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Belichick’s Critics Come Under Fire – From Their Colleagues

It was a situation tailor-made for another clash between traditionalists and statheads: The New England Patriots led the Indianapolis Colts by six with 2:08 left to play, and were looking at fourth-and-2 on their own 28. The conventional wisdom: Punt and make Peyton Manning go 70-odd yards downfield against the clock. Pats coach Bill Belichick ignored football tradition and went for it, only to watch the Pats come up short. The Colts struck for the fatal TD with 13 seconds left. Final score: Indianapolis 35, New England 34.

And indeed, traditionalists and statheads were quick to duke it out. But this time, things unfolded a bit differently than in previous such debates. It was the statheads – too often caricatured as bloggers in the inevitable mother’s basement – who seemed measured and reasonable, while the traditionalists fulminated and fumed. And this time, the counterargument to the traditionalist case was made not just on blogs, but within the mainstream media itself.

Belichick came in for no shortage of harsh criticism, much of it shot through with psychoanalysis of a coach who’s not exactly media-friendly.

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King groused that “this would never have been a great call. … It smacked of I’m-smarter-than-they-are hubris.” In the Boston Herald, Ron Borges said that “Belichick made the kind of choice Shemp would have made because even Larry and Moe would know better.” In the Boston Globe, Dan Shaughnessy talked of “the sin of hubris” and said the call was “as bad as anything the Red Sox ever did. … Belichick played the part of Grady Little.” On AOL Fanhouse, Jay Mariotti wrote that “in one of the most inexplicably arrogant brain cramps in the history of football and any other sport known to humankind, the coach who gave us Spygate introduced Stupidgate to the American lexicon.” And the New York Daily News’s Hank Gola had a straightforward lead: “Bill Belichick, dummy.” TV analysts piled on too, with former Colts coach Tony Dungy saying on NBC that “you have got to play the percentages and punt the ball.”

But here’s the thing: By any statistical measure, Dungy was wrong about what playing the percentages dictated. Belichick was no dummy.

The countercase was first framed about an hour after the game ended by Brian Burke of Advanced Football Stats. Burke noted that teams convert 4th-and-2 60 percent of the time, and a new set of downs would have won the game for the Pats, while teams with the Colts’ field position historically get the necessary touchdown 53 percent of the time. Do the math and going for it works out to about a 79 percent chance of winning for the Pats. A typical punt, on the other hand, would have left the Colts at their 34, and teams in that situation historically get the touchdown they need about 30 percent of the time, giving the Pats about a 70 percent chance of winning. Burke then noted that those percentages were baselines for the league as a whole – given either field position, a good team like the Colts had a higher chance of winning than the baseline would indicate. But increasing that likelihood, correspondingly, increased the advantage the Pats had in going for it. A similar analysis by the developers of the ZEUS program concurred, though it found the Pats’ advantage was smaller than Burke did.

On Cold, Hard Football Facts, Kerry J. Byrne offered a pungently entertaining survey of the various reactions to Belichick’s decision, and came to this conclusion: “The most sober, reasoned, rational, fact-filled and well-thought responses were provided by the citizen-journalists in the dreaded ‘blogosphere.’ ”

Byrne knows both camps well – his work at Cold, Hard Football Facts has led to a relationship between that site and Sports Illustrated, yet his day job is as a writer for the Boston Herald. Byrne notes that the explosion of blogs has led to a democratization of the media, and that now “people can look at things from a different point of view.”

Football, Byrne says, is behind baseball in being reshaped by statistic analysis – he notes that sacks weren’t an official stat until 1982. Despite that, over the last five years or so, a number of statistically oriented football sites have begun digging into the numbers and challenging conventional wisdom about the game. And, as Byrne noted in an article for WEEI, that conventional wisdom may not be keeping up with changes in football strategy – before the 1950s, defense ruled and teams often punted on third down (and sometimes second), while today offenses rule the game, and the value of punting on fourth down is being reassessed.

“This is all brand-new in the football marketplace,” Byrne says, but adds that “there has been an acceptance in traditional media for what we do” over the last couple of years.

And you could see that in the arguments that Belichick had been right – arguments advanced under the banners of the mainstream media, in ways we wouldn’t have seen a few years ago. The tide really began to run the other way after Burke reiterated his argument for The Fifth Down, a football blog on the New York Times’ Web site — which also looked at the ZEUS conclusions.

The argument even played out within the same publications. The Boston Globe’s Shaughnessy reiterated his criticisms a day after his initial column, proclaiming that “the football universe knew it was a bad idea to go for the first down” without offering any particular evidence for that. But this time, commentors did it for him – they pointed to a Globe article by Adam Kilgore, which did a fine job of looking at the Burke and ZEUS numbers and analyzing what Belichick’s critics had gotten wrong.

On Sports Illustrated, meanwhile, Joe Posnanski took apart the critics in his usual polite but devastating fashion, writing that “there is almost no way – without suppressing the numbers – to make the percentages even out. The best PERCENTAGE chance was to go for it on fourth down. Of course, football is not really a percentage game for most of us, is it? No, it’s a game about emotion and passion and momentum.” Posnanski didn’t spare his colleague King, either. To his credit, King had taken a stab at figuring the percentages, something few Belichick critics bothered to do. But as Posnanski noted, he drew the wrong conclusion from the math.

The armchair psychology was a lot more interesting from the stats-oriented guys, too. Smartfootball.com’s Chris Brown wrote a superb blog post about how people perceive evidence, using Dungy’s comment about the percentages as a starting point for noting that “when something ‘feels horribly wrong,’ we inherently want the evidence to comport with that feeling and we convince ourselves that it does.” Brown also wrote that “I do not think Belichick worked out the numbers as Burke had. Yet he didn’t have to. His intuition was the kind of specialist’s ingrained intuition that came from years of thought about just such issues.”

The argument over Belichick’s decision is an interesting case study on a lot of levels – as an examination of evolving football strategy, a psychological study of a complex man, and, yes, as the latest gut vs. stats battle. But with that argument now unfolding not across a print-and-blog divide but within the mainstream media, I think it indicates something else: Mainstream columnists can no longer dismiss their competitors as bloggers in basements – because those competitors are now writing from within their own shops. Clever wordplay and parroting conventional wisdom will no longer be good enough, not when writers down the virtual hall are showing more intellectual rigor and offering a higher level of discourse.

Speaking of conventional wisdom, the standard criticism about blogging is that anybody can do it, and so it’s of little value. But based on the Belichick case, perhaps we should rethink who’s pulling their weight. Anybody can belittle a coach, with lame jokes substituting for an effort to analyze the statistical case for or against his strategy. So what’s the value in it?
 
Jason Fry is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing  (www.faithandfearinflushing.com), and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom  (www.reinventingthenewsroom.com). Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.
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