Right here is the story of how a former Navy pilot and single father from Reston, Va., named Brian Burke provided the best statistical defense of Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth down Sunday night. Sports are fun.
In another corner of the country, a high school coach named Kevin Kelley approved the move, too. Kelley has gained recognition for his aggressive, and successful, team at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Ark. He goes for it on every fourth down on every drive, at any spot on field, no matter the distance. And it works. They won the state championship two years ago. His team has a quarterfinals game this weekend. Just yesterday, Kelley sent film of his team to Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, at Leach’s request.
Kelley frames the debate of Belichick’s decision in an utterly novel way: What if we are making a category mistake about punting altogether?
“Let’s say you have never seen another punt,” Kelley said this evening in a telephone interview. “You didn’t know what a punt was. Belichick trots a guy who doesn’t look like he even plays football to kick it down to the other team. He didn’t try to keep the ball. He just gave it to the other team!
“People are programmed to think on fourth down and 2 on your own 28, you punt the ball. If people could grasp the percentages, that would change the mentality.”*
A handful of high-profile college and NFL coaches have reached Kelley to discuss his strategy. (“They don’t want to be named,” Kelley said.) Most of them find it intriguing, some of them find it tempting. They all have a similar ultimate reaction.
“They say, ‘I can’t do this. I’ll get fired,’ ” Kelley said. “It’s rough. When you think about that much money being involved at that level, they’re willing to sacrifice what they think because they don’t want to lose their jobs. Maybe I would, too.
“If there were some NFL coaches that were watching [Belichick on Sunday] and thinking, ‘Maybe I would go for it,’ well, they’re not going for it anymore. They don’t want to do deal with the chastising.”
*This is the most appealing part of the debate. Yes, this is about a football coach who made a surprising decision. Really, it doesn’t matter. It’s a game with an oddly shaped ball. But — and I’ll write this at the risk of wading into a deep end where I don’t belong — it is also, maybe, illustrative in revealing a Capital-T Truth about the way we think and act and maybe if there is a flaw there.
On Sunday night, pretty much everyone watching saw the offense run out there, thought, oh my God, what is he thinking, this is different and weird and so, so wrong. Me, too. The more I think and read about the decision, the more certain I am Belichick did the absolute right thing. Those who continue to believe he was wrong, I think, are wedded more to convention than to the truth of the matter. The argument for punting boils down most the time to this phrase: You have to punt there. You know what? No, you do not. The established thing to do is to punt there. The empirical evidence declares this to be wrong. But 31 of 32 coaches would have punted. Convention persists.
Again, I am probably in over my head here, and this is a Patriots blog, and I don’t blame if you don’t care. But how often do we do things because You Have To Do X There? Education, health care, garbage pick-up, coffee brewing, newspaper publishing — how often are we doing things, to our detriment, because that’s the way we’ve always done them? That’s what Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth down from his own 28 is making me think about.