end of the Colts game. 

Sooooo… it’s possible to defend Belichick’s call on fourth down as the rational, utility-maximizing decision, but conclude that he committed a series of small blunders that got the Patriots to the point where they had to convert a high-risk, high-reward play.  In other words, sometimes the criticized decision might be the right one to make, but the decisions that structured the controversial choice might not have been. 

Question to readers:  Looking at the Obama administration’s foreign policy, which move echoes Belichick’s play-calling? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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