Belichick – Seek counterfactuals

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

It’s Super Bowl week and what better way to celebrate that dig into the thinking behind one of the coaches (and general manager) at the game? The posts this week come from this short book

In my readings there were five big ideas that stood out:

  1. Inversion
  2. Pattern recognition
  3. Top-down support
  4. Argue well
  5. Seek counterfactuals

This post addresses the fifth point; seek counterfactuals.

Successful organizations will also weigh the counterfactuals, alternative histories, and possible outcomes that could have but did not occur. Consider fork-in-the road moments and think about what else may have happened.

Going for it on 4th down

In the 2016 AFC Championship game Belichick went for it twice on fourth down (4th & 1, 4th and 6) when he could have kicked field goals (from the Denver 16 and 14 yard lines). The Patriots lost by two points. Superficially it seems like kicking field goals would have won the game. But, if his team had made a field goal at either point it would have set the game down a different path of outcomes.

During the postgame press conference, Belichick was asked why to go for it twice on 4th down. “Because of the score and situation of the game,” he replied.

This idea of considering the range of outcomes happened years earlier during the regular season too. Here’s what Belichick said early that season after a loss.

“I really felt good about the team, even though we’d gotten smashed. I felt something about the team that night in the second half that I really thought we could build on. Anyone that wanted to cash it in could have cashed it in. We weren’t going to win. We were behind, we were on the road, their crowd was in a frenzy. The Chiefs were playing very well but I could see the fight.”

The ends may not have been what Belichick wanted – he lost both games – but the means were good.  The fourth down plays were the right calls at the moment, the players tried hard even though they were losing.

Good counterfactual thinking applies not only to game decisions and analysis but to the evaluation of talent too. “If I said a guy was a first round pick,” said Patriot’s scout Jason Licht, “and the Colt’s picked him, and he turned out to be a bust, they (Belichick and Pioli)  wouldn’t have looked down on me. They wouldn’t have said I was a bad grader. Because that player in the Patriots system might have been successful.”

A player could be a Patriot or not. Then he could be accurately scouted or not. The collection of outcomes for a player were one set if that player was a Patriot, another – and unimportant set – if they weren’t. That’s good counterfactual thinking.

Expanding your mind

Counterfactual thinking is the ability to come up with many possible outcomes. This isn’t easy. We usually mess it up by telling ourselves easy stories. Michael Mauboussin explains:

“Once an event occurs, all of us effortlessly and naturally create a narrative to explain that outcome. Two things kick in, the first is hindsight bias. We start to believe we knew what was going to happen with a greater probability than we actually did…And the second thing that happens is creeping determinism, where you start to believe that what happened is the only thing that could have happened.”

Our tendency is to tell a single story when there were many possible stories. When Belichick lost by two points it’s foolish to think that if he had kicked on field gold it would have changed the game. It would have, but only at that exact moment in the game. His team still could have lost.

In the book Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong, economists Chris Anderson and David Sally look at what statistics matter most for soccer teams to win. The first goal, for example, is really valuable and there are better times to make substitutions. The duo also addresses our bias to favor the things we see rather than the things we don’t. That is, our bias to tell good stories.

“We remember, and place undue significance on, things that do happen while ignoring those that do that…As a result, people discount causes that are absent (things that didn’t happen) and augment the importance of causes that are present (things that did happen). This influences how we think about soccer: not only do we consider the goals that our team score more important than the goals they do not concede, but we value the tackles they make more highly than those challenges that their preternatural sense of positioning, their game intelligence, mean they do not need to make.” 

A goal is salient. A defensive stop is salient. Good position is not. Psychologist Robert Cialdini puts it this way, “because what’s salient is deemed important and what’s focal is deemed causal, a communicator who ushers audience members attention to selected facets of a message reaps a significant persuasive advantage.” 

To rephrase Cialdini, our tendency is to overemphasize what we pay attention to, and believe post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore resulting from it).  Counterfactual thinking pushes the other direction. It’s asking, ‘What didn’t I pay attention to, and how is it important?’

Here are some ways to think in counterfactuals:

  • Ask ‘What if?’ questions.
  • Visualize the many outcomes; like in a decision tree or roulette wheel.
  • Reset variables to extremes and recompute the equations.

Good counterfactual thinking will end up with a reliable process rather than cherry picked outcomes. In that same 2016 press conference where Belichick said “Because of the score and situation of the game,” he also said, “There were a lot of big plays, any one of them could have made the difference.”  That’s counterfactual thinking! It’s an understanding that there were a range of possible outcomes. Good strategies will have come up with these.


As we noted at the start, Belichick is successful for many reasons, some of which are good strategy.

Belichick inverts the situation, asking ‘what would a good defense do against this offense.’ Former assistant Mike Lombardi said, “one of the adages Belichick always subscribes to is called the inverse theory by Charlie Munger. Instead of saying, ‘What will it take to win?’ you ask the question, ‘What can we do to avoid losing?’ and Belichick always takes that approach.” 

Belichick recognizes patterns. Whether it’s his own mental football vault, or the one Ernie Adams cultivates. Pattern recognition gets you to better answers to interesting problems faster.

Belichick provides top down support to his assistant coaches. The unofficial motto on Belichick’s teams is ‘do your job.’ Josh McDaniels said, “It was simple: If I was given something to do, I was expected to do it absolutely perfectly, as best as I could, every time I did it. And if I did those things right, I’d get something else to do.”

Belichick argues well. Unlike his former boss, Bill Parcells, Belichick embraces empirical pushback from players, coaches, and the team owner. These arguments are backed by facts and in pursuit of the truth.

Belichick seeks counterfactuals. There are no neat narratives to summarize a football game. It’s more like app development, many small choices that lead to a final product. Getting caught up in the story means you miss the bigger picture.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy the game.

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