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Stat lies

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff November 17, 2009 09:15 AM

I crunched the numbers.

When Mary Swanson told Lloyd Christmas that he had one in a million odds of getting down with her, the floppy dummy was right in concluding that he had a chance. In fact, if we apply the math, Lloyd's formula for a success rate would look something like this:

(1 x .0000000001) reality = chance.

Look, I enjoy the fact that football can be broken down analytically as much as the next guy. But I've felt like Han Solo about to plunge into an asteroid field these past 24 hours; a pestering protocol droid blabbering incessant data in my now-bleeding ears.

"Never tell me the odds."

Yet, here we are two days after Bill Belichick's now-infamous fourth-and-two decision, with stat geeks lining up in defense of the Patriots coach. Belichick's gaffe wasn't the overwhelming reason the Patriots lost in Indianapolis (Laurence Maroney's goal line fumble, poor clock management, the lame pass interference call on Darius Butler, etc.). But it was arguably the most glaring reason why they didn't win.

At the forefront of the math-twisters is Brian Burke, creator of AdvancedNFLStats.com, who declares that Belichick made the right call. Burke maintains that had Belichick punted, the Pats stood a 70 percent chance of winning the game as opposed to a 79 percent chance of winning by going for it. Warning, go any further and you have a 17 percent greater chance of kicking a puppy today.

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You'd have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats' 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it's pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash.

My nose is bleeding.

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

No.

This is what I love about the statistical-obsessed: Personnel matters not. If there's no such thing as a clutch hitter in baseball, then it shouldn't matter if Tom Brady or Brady Quinn is at quarterback. Go for it Mangini. AdvancedNFLStats.com says it's OK.

While I don't disagree with the general premise of going for it on fourth down, I couldn't be stauncher in my argument against it in this situation. Heck, people were still up in arms last week about Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth down in the Patriots' own territory against the Falcons weeks ago. And that was the third quarter.

All percentages aside, here's all you need to ask yourself: Would you rather risk giving Peyton Manning the ball at the 28-yard line, or punt the ball and make him drive the field? This was the same game, mind you, during which he had just tossed a couple errant quackers when trying to throw deep. You know they're not going to run the ball. Can someone add up the percentages and see what the Pats' chances of winning were if they were to intercept Manning?

Oh, wait. Never mind. The stats say you go for it. On fourth-and-two. Leading by six. Against the 8-0 Colts. In their dome. With zero timeouts.

Brilliant.

If New England was up by seven, I consider it, as the worst that can happen is you have to play overtime. Up by six? It's an idiotic call. Anyone debating otherwise is either a ball-washer to the nth degree or is simply trying to play contrarian. Either way they look stupid.

Try to wrap your mind around this excuse from Jordan Schwartz at Bleacher Report:

In Tom Brady's career, the Pats have about a 63 percent conversion rate on fourth and two or less. That means by going for it on fourth down, New England had a 63 percent chance of winning the game right there.

Let's say if the Patriots don't pick up the two yards and give Indy the ball at the 28, the Colts have a 90 percent chance of scoring a touchdown. That leaves a 10 percent chance that New England still wins the game even if they fail to convert fourth and two.

So 10 percent of the 37 percent of the time that the Pats don't pick up the first down (3.7 percent), they still win. Let's add that 3.7 percent to the 63 percent and we find that New England has roughly a 66.7 percent chance of winning the game by going for it on fourth down.

That's great. Mind you when I was a kid, if I came home with a test on which I got 66.7 percent of the answers correct, I'd be forced to re-watch "Where There's a Will, There's An 'A'" on a never-ending loop. Four percent of the 57 percent of the time I watched it, I actually learned something.

Somebody ask the Patriots defensive players whether they would have preferred having the Colts offense pinned in their own territory or starting a game-winning drive on the 28-yard-line. I'm sure Ty Warren and Co. will appreciate knowing that they had a nine percent better chance of winning with the Colts virtually in the red zone.

It just makes complete sense.

Had the Patriots not burned their final timeout (which, in reality, is the real injustice when we boil everything down), they could have reviewed the catch made by Kevin Faulk. Of course, had Tom Brady simply thrown to slant-man Wes Welker sprinting wide-open a few yards further down field, it wouldn't have been an issue. It appeared that it might have been a first down, but it's a Tootsie Pop argument at this point. It's highly doubtful based on what the refs saw that it would have been enough to overturn the call.

If they make the first down, argument says we'd be praising Belichick as a genius today. No. We'd be breathing a collective sigh of relief with the overwhelming fear that he might do it again in a game with far greater implications. In that case, maybe its better we all got it out of our system.

Would he do it again, say in the AFC title game in Indy? The stat geeks say he should.

If he wants to be coaching the next week, I agree.

Hey, the Pro Bowl isn't all that bad.

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