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Awareness, Intuition, and the Call

A controversial 4th down decision says a lot about how we react to dangerous situations.

by James Leroy Wilson
November 19, 2009

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Awareness, Intuition, and the Call

The first day, the reaction was almost overwhelmingly critical. Brutal, even.

The second day, more reasoned voices spoke out.

I'm referring, of course, to New England coach Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 on his own 28 yard-line with 2:08 left and a six-point lead on Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots just missed converting the play, giving Manning just 29 yards to drive toward the winning touchdown. As many readers already know, Manning succeeded and the Colts won.

The Monday media reaction? A "gutsy" but stupid call on Belichick's part. The call told the Patriot defensive unit that Belichick had no confidence in them. The call would mar Belichick's reputation as a football genius.

The Tuesday reaction? Many came out to say Belichik made the right call. In fact, the percentages said that Patriots should have gone for it to seal the game.

Who's correct? The early critics have a point, which can be summed up as, "You don't risk everything on one play."

Just about anything can go wrong on any given play, so one must not make unnecessary risks with play-calling late in a close game. Belichick "goofed" because he violated this rule. He risked everything on one play. It didn't work, his defense was put in a bad position, and the team lost.

It's kind of ironic that Belichick played the percentages, but is criticized for being too risky rather than conservative.

What can be more "conservative" (in the non-political sense) than playing the percentages?

The two different schools of thought have somewhat equal validity.

The "don't risk everything on one play" philosophy appeals to our very survival instincts. When in immediate danger, take the course to get out of it. When in a jam, buy time. Live for another day. When it's 4th-and-2 on your own 28, punt.

The "percentages" philosophy plays into our intellect. Our instincts may say the safest course is one way, but with knowledge and understanding, we see that there might be a better way. Sometimes the mind says "charge" when the instinct says "retreat." Sometimes the percentages say "go for it" and the instinct says punt. This manifests itself in a variety of situations. The fear of failure invites cautious action in a situation even when bold action will more likely bring success.

Playing percentages might seem like the logical thing to do - unless it is the equivalent of putting all eggs in one basket. Playing it "safe" by buying time and avoiding unnecessary risk also seems logical - but all too often "playing not to lose" leads to defeat.

There are no fast rules to decide which is best in which situations. Success doesn't come from following rules, but rather from awareness. Awareness is not only the observance of objective facts, but also the sensing of subjective cues. Is my team exhausted? Is the opposing team "in the zone?"

In that fourth quarter, Manning had already delivered two 2-minute, 79-yard scoring drives. Belichick wasn't about to give up a third. He didn't want to give Manning the ball at any yard mark on the field. He may have "lost confidence" in his defense, but that's not the same as saying he wouldn't trust them in other games. I suspect multiple factors, including the exhaustion of his defense, influenced Belichick's decision. When "instinct" says one thing, and "logic" (or percentage) says another, intuition based on subjective factors may be the wise course to take.

The why the great coaches are great coaches. They don't know just the X's and O's, they have a feel for the game. That's what we love about Captain Kirk.

In 1995, then-Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer was heavily criticized for going for it on fourth-and-inches on his own 29 in a tied ball game with two minutes left. The attempt failed.  The call forever tarnished Switzer's reputation as an NFL coach.

But I recall a story from later that season. Preparing for the NFC Championship game against Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, Switzer walked into the offensive team meeting and told them they'd have to score 30 points for Dallas to win the game.

Of course, Switzer couldn't have "known" that. But his intuition told him.

In other words, Switzer was aware of his team's strengths and weaknesses compared to the Packers.

The Cowboys won that game, 38-27. They went on to win the Super Bowl that year.

Not every intuitive decision will work out. That doesn't mean intuition should be ignored.



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