"In Bill We Trust," you say?

Pats Helmet

It’s often said that if a sports coach listens to the opinions of the fans, he’ll find himself sitting amongst them, instead of on the sidelines coaching.  No coach exemplifies this sentiment more than the stoic head coach of the New England Patriots: Bill Belichick.  Even as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan myself, I can’t help but admire what Belichick has done for the Patriots franchise and, in particular, how he has done it.  His long track record of success over the past two decades has led many Pats fans to express their reverence for the coach, by touting the phrase “In Bill We Trust.”  But it wasn’t always that way.   

More than eight years ago, football fans witnessed the “4th and 2 Game” against the Indianapolis Colts, which remains (in my opinion) as one of the greatest illustrations of how Belichick’s approach may not always win each game, but it has certainly set the stage for the Patriots to contend for the Super Bowl year in and year out.   Let’s take a look back at this game from 2009, and see how it might influence the way we manage your portfolio today:  

November 15, 2009:  New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts

The undefeated Indianapolis Colts were hosting the New England Patriots, who sat atop the AFC East at 6-2.  A growing rivalry between the Colts and Patriots had evolved, focusing primarily on the opposing projected Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.  In this game, the Patriots had the ball with a 34-28 lead with 2:23 remaining in the game, but it was 4th down and 2 yards to go from their own 28-yard line.  Coach Bill Belichick had a difficult choice to make:  go for it or punt.  Most pundits thought that the correct decision was to punt. Belichick decided to go for it. 

Brady completed a pass to halfback Kevin Faulk, but Faulk appeared to bobble the ball while being driven backwards. Officials determined that Faulk had not secured possession of the ball until he was short of the first down marker, resulting in a turnover on downs.  Three plays later, Manning connected on a short touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne that was followed by the extra point kick, putting the Colts ahead 35-34 with 13 seconds remaining in the game.  The rest was just a formality.  As a result of Coach Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th down from his own 28-yard line, he was highly criticized by media and fans alike.  Some accused the coach of making a mistake or out-thinking himself, while those few who gave him credit said he had “guts.” 

I never thought it was either. 

Consider the Math

Let’s analyze the two primary choices that Belichick could have made, as well as the possible outcomes for each choice.  Please note that, in my opinion, these are the reasonable scenarios to consider, and do not include any fluke plays, like a fumble returned for a touchdown, or a dropped punt that would have turned the ball back over the Patriots.   Also, as a disclaimer, some of my numbers are empirical, while others may be anecdotal or hypothetical; however, I have tried to be as fair as possible in my estimates.  At any rate, here is how I have always looked at the decision in that game …


Outcome 1:
In going for it, they had a chance to successfully convert on the play, and easily run out the clock to win the game.

The Patriots had successfully converted on about 50% of its 4th down attempts so far that year.  In the prior year (2008), they were successful on 4th down 77% of the time.  Furthermore, teams in the NFL that went for it on 4th down, see their probabilities of success increase, the shorter each attempt may be.  In short-yardage 4th down plays, the Patriots had been converting on more than 60% their attempts.

Outcome 2:
They could go for it, not convert on the play, and be unable to stop the Colts from scoring the go-ahead touchdown. 

This was the worst-case scenario, and the one that actually played out.  The Pats defense had struggled to contain Peyton Manning and the Colts, and with two minutes to go, deep in Patriots territory, there was a very good chance that the Colts would win the game.  I think it’s fair to estimate that the Colts had perhaps an 80% chance of scoring in this situation (which, of course, they did).    

Outcome 3:
They may have considered going for it, not being able to convert on the play, but still manage to prevent the Colts from scoring the go-ahead touchdown. 

While less likely, stopping the Colts from scoring still offered a 20% possibility, which would have resulted in a win for the Patriots. 


Outcome 1:
In punting, it was possible that they may not have been able to stop the Colts from scoring the go-ahead touchdown, anyway.

Most likely, the Colts would have fielded the punt and started their next drive somewhere, perhaps, around their own 35-yard line, with about 2 minutes to go.  The Colts would have then had a fair chance to score the go-ahead touchdown and win the game, regardless of their starting field position.   Advanced Football Analytics calculates that NFL teams, starting from their own 35-yard line, score a touchdown approximately 20% of the time.  That’s just an average.  This was Peyton Manning’s prime playing years, and he was anything but average.  However, it’d be generous to give even Manning and the high-powered Colts offense more than a 50% likelihood of scoring. 

Outcome 2:
By punting, it may have given the Pats more field to work with, enabling them to stop the Colts from scoring the go-ahead touchdown.

Based on the previous possible outcome, there would have to be a 50% probability of holding off the Colts and securing the win.

So Was It The Right Call?

By going for it on 4th and 2, I calculate that the Patriots had about a 70% chance of winning, while punting it would’ve given them about a 50% chance of winning.  If my numbers are correct, Bill Belichick made the right call.  Yes, the outcome of the game was a loss, but the decision was a smart one.  And therein lies the challenge – when the correct mathematical decision has a less-than-probable result.  So, what can we learn from this game that can be applied to your current investment strategy? 

  1. Sometimes the correct decision is one that may not seem like the correct decision. In this case, most fans and so-called experts believed Belichick should have punted. But Belichick has never been one to care much about what others think, and that is an approach you can take when thinking about your portfolio. It’s important to tune out the noise: the media, colleagues at the water cooler, or your own second-guessing thoughts. Let the numbers dictate your highest probabilities, and stay disciplined to the investment plan.

  2. It’s a numbers game, and a correct decision doesn’t always turn out the way we hope. Our investment approach at Tilton Wealth Management is to apply quantitative reasoning in a disciplined investment process – quarter after quarter. For a client with a 30-year time horizon, that equates to more than 120 macro decisions (and thousands of micro decisions). Will each decision prove to be a winner? Of course, not. But by adhering to a quantitative approach that targets higher probability outcomes time and time again, we manage investment strategies in a most prudent and effective way.

For the Patriots, using such an intelligent approach has resulted in an impressive five Super Bowl rings (one fewer than the Pittsburgh Steelers, I must mention).  For you, it should serve as a reminder that successful investing requires a prudent, mathematical approach, that isn’t perfect every time, but sets you up for the best chance to succeed.  Each quarter, when I place my portfolio re-allocation trades, I am often reminded of this game and the tough decision Coach Belichick had to make.