Decisions and Outcomes: Belichick Edition

We often have to make decisions under uncertainty. (If you’re uncertain what uncertainty means, you could read the Wikipedia article, although it’s unlikely to provide you with certainty.) These decisions lead to outcomes. You and your decisions may well be judged, by yourself and others, on the outcomes.

You should be judged on the decisions, rather than on the outcomes. For example, in a store you choose to buy ingredients for dinner rather than lottery tickets. The person behind you in line buys a lottery ticket, the very ticket you could have bought, and it wins a huge jackpot.

Does that mean that lottery ticket would have been a better decision for you than dinner? No, even though it led to a better outcome. (Yes, I am making assumptions about preferences here.)

Residents of Boston and fans of (American) football will have recognized the name in the post title, and realized that I’m thinking of a decision made by Bill Belichik on Sunday night. Yes I am.

Anyway, Bill B called a risky offensive play, rather than going with the apparently less risky punt. The outcome was that the rival team got the ball, scored to go ahead with just 13 seconds left, and won. There has been rather a lot of criticism of Bill’s decision, much of it along the lines of: “You have got to play the percentages and punt the ball.”

However, there is an argument that Bill did play the percentages, and played them correctly. One such argument was made by blogger Brian Burke (via Boston Globe), who estimated that Bill’s call gave his team a 79% chance of winning, while the punt would have given a 70% chance.

In this case, I believe the people who claim that they were criticizing the decision as soon as Bill made it, without waiting for the outcome. Bill went against the conventional wisdom. He didn’t go against the percentages as he saw them.