Was Belichick Right to Take the Wind in OT?

I was surprised when Bill Belichick chose to take the second possession (and risk no possessions) in OT against Peyton Manning and a team that had scored 31 points in four quarters. Although the new OT format mitigates the advantage of the team with first possession, it's still there to the tune of about 56% to 44%.

The advantage of wind must have felt fairly strong to Belichick. His team captains thought he was crazy. At the time, it was impossible to tell from the comfort of my sofa how bad the wind was, but I was curious if we could see the effect statistically.

Scott Kacsmar at Football Outsiders did a good review of the game (and has an excellent breakdown of how games have been decided in the nearly two seasons of the new format). It's clear how the wind would affect the kicking game, but Belichick's biggest risk was that there would be no kicks at all--a Denver TD would mean his team would never touch the ball. So I looked at passing stats.

I thought the best way to look at things would be raw yards per attempt (YPA). I didn't use net yards (which includes sack yards) or EPA/WPA which factor in almost everything including fumbles and penalties, because those things aren't driven by the wind. And if the wind was such a big factor, we'd see it in the raw average without worrying about adjustments.

NE defended the north end zone (had the wind at its back) in the 1st, 4th, and OT periods. DEN had the wind in the 2nd and 3rd periods. The table below lists the YPA for the team going into the wind and the team with the wind for each period. DEN's numbers are in orange, and NE's are in blue.

PeriodInto WindWith Wind
Avg YPA5.45.1

It turns out that offenses going into the wind actually had a higher average YPA. But Manning did throw his single pick of the game when going into the wind. NE's 3rd quarter featured a 33-yard pass and a 43-yard pass, which are the primary drivers of the results. Setting those two plays aside, if only to see what affect they had on the averages, the results are 4.5 YPA for into the wind and 5.1 YPA against the wind.

So even if we throw out the two biggest pass plays of the game, which happened to be into the wind, there still isn't a clear statistical difference in YPA between having the wind at the offense's back and having it in their faces.

I assume Belichick was talking to Tom Brady about the passing conditions all game. Brady is experienced, so his opinion would be the one that counts. And it would only take about an effect of about 6% of Win Probability for the wind to swing the advantage. The one thing we know for sure is that Belichick's decision wasn't correct because his team won. That's pure hindsight bias.

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20 Responses to “Was Belichick Right to Take the Wind in OT?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    the results are pretty different if you just consider the broncos offense, though... without factoring the number of plays per quarter, it seems like the broncos' ypa was about a yard and a half better, or nearly 40% better, going with the wind.

    plus, 3.5 ypa isn't particularly intimidating, especially considering moreno was pretty hobbled by OT.

  2. Anonymous says:

    keep in mind that "40% better" is really just one throw.

    #small samples.

    On a related point, the team with 1st possession wins 56% of the time, but won't they 100% of the time be against the wind, since the other team chooses the field to defend. (note: it's not always windy, especially indoors).

  3. Anonymous says:

    speaking of OT rules, why didn't they just let the coin flip winner decide to receive, or to choose the direction,

    and then do the sudden death, guaranteeing one possession each. Fair, fast, and simple(!). It does everything brian outlined. And the coin flip winner can choose last raps if it wants to.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This is one of those situations where its too unique to quantify fully.

    The Broncos didn't play well in the second half, and Peyton didn't play well at all. Peyton has a bad record in cold weather and against the Pats. Talib was handling Thomas well. I don't know if it was the right decision, I'd need to really feel the win down there, but if it was strong enough and cold enough I could see taking it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    If you consider that NE would not take a tie while Denver would and that NE would get one possession less is it still the right call to kick? Had Denver correctly fielded the punt odds are they at least get a tie.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Do you think the decision may have been more about a guaranteed touchback by kicking with the wind compared to potential good field position for the Broncos? Maybe Belichick thought that if he knew Denver would have to start on their 20 they would likely not score a TD

  7. Unknown says:

    It was the right choice and not by hindsight. He was focused more on a field goal attempt as well as having confidence in his defense to keep them out of the endzone. Gostkowski has got a leg and with the wind guaranteed a touchback. A successful field goal attempt by Denver would have been unlikely anywhere outside the 20 yard line in that situation.

  8. KHAZAD says:

    The touchback certainly enters into it. Your own winning probability calculator puts Denver's winning percentage starting at the 20 at 53%, but the TD probability on that drive is only 15%. Taking the wind conditions into account, getting probably at least a 10 yard difference in how close you need to get to get a field goal the entire overtime, and probably a 10 yard difference in field position every punt, I think New England gets enough advantage if they don't score a TD to mitigate that edge.

    It was a smart play.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The other piece that people are not considering is they're guaranteeing themselves 4 downs if the Broncos do kick a field goal.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Love the linked article:
    'his decision was more “mad genius” than “foolish”'
    ...with no justification whatsoever (except BB is BB, not MM)

  11. Anonymous says:

    I think this is also a case of not just considering the numbers but a calculated qualititative risk regarding the broncos' passing and kicking game, he specifically mentioned Brady's tight spiral and how it cuts into the wind and considering Peyton's spirals it must have been a calculated gamble on his part


  12. Unknown says:

    I agree with Khazad in that the advantage manifests itself more in the kicking game than the passing game. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of field goal attempts in that high of a wind. It seems like in this game the wind was blowing entirely up/down field (as opposed to a crosswind) which might make kicking harder compared to other games with similar wind mph (and more advantageous for the team going with the wind). The cold temperature also means denser air and a harder ball witch both serve to reduce kicking distance.

  13. Chase Stuart says:

    Not a foolproof test, but I suspect Broncos fans were happy to get the ball first in OT. Not a bad decision by Belichick, but I wouldn't have done it. Probably a 52/48 sort of thing, though.

  14. Brian Burke says:

    Agree with those above who suggest the kicking advantage alone may be enough to justify taking the wind.

  15. Anonymous says:

    It's almost guaranteed that whoever got the ball first would start at their own 20 and would need to drive into the wind for a TD to win the game. Odds of that are pretty low probably less than the typical 15%.
    Odds of driving for a field goal are also really low since you probably have to get 10 yards closer than typical range to kick into the wind. And then you have to kickoff into the wind to the other team who can drive and kick with the wind.
    Most likely the first team to get the ball stalls their drive out of field goal range and then has to punt into the wind probably giving the second team good field position to drive into the wind and kick into the wind for a game winning field goal.
    That's not how it played out but that was the most likely scenario I think.
    A fumble though maybe more likely than normal because of the cold was still probably the least likely outcome that could've happened.

  16. Anonymous says:

    one conclusion may simply be that belichick did not think that the 56% to 44% receive advantage based on NFL averages, was not relevant to the particular game situation.

    Local and specific matters were what is most important - the way both offense and defenses had played in that game, weather, temperature,etc cause that 56% win "probability" to change by a large amount.

  17. Hagrin says:

    This is a perfect example of, while I believe in the math, people are making the numbers fit the narrative.

    This entire article talks about YPA into the wind. Problem is the Broncos ripped off the following runs in OT -

    8, 18, 8, 6, 2, 18 (Moreno gets seriously hurt), 6, -1 (Moreno), 3 (Moreno)

    The issue here is that Del Rio had so little faith in Ball and Anderson to close out the game that he put a guy back in the game that could barely run and is now walking with a boot. Your own win probability graph shows that the Broncos had a much higher win prob throughout the entire OT until the punt. If Moreno doesn't get hurt or Del Rio trusts the probability that Ball won't fumble again (1 in every 28 touches I believe) and puts his best runner back in, the Broncos more often than not win that game based on the probabilities.

    Yes, the wind absolutely changed the outcome of the game by causing confusion on the punt. Yes, it drastically changed Manning's passing efficiency numbers while Brady was mostly unaffected. However, none of that stopped the Broncos from gashing a depleted NE defensive front and if not for an injury + benching, the Broncos more often than not win that game because wind does not stop an effective run game (5.8 yards per rush for the entire game, even higher if you throw out 2 Moreno injury runs). Your own win probability graph pretty much shows that without a statistically unpredictable turnover, the Broncos had a higher win prob on the whole throughout the OT.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Belichick knows what he's doing. The reason why the Pats won is because of Belichick's experience compared to Jack Del Rio. Belichick is a future hall of famer.

  19. madsci64 says:

    Belichick thought you would need to get to the 25 for an against-the-wind FG, and only the 45 for with-the-wind. (http://nfl.si.com/2013/11/25/nfl-week-12-highs-lows-bill-belichick-overtime/)

    He didn't say he took the wind because of any effect on the offenses:

  20. Anonymous says:

    I think Belichick's way of thinking about it--namely, how many yards is this worth--is exactly right: to denominate the decision in yards (per kick). Then there are two questions--is the estimate of 10 yards correct, and is 10 yards worth giving up the first possesion?

    The second question could probably be addressed here by asking: how many yards would the wind have to worth, for giving up the first possession to be worth it?

    The first question, was it ten yards? Only those on the field can guess. But I live in Boston, and the wind that night was something fierce, ten doesn't seem unreasonable at all.

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