By now we know that the Patriots’ decision to kick off to start overtime wasn’t a mistake—or at least, not the one it appeared to be at the time. New England never touched the ball in their 26-20 OT loss to the Jets, and while the outcome wasn’t by design, the strategy was. Whether or not it was a wise one is up for a debate that can’t ever truly be settled.
If you thought you were confused by the call, imagine being special-teams captain Matthew Slater, tasked by Bill Belichick with relaying the choice to the referee.
“I asked him three or four times just to make sure I’m not the guy that goes up there (and decides) ‘We want to kick off.’ So I double checked three or four times. I think he was looking at me like, ‘Are you concussed?’ because I kept asking him.
“You never question coach’s decision-making. He’s the best in the business and we trust him fully.”
If anything, it proved that Belichick isn’t infallible. Not the ultimate outcome, but the failure to properly communicate to Slater that he needed to specify the end of the field New England wanted to defend. The transcript of his conversation with referee Clete Blakeman shows that Slater requested to kick before he picked the direction he wanted to kick, and the NFL rulebook very clearly gives primacy to first utterance. (A team can elect to kick, receive, or pick an end of the field. To start a game, it can also defer its choice until the second half. Deferring obviously wasn’t an option with a single overtime period. [Deferring has led to its own rules confusion; it’s actually possible to receive the ball to start both halves, if the other team screws up.])
Did it make sense for the Patriots to want to start overtime on defense? The numbers say no. The win probability model used by ESPN’s Brian Burke says the team that starts with the ball should win 53.8 percent of the time, which would mean Belichick’s decision cost the Patriots about a 7.6 percent chance of winning.
In the real world, the difference hasn’t been so stark. With a very small sample size, the receiving team has won 50.7 of overtime games since the NFL changed its OT rules before the 2012 season.
The biggest factor influencing the occasional decision to kick off is always wind. In 2013, on a gusty day in Foxboro, the Patriots chose to kick to the Broncos—and won. Just last month, the Vikings elected to kick off to the Rams—and won. (That Vikings victory is the template for the decision to give up the ball. A wind-aided kickoff sailed out of the end zone for a touchback, the Vikings D held for a three-and-out, a good punt return set Minnesota up at midfield, and the Vikings needed just one first down to get in position for the winning, wind-aided field goal.)
Of course, there wasn’t much wind yesterday—and what there was ended up at the Jets’ backs, thanks to Slater’s gaffe giving New York both the ball and the choice of end zones. The only possible reason for kicking off would have been Belichick trusting his defense to keep the Jets out of the end zone more than he trusted his offense to reach it.
Asked directly if he regretted his decision, Belichick said, “No. We were looking at field position.
“We just didn’t play good enough defense.”
It’s conceivably a defensible decision—field position matters, plus, even if the Jets had been able to notch a field goal, there’s something nice about knowing how much you’ve got to score and being able to use all four downs to do it—but the risk was an intimidating one. Losing an overtime game without ever putting the ball in Tom Brady’s hands reminds me of all the baseball managers who hold out their closer for a save situation, and end up losing without ever putting their best reliever on the mound. Belichick’s earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to being unorthodox, but sometimes the conventional wisdom is conventional for a reason.