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November 17, 2009, 01:57 AM ET
Fourth-and-short for traditional sports punditry

by John Gasaway

I am by no means an analyst of the NFL. I leave that to Aaron Schatz and his superb crew at Football Outsiders. But I am both an NFL fan and a voracious consumer of sportswriting and analysis. And in the wake of the Indianapolis Colts‘ thrilling come-from-behind 35-34 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday night, it struck me that the game threw a harsh light not only on a growing divide between two ways of “covering” sports, but more basically on two differing conceptions of how sports should be perceived and described.

At root there are two ways you can write up Bill Belichick’s now infamous decision to go for it on fourth-and-two from his own 28 with a six-point lead and 2:08 to play in the game. Like this:

This was as bad as anything the Red Sox ever did. Had it been a playoff game, it would have been right up there with Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Aaron Boone, and History Derailed in Glendale, Ariz.

And Bill Belichick played the part of Grady Little.

Or like this:

Really, no matter how you play with the numbers, it will come out about the same. Try it. There is almost no way–without suppressing the numbers–to make the percentages even out. The Patriots’ best PERCENTAGE chance was to go for it on fourth down. Of course, football is not really a percentage game for most of us, is it? No, it’s a game about emotion and passion and momentum.

When the game ended and Belichick’s gamble failed, people lined up to bash him–and normally I’d be all for this. Former Patriots player Rodney Harrison called it the worst coaching move Belichick ever made. Former Patriots player Teddy Bruschi wrote that Belichick dissed his defense by not believing they could stop the Colts over 70 yards. Tony Dungy said, “You have to punt there. You just have to punt there.” And so on and on.  

But–and believe me, I’m not trying to defend Belichick’s last-minute coaching here (more on this in a minute)–I think in many ways all these knocks sort of miss the point. This is who Bill Belichick is, who he has always been. He is about winning the game without passion or prejudice. He doesn’t give a damn if there were some hurt feelings on his defense.

I see what you’re thinking. The first excerpt must be from an old-school unabashed Plaschke manque; the second is obviously from some daring young quantitatively savvy blogger in his jammies.

You’re half-right. The first excerpt comes to us courtesy of an old-school unabashed Plaschke manque. It doesn’t particularly matter which one, for there are many, many writers I could have quoted there.

I can’t say the same of excerpt number two, which was written by Joe Posnanski. Note that Posnanski learned his trade not in his mother’s basement but at the Kansas City Star, his words appeared not on a message board but at SI.com, and he pulled his “percentages” in this case not from some obscure grad student blogger but from the New York Times

In other words, ”traditional sports punditry” is denoted not by what kind of resume you have, how old you are, whether you sit in the press box, or even whether your thoughts are packaged in 800 words of ink, 1600 words of pixels, or two minutes of streaming video. No, “traditional sports punditry” denotes merely that you’re not staying current within your own field: “What the hell is Belichick doing?” as opposed to “Whoa, talk about trusting the percentages–what the hell is Belichick doing?”

The days when you could stay current simply by talking to players and coaches ended emphatically this decade. Posnanski has stayed laudably current, plus he’s an outstanding writer. In this passage he links an understanding of the situation’s abstract quantitative imperatives to a perceptive–and, I think, correct–read of Belichick’s particular inner qualitative motor.    

To be aware of what Posnanski calls the “PERCENTAGE”s, ones that indicate that probability was in Belichick’s favor over the course of a thousand tries, does not rule out disagreeing with the coach in this single instance. But to not be aware of these percentages is to fail in the most basic journalistic sense. To write about a decision, much less try to criticize it, without displaying any understanding of its self-evident context is to fall down on the job in the ”why” department, even if you do get the who, the what, the when, and the where.

Humans would be well-advised to nail the “why,” by the way. Computers can now do those other four pretty well. 

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