Sunday, one of the greatest coaches in NFL history made a decision so confusing, we all assumed it was a mistake. At the start of overtime against the Jets, Bill Belichick decided the Patriots should kick the ball off rather than receive it. The Jets quickly scored a touchdown, the game ended, the Patriots lost.
At first, many assumed Patriots captain Matthew Slater had massively failed during the coin toss, brainfarting by telling the refs the Patriots didn't want the ball when in fact, they did. Why would a team ever want to give away possession with the NFL's modified sudden death overtime rules? The jokes about Slater's imminent release flew hard and fast on social media. It's worth noting that Slater is headed to a fifth straight Pro Bowl this year, and not even mean Bill Belichick would cut him for misspeaking, but that's besides the point.
But after the game, Belichick, Slater and many Patriots players confirmed he hadn't made that mistake. Many, including us, came to the conclusion that Belichick had wanted to kick to the side of the field with better wind, since he has chosen the wind in overtime before and it worked.
But in a Monday press conference, Belichick revealed that he didn't even care about the wind. In fact, he wanted to kick off so much, that he specifically feared the possibility that if his team picked a side of the field, the Jets would choose to kick themselves:
"Honestly, it didn't really make any difference, there was almost no wind in the game. That wasn't a big consideration," he said. "What I didn't want to do was defend a goal and have them choose to kick off. So we chose to kick off, and I don't know exactly what happened out there at midfield, but we obviously didn't have the choice of goals."
The idea that Belichick was trying to actively prevent the Jets from choosing to kick is baffling. Only 12 times in NFL history has a coach besides Belichick chosen not to receive to start overtime, all of these were in bad weather games where choosing the direction was more important than choosing possession. But even in these games, the first team with the choice to gain possession had still chosen the ball.
The only exception is the 1962 AFL Championship game, where captain Abner Hayes accidentally said the team wanted to "kick to the clock," which was interpreted as "kick," accidentally allowing the other team to choose direction.
So far as we can tell, Belichick is now the first coach in NFL history whose No. 1 priority in the overtime coin toss was to give the other team the ball. The only other time a team has chosen "kick" above "receive" and "direction" was an accident from before the Super Bowl existed.
It seems incredibly stupid. Not even the most inept coaches in league history have been dumb enough to think it's a bad idea to start a sudden death period on defense. Normally, we'd pan this decision without thinking about it. But Belichick has been right in the face of commonly accepted football thinking over and over again in the past, so we had to take a closer look.
If you trust smart math people, the numbers quickly find fault with Belichick's logic. Brian Burke of ESPN says his win probability model projects the team that receives the ball first in overtime to win 53.8 percent of the time, almost 7 percent better than the kicking team.
But maybe you just trust results, so let's look at those. Since the NFL instituted modified overtime rules, there have been 73 overtime games, including postseason and Monday Night Football. Three have been ties. In the other 70, the team that receives the ball first has won 38 of those, or 54.2 percent. Burke's model seems pretty good.
Here's what happens on the first possession of overtime, and how often the team who received the ball first wins in each scenario.
(For win percentage purposes, a tie counts as half a win and half a loss. We're including two turnovers on downs in "turnovers," each of those was a loss.)
The first reason Belichick's decision doesn't seem smart turns out to be the reason Belichick's decision doesn't seem smart. The opposing team scores a touchdown on the very first possession of overtime 17.8 percent of the time, and 100 percent of the time that happens, they win the game. They could be doing even better: NFL teams score touchdowns on 21.2 percent of possessions, per Football Outsiders. About a fifth of the time you kick off in overtime, you're going to lose before you touch the ball.
But even if you keep the team out of the end zone, things aren't great. The 2012 modification to the NFL's overtime rules allowed the second team to get the ball after an overtime-opening field goal, but it hasn't effected that many games. Teams that kick field goals to start overtime still win 85 percent of the time.
Four times, an opening field goal has been matched, but only once did the matching team go on to win, with two ties in these games. No team has ever one-upped a team by scoring a second possession touchdown after a first possession field goal. You would think the team with the opportunity to match would score more often, since they know they have to go for it on fourth down, but so far, it hasn't worked out that way.
Belichick did explain his thinking, and to be honest, there is some logic to it:
The bottom line is field position -- good field position, you don't have to take it as far; you get a stop, need a field goal [to win]
The modified overtime rules allow the first team to score a touchdown to win, but the rules allow the second team to score a field goal to win. You don't have to go as far to score a field goal as you do to score a touchdown. If you do get the ball for that second possession, you have a pretty good chance at winning. To illustrate Belichick's logic, a chart showing on which possession the game-winning score in overtime is made:
The game-winning score happens just about as often on the second possession of overtime as it does on the first possession of overtime. It's basically a toss-up.
Teams that force turnovers on the first possession of overtime are almost guaranteed to win, as they're already in field-goal range most of the time. And a kickoff followed by a three-and-out and a punt leaves the kicking team only needing 30 or so yards to get into range.
But it's not so much easier to score a field goal on the second possession that it overrides the fact the other team gets the dang ball first. And if you can't score on that second possession, we're back to square one.
It's not just more likely that a team will score on the first possession than on the second possession. It's also more likely that a team will score on the third possession than on the fourth possession. And if the game does extend to a fifth possession, it's very unlikely that it's going to extend to a sixth possession before the clock expires.
I do think there is some sense to choosing a side of the field in games where weather is a factor. Two teams have opted to do this since the overtime rules changed -- Belichick in 2013, and Minnesota's Mike Zimmer this year -- and both have won. I wouldn't be surprised to see coaches set their special teamers up for a game-winning field goal more frequently with the new, more lenient overtime rules than they had in the old, pure sudden death format.
But this is still a modified sudden death overtime. There is no amount of reasoning that will override the obvious advantage that comes with getting the ball first.
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SB Nation presents: What Bill Belichick is really thinking at his press conferences