Belichick's idea born years ago

November, 17, 2009
11/17/09
1:12
PM ET
For those of you still wondering "What was Bill Belichick thinking?" when he made the fateful decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line Sunday night, we've gone back 5 1/2 years for a clue.

A February 2004 article by New York Times reporter David Leonhardt takes a look at California Berkeley economist David Romer, who two years earlier wrote an obscure academic paper that determined teams punt too much.

Belichick somehow came across the paper, which had been published only on Romer's site at Berkeley and by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Belichick, who majored economics at Wesleyan University, apparently found Romer's work intriguing enough to apply it in games.

''I read it,'' Belichick said in a Boston Herald article and cited by the New York Times. ''I don't know much of the math involved, but I think I understand the conclusions and he has some valid points.''

The Patriots failed to convert the first down Sunday night. Tom Brady threw a pass to running back Kevin Faulk, who bobbled the ball and was dropped inches short of the first-down marker. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning took over and, with a short field, threw the winning touchdown pass four plays later.

While mathematical analysis might show going for it on fourth down was preferable to punting in that situation, the 2004 New York Times article noted that running in that situation works better than passing:

Running is far more effective in gaining a few yards than passing is. Yet many other teams, including the Giants and Jets, which together won four fewer games than New England [in the 2003 season], tried many ineffective pass plays in an effort to surprise the defense. It's a little like surprising your opponent in chess by letting him capture your queen.



Also from Leonhardt's story:

In the end, none of these moves is nearly as important as designing a defensive strategy or drafting good players. But Belichick's hyper-efficient approach almost certainly gives his team a small advantage in a game that can easily be decided by minor differences.

The approach has also altered the course of Professor Romer's research. When talking about the Berkeley economist's paper this year, Belichick noted that it did not consider the emotional effect that failing on fourth down could have on a team.

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