Bill Belichick and John Maynard Keynes

Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally. John Maynard Keynes

Keynes’ insight has a natural corollary, which Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, learned painfully on Sunday: to fail unconventionally is really, really bad for your reputation.

As described by Steve Levitt over at the Freakonomics blog, Belichick “made a decision in the final minutes that led his team the New England Patriots to defeat. It will likely go down as one of the most criticized decisions any coach has ever made. With his team leading by six points and just over two minutes left in the game, he elected to go for it on fourth down on his own side of the field. His offense failed to get the first down, and the Indianapolis Colts promptly drove for a touchdown.”

As Steve notes, the interesting thing about this decision is that (a) Belichick has endured blistering criticism, but (b) he may well have made the right decision. According to calculations by multiple analysts (e.g., here and here), Belichick’s maximized the chance that the Patriots would win. He just got unlucky.

Belichick must have known that he was risking the wrath of Monday morning quarterbacks if the play didn’t work out. But he chose to play the odds despite that risk. That’s a great attitude. Keynes would be proud.

5 thoughts on “Bill Belichick and John Maynard Keynes”

  1. While I agree that the statistics may have borne out that it was a statistically prudent thing to do, I think the criticism should focus on the play call of the 4th down and the proceeding 3rd down. If he planned to go for it all along, why did he call a passing play on 3rd down? A one yard run on 3rd down (a very high probability) would have increased their 4th down conversion probability and would also have allowed for a greater range of play calling on the subsequent 4th down. Anyway, to use the Keynes analogy it would be like implementing a tax cut immediately before enacting stimulus. Sure the stimulus is the right and controversial thing to do, but you’ve just hamstrung yourself.

  2. Interesting stuff, thanks. I must admit that, when I saw that they were going to go for it on 4th down in that situation I was yapping (to my girlfriend, who couldn’t care less) about how stupid it was (and yes, I was saying it before the play). Like many/most people, I assumed the relative probabilities would be different than they apparently are. In fact, if we consider how good the Patriot’s offense was in that game, the relative probabilities would probably favor going for it even more (although arguably other situations weren’t that relevant to a situation in which a 2 yard gain is both necessary and fully sufficient).

    One note re: the human element, though. It’s possible that he hurt the morale of his defense by not giving them a shot to stop the Colts, and if his defense isn’t reading these analyses of probabilities, they may feel quite dissed, and think the coach has little confidence in them. Of course, if they had been given the chance and the Colts went 70 yards for a touchdown that could hurt the morale of the Pats defense as well.

    Anyway, the moral of this story, for all of us but particularly for Belichick, is…it’s easier to win if you cheat

  3. I’m not sure if anybody mentioned this in the other responses; I don’t have time to read them right now. But one interesting note about the Keynes quote to start: Belichick studied economics as at Wesleyan and was one of the few NFL coaches to take UC Berkeley economist David Romer’s study that showed (using advanced calculus and mathematical modeling) that NFL coaches are too conservative on 4th down and would be better off to go for it more frequently. And in case anybody is wondering about David Romer’s last name, he is related to Obama’s Chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Christie Romer.

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