The fallout from Bill Belichick's ill-fated decision to go for a first down on fourth-and-two at his own 28 with a six-point lead late in New England's 35--34 loss to the Colts proves one thing: The moneyball mentality hasn't yet made it to the gridiron. Belichick was widely pilloried for the call. The reaction of NBC's Rodney Harrison, a former Patriot, was typical; it was "the worst decision" he'd ever seen.
But what do the numbers say? Within two hours of the end of the game, the New York Times website had a post from Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats, who calculated that the Pats had a 70% chance of winning by punting and a 79% chance of winning by going for it. If the math of a Navy pilot turned blogger seems fuzzy, consider that the next morning the Times had a pair of professional computer-programming number crunchers run the data, and they came to the same conclusion: Belichick made the right call.
The play hit close to home for Kevin Kelley, an Arkansas high school coach who has ridden a strategy of "never punt" to much success (SCORECARD, Sept. 21, 2009). He's long run up against the Old Guard mentality that prefers custom to empirical data. "To me, it's a shame they didn't get it," says Kelley, "because now it means coaches will be less likely to make that call—the right call—in the future."