The Super Bowl, Bill Belichick, and Letting Your Opponent Score

There are many times when it is acceptable, even encouraged, to let someone else score, like playing basketball with your younger brother or sister. Letting your opponent score in the National Football League almost never happens. If anything, losing teams complain about their opponents running up the score during a game that had already been decided. The argument for the winners in that scenario: stop us, if you can. It’s hard to prevent another team from scoring, but almost no one ever simply allows the other team to score.

What about Superbowl XLVI?

When asked if “he allowed the Giants to score that touchdown at the end”, head coach Bill Belichick replied “Right.” After the follow up question on his though process, he responded, “Ball inside the 10-yard line, a 90 percent field goal conversion (in that territory).” In the most important game of the NFL season, Belichick allowed the Giants to score the go ahead touchdown with just over a minute left to play.

And he should have. Ahmad Bradshaw made the wrong play by crossing the goal line. On screen, it even looks like he at least thought about taking a knee at the one-yard line. Instead, he falls over and crosses the plane to score the Superbowl-winning touchdown.

But no one knew that his score would decide the game. Before he ran the ball in, the Giants had 0.94 win probability (per Advanced NFL Stats). After the play, the Giants’ win probability dropped to 0.85. Had he instead taken a Brian Westbrook or Maurice Jones-Drew-esque knee on the goal line, the Giants would have had a 0.96 win probability. Assuming the Patriots used their final time out, the Giants would have had 3rd and Goal from the 1-yard line with around 1:04 left to play. At this point, the Giants could either attempt to score a touchdown or take a knee. Assuming the touchdown try was unsuccessful or that Eli Manning kneeled, the Giants could have let the clock run all the way down to 0:25 before using the Giants’ final time out. With 4th and Goal from the 2 with 25 seconds left to play, the Giants would have a 0.92 win probability, 0.07 higher than after Bradshaw scored the touchdown of his life.

Because the Patriots were not able to score with the 1:04 that Bradshaw left them, this play will go down as the highlight of his career and most people probably won’t think twice about that play again. But if Tom Brady had marched the Patriots down the field on that final drive with the time left to him, people would argue about how much time the Giants left for the Patriots to mount a comeback. Regardless of the outcome, Belichick made the right call when he let the Giants score. Lawrence Tynes jokes aside, Belichick recognized that the Giants would almost certainly score, and that he needed to give his offense a chance to win the game. By letting the Giants score the deciding touchdown of XLVI, Belichick maximized his team’s odds of winning. Even though the Patriots lost another heartbreaker, Belichick’s brains gave them a chance.

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  • What were the probabilities if NE had let them score on the down before that play? While letting them score was a sharp/advanced move that very few other coaches would have done, could it have been even smarter to do it a down earlier?

  • Letting a player score is not unprecedented. It was a smart tactic for the Pats, a trap the Giants really hoped to avoid according to this article in the Star-Ledger:

    It was ugly sportsmanship, though, that led Tampa Bay to do it during the last game of the 1984 season. Bucs’ RB James Wilder was just shy of the record for most combined rushing and receiving yards in a season. So with Tampa Bay winning handily, John McKay ordered his defense to let the Jets score so Wilder would get a shot at the record. Fortunately, he didn’t get it.

  • ESPN is running a poll on the home page: Which was the biggest error by the Patriots?
    Intentional grounding on the first play leads to a safety – 30% of respondents
    Twelve men on the field negates a stop – 44% of respondents
    Tom Brady throws a long interception on first down – 26% of respondents

    Do you have data about which is worse: 2 points, losing the fumble recovery, or losing possession via interception?

  • Taking the meta-game a level further – assuming teams wise up to this and everybody does start taking a knee at the one yard line in this sort of situation, what’s the correct tactical response from the defense? Attempt to pick up the ball-carrier and carry them into the endzone?

    • Until contracts start taking into account a player kneeling down when they should, and ego-maniacal players playing for the good of the team instead of personal glory, this isn’t going to happen. So basically, LONG way to go to get there. You think a player is going to do their dance after a kneel-down?

      And then there’s contract negotiations and fantasy football.
      My client scored 27 TDs
      My client was able to kneel down when appropriate.
      Which one sounds better to you? And fantasy football fans would go nuts if this started happening (until it was changed to take this into account).

      • Bart: smart players (or smart coaches) have taken a knee in the past, most famously MJD: As for what fantasy football fans think, I don’t think coaches/GMs will be too bothered – fantasy football is not the real thing.

        And to answer my own question, Bill Belichick seems to have already thought of this one: ‘”We were going to drag him into the end zone,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said.’

        • Sorry if what I said was unclear. I wasn’t saying it never happens. But, it happens a LOT less than it should for at least some of the reasons I specified.

          Regarding fantasy football, there was at least one instance I recall where a player who did the right thing by taking a knee apologized after the game to fantasy football players who had taken him that week.

          In terms of the defense letting the team score, I think Bill Belichick has done this in the past so wasn’t surprised. I don’t remember the game, but there was (at least) once where it happened and the Patriots came back to score and win the game.

  • One of the poll questions should have been, Belichick challenging the catch and costing his team a timeout that would have negated the need to let the Giants score. Belichicks’s brains indeed.

  • Some folks have pointed out that it wasn’t unprecedented…. Mike Holmgren commanded the Green Bay Packers to allow Terrel Davis of the Denver Broncos to run into the end zone in a very, very similar situation. Amazingly, I was talking about that exact play just moments before the Giants fell backwards into the endzone. In the Bronco vs. Packer match-up, Brett Favre got the ball back with very little time. Like Brady, he was able to advance the ball and make a threat. But Favre did what he has was able to do better than any other quarterback in history: he threw an interception and gave Elway and the rest of Bronco Country their first Super Bowl victory. Its a tough decision, but I’d probably make the same one (as Belichick and Holmgren).

    • A team can certainly slow the game down (or try to speed it up) depending on the score and the inning when a hard rain is threatening and it’s the last game of the season between the two teams.

  • Good article, but surprised it’s necessary.
    Twenty years ago, my 15 year old friends and I quickly understood the wisdom of allowing your opponent to score in the Ahmad Bradshaw scenario simply by playing Madden’s for a week.
    We had a game that someone won by allowing the TD on defense in the Bradshaw scenario, then executing a game winning drive on offense. It would have been a mirror image of the Super Bowl if the Patriots were able to score a TD on the final drive.
    The next time the same player in our Madden league tried to allow the TD on defense in the Bradshaw scenario, the team whose offensive player had the ball simply stopped running toward the end zone and instead ran horizontally on the 3 yard line (running on the 1 or 2 yard line was dangerous for the strategy, cause the defenders could push you into the end zone). After the offensive player was on the three yard line for ten seconds, the defense’s choices were limited to let the clock expire on the offense’s terms or tackle the player.
    The offensive player was tackled, but the team on offense won that game by kicking an easy field goal with no time remaining.
    The way the offense handled that situation became conventional wisdom in our Madden League. That 15 year olds playing Madden’s could understand the Bradshaw scenario better then most NFL coaches, announcers, and fans after all this time still boggles my mind.

    • I don’t think coaches are unaware of the idea — I just think it is taboo. That’s why I was surprised Belichick admitted to it.

      A sort of similar situation is when a team needs 1 TD and 1 FG late in the game, they drive down to the 5 yd line or so, and then they kick the FG because you should “always stay in the game,” even though that discounts the difficulty of reaching the 5 yd line again on your subsequent drive.

      I think it is taboo to take a risk that, despite giving your team the better chance to win, could cause you to definitively lose at an earlier point in time. Think back to the Pats going for it on 4th down against the Colts a couple seasons ago.

    • Especially when a similar scenario occurred 3 weeks earlier with the Saints scoring too quickly and leaving enough time on the clock for the 49’ers to win.
      Not exactly the same because a TD is never assured and that’s what the Saints needed, but close enough to realize that giving away a possession can be similar to giving away points.

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