Playing The Percentages

“The dumbest decision I’ve ever seen.”

This was one of the kinder epithets thrown at Bill Belichik over the last two days. Bill is the head coach of the New England Patriots. He’s won three Super Bowls already, and is generally regarded as having already earned a place in the Hall of Fame as a coach. Everyone who has an opinion regards him as the best coach in the NFL. Everyone. By some distance.

On Sunday night, in the biggest game of the year so far, he made a decision. 4th down. His team’s 28 yard line. 2 yards to go. 2 and a half minutes to go. His team leading by 6.
He decided to go for it.

In the moment that it happened, there was a gasp. From the crowd. The announcers on tv. And from every person watching around the world. All of us were stunned.

The play gained 1 yard. And the Patriots turned the ball over on their own 29 yard line to arguably the greatest quarterback in the game. Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts.

1 minute 47 seconds later the Colts scored. And 13 seconds after that, the Patriots had lost.

For 24 hours, the airwaves were filled with commentators berating Belichik. Include me in that group. ‘You don’t do that,’ was our collective consideration. Ever. Period.

Bill Belichik made mistakes that night. But that decision, I have come to realize, was not one of them.

People judge decisions by the results all the time.

Which is categorically and absolutely wrong.

Decisions should be judged by the quality of the thinking and information that went into them.

Not by what happened afterwards. The results of which are affected too much by chance and external forces.

When a decision creates a bad outcome, the predilection to focus on the result means we learn almost nothing from the outcome. And a bad result and no learning is the ultimate lose-lose.

Worse, it convinces us that the alternative option was correct. Which is the case far less often than we believe. A lose, lose, lose.

In Bill Belichik’s case, the decision was derided because it didn’t work. And yet, the logic behind it was absolutely sound.

If the Patriots had gained two yards on the play, not one, they would have won the game. They could run the clock out and prevent the Colts from getting the ball back. One play, win the game. 100%

If they punt the ball, they give away the 100% option. Most pundits believe the Colts had a 33% chance to drive 70 yards in two minutes and score the winning touchdown. Better, they said to make them go 70 yards than 29.

Which ignores the fact there was a 100% option on the table. Which beats 66% every time.

Bell Belichik is a thick-skinned guy. But even he appeared rattled by the aftermath. I suspect if a similar situation comes up, even he won’t try it again.

Which would itself be a mistake. Because the real question he should analyze is why the play he called gained one yard not two. And whether there was a play more likely to create the outcome he wanted.

To win.

Learning from our mistakes is critical. In business and life. It’s how we evolve as a species.

Which means first recognizing what is a mistake.