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Bill Belichick and Risk Intelligence

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As America gears up for Super Bowl XLVI, Bill Belichick remains studiously calm. The head coach of the New England Patriots, who face their old rivals the New York Giants on Sunday, seems unperturbed by the angst that is gnawing away at the fans. Their anxiety stems from the last time the Patriots faced the Giants in a Super Bowl, four years ago. When the Patriots quarterback Tom Brady made a touchdown in the closing minutes of the game, giving New England a 14-10 lead, it looked like they would be the first team to have a perfect season since the Miami Dolphins in 1972. But then, just 35 seconds before the final whistle, the Giants' quarterback Eli Manning lofted a pass to the end zone where Burress caught the ball for a touchdown, and the Giants won by 17-14. One Patriots fan probably spoke for many of his peers when he told an ESPN poll: "That was the most difficult loss personally and emotionally in my life in sports."

But Belichick is having none of this. "This game is about this team, this year," he insists. The past doesn't matter. It is this ability to remain icily calm when everyone else around him is going crazy that has made Belichick one of the greatest coaches in the history of American football. But his cerebral air does not endear him to everyone.

Take his famous decision to go for it on fourth down in November 2009, for example, when the New England Patriots faced the Indianapolis Colts. It is widely assumed that you should punt on fourth down if you're far away from the other team's end zone. But as Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim explain in their brilliant book, Scorecasting, the stats show that it is better to go for it (that is, to scrimmage the ball in an attempt to pick up the first down). Sure enough, Belichick goes for it on fourth down more often than any of his colleagues do.

And that is exactly what he did in the game against the Colts in 2009. In the fourth quarter, with New England leading 34-28, they faced fourth and two on their own 28-yard line. Everyone expected the Patriots to punt. Much to the fans' surprise, however, Belichick ordered his offense to stay on the field. Unfortunately for the Patriots, they failed to make first down. Turnover! The Colts pressed forward and, with seconds to play, scored a touchdown on a one-yard pass to win the game 35-34.

Despite being the most highly regarded coach in the NFL and making the statistically correct choice, Belichick was hammered for his "cowboy tactic" and "needless gamble," but the torrent of criticism didn't faze him. The very next week, when the New England Patriots faced a similar situation in a game with the New York Jets, he made the same decision to go for it. In the press box, commentators were aghast, expressing amazement that Belichick would again buck the conventional wisdom, "especially after what happened the previous week!" This time, however, the Patriots made first down. Was Belichick's decision praised with the same fervor that accompanied the condemnations of the week before? Of course not; as the British economist John Maynard Keynes once observed, "Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally."

This doesn't seem to bother Belichick. Indeed, a willingness to buck the trend is common among those with high risk intelligence. As the financial journalist Michael Lewis describes in his 2010 book The Big Short, while house prices were soaring in the years prior to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the few wise traders bucked the trend and made a fortune by betting against the market were all oddballs, outsiders, or both. Michael Burry, who combed through the prospectuses of mortgage-backed bonds and concluded that lending standards had been corroded, was a one-eyed fund manager with Asperger's syndrome who avoided contact with other people. High risk intelligence, it seems, tends to go hand in hand with the refusal to bow to peer pressure.

Who knows what Belichick will do if, on Sunday night, the Patriots are still far away from the Giants' end zone when they are on fourth down. The only certainty is that, whatever his decision may be, it won't be influenced by the emotional cries of the fans.

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