Every so often, Bill Belichick seems to get a little too cute in a high-leverage situation for his own good. At a glance, Sunday’s loss to the Jets, in which the Patriots won the coin toss and elected to kick off to begin overtime, seems to be a major example. But although the execution (and, certainly, the result) were about as undesirable as could be, it wasn’t exactly a major blunder, because the decision to kick or receive in overtime is more minor than it appears.
From the jump, the move was snakebit. After receiving his marching orders from Belichick (in quadruplicate!), special teams captain Matthew Slater mistakenly phrased the call so that New England chose to kick — not which goal to defend. Belichick says he was playing for field position, so the wind, which reached 18 mph at times, was pretty clearly a factor. By electing to kick in the first place, Belichick was already going off the reservation: It was only the 13th time in NFL history1 that a coach had won the overtime toss but did not choose to receive the ball first, practically inviting second-guessers. But to make the move and then have the NFL’s Byzantine rulebook begin parsing parts of speech at the precise worst time, well, that’s just piling on.
Still, although the numbers say Belichick’s strategy to kick would have been ill-considered even if Slater hadn’t misspoken, it wasn’t as big a mistake as it might have seemed.
For one thing, getting the ball first in OT doesn’t give the receiving team a huge advantage. Since the NFL adopted its current regular-season overtime rules in 2012, teams that win the toss and receive the ball first have gone on to win only 51.5 percent of the time. That’s a bit lower than ESPN’s modeled probability of 53.8 percent, but a drive-based model also suggests that getting the ball first is not of earth-shattering importance. Since 2012, teams receiving the ball to start OT have scored an opening-drive touchdown (thereby winning the game while denying the opponent a possession) about 16 percent of the time. They’ve also failed to score at all 64 percent of the time — and those failed drives can have a big effect on the outcome of the next drive.
Conditional on how its opponent’s previous drive ends, the average team kicking at the start of OT can have a pretty good opportunity to quickly counter-attack and end the game. Although a team that allows an opening touchdown by definition loses 100 percent of the time, and a team that allows an opening field goal loses 69 percent of the time, the kicking team scores a game-winning touchdown or field goal on 49 percent of drives that follow a zero-point opponent possession to begin overtime. (One big reason? Such drives start roughly 11 yards closer to the opponent’s goal line than drives after an opponent field goal.) If the kicking team can force a stop on the first drive of OT, it briefly finds itself very well-positioned to win the game.
|FIRST TEAM TO …|
|DRIVES INTO OVERTIME||GAMES||RECEIVE||KICK||STILL TIED|
After the first “exchange” of possessions,2 things start to go poorly for the team that kicked off at the beginning of OT. Because sudden-death rules take over, the team has to rely on joint probability — the odds of getting a stop and the odds of scoring — to win after any given pair of possessions. Its opponent, meanwhile, can strike first and end the game then and there. So to maximize its odds of winning, the original kicking team must capitalize on the brief window of opportunity it has at the end of overtime’s first exchange of possessions.
Belichick must have believed his Patriots could do just that. You can kind of see the grumpy old wheels turning: His defense had allowed fewer points through the end of regulation than the league average, and the Jets have basically been an average offensive team this season, so a defensive stop may have seemed more likely than the baseline NFL rate of 64 percent. And despite the furious pass rush Tom Brady faced much of the day, New England probably would have had a better-than-average chance of answering a potential zero-point possession with a game-winning drive, particularly if the wind had been on the Pats’ side.
In a sense, that’s all abstract odds-making. In reality, Belichick, Slater and the coaching staff botched the coin-toss decision, and the Jets orchestrated a brilliant series of big plays against the New England defense en route to the winning touchdown. Amid all that, the choice to kick is drowned out by all the other noise once overtime play starts.
Read more: FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions