LONGSHOTS: Belichick’s fourth-down call confounds Patriot Nation
by Dave Long
Well, that was quite an astonishing football game last Sunday night in Indy, giving Patriot Nation and the rest of football folk around the country a lot to talk about for quite a while.
You know the story by now. The Patriots defense coughed up a 17-point fourth-quarter lead over the Colts as Peyton Manning went into the phone booth and out came Michael Jordan to pull a rabbit out of his hat against the Patriots AGAIN. And pay attention to that word “again,” because to me it’s the most significant word relating to a game that came down to Bill Belichick’s controversial decision to go for it on fourth and two from the shadow of his own goal post with a hair over two minutes remaining.
To say that the decision was controversial is an understatement. It was likened in the speed of light to what some say Grady Little did vs. the Yanks in Game Seven of the ALCS in 2003 — freezing while failing to yank a tiring Pedro Martinez as the Empire came back from three down to tie it in the eighth. That is, if you didn’t know, as bad as it gets around here regarding heat-of-the-battle decision-making.
It was a decision rife with second guessing from the second he made it. Just like the damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t decision made by Little — who I maintain would have been fired whether he yanked Pedro after seven or not if the players didn’t get the job done. They needed a scapegoat after blowing another one to their hated rivals and it had to be Little unless they won. And while it’s easy to point to all the data that showed how the numbers turned negative as the pitch count grew above 100 for Pedro, we will never know if the relievers would have closed the deal any better than he did that night.
We just think we do.
And that’s the case with Coach B’s decision— which certainly went against conventional wisdom. The last coach I can recall to do it under anywhere near those conditions was Barry Switzer against the New York football Giants in the 1990s. He was the much mocked coach who came to center stage after Jimmy Johnson got fed up with meddlesome owner Jerry Jones after winning two Super Bowls with the great Dallas team he built from scratch. Switzer made that decision knowing he had Emmitt Smith to run the ball behind what might have been the greatest offensive line in pro football history. But they still didn’t get it and the headline in the ever clever New York Post the next day, “Bozo The Coach!,” probably pretty much summed up how many felt on Monday in these parts about Belichick. I know I did.
I even had dreams about it during the night. Vivid ones. Putting aside what a guy my age having dreams about a silly football game says about me, this isn’t a second guess. As soon as he did it, I was even more vehemently against it than I was the day I was on my knees BEGGING Little to take Pedro out after that double Derek Jeter hit to right that Trot Nixon could have and probably should have caught. On Sunday, once they didn’t make it I knew it was over. And I was right. Manning put it in the end zone four plays later and the Colts had ANOTHER furious comeback win on the Patriots defense after Brady and company had put them in position to win.
The predictable response came the next day of course, when many were livid and expressed it on talk radio and around water coolers all over the country. I was that way too until I started to wonder: why would Coach B take such a HUGE gamble? It’s not like he’s Switzer-like or had that mammoth Cowboys offensive line to lean on. So why?
First, this isn’t an In Bill We Trust speech. I HATE the prevent defense — which is the biggest culprit in the loss. There’s a reason you get a lead. It’s because the defense was playing pretty well — so why change, as teams always do? Second, I’ve been saying for a while the Patriots are alarmingly casual about using timeouts, even in the second half, and it cost them when they couldn’t challenge the spot on the fourth-down stop because they had none left. That’s bad game coaching. It happened three times last year too — like in the 18-15 loss to Indy when they didn’t have any at the end of that game either. And this isn’t the first fourth-down thing as well. It was a bad gamble when it worked vs. Atlanta earlier in the year from their 30. And anyone remember going for it on fourth and 13 in the Super Bowl of ’97 instead of going for a 50-yard field goal try?
In the end I think he was just worried about how good Manning is and/or his defense. And he’s got some ammo for making that decision. He knows they lucked out over Baltimore because a flat-out Mark Clayton drop would have given the Ravens first and goal after walking right through the D on its final drive. Denver did the same thing in going 90 yards late in the fourth quarter to force overtime, and with all due respect to Kyle Orton, I know Peyton Manning and you, sir, are no Peyton Manning. And remember it ain’t the first time Manning’s done this to them, is it? You remember they came back from 21-3 down in the 2006 AFC title game to win 38-34 in the final minute.
You can second the decision all you want or make a case for why he should’ve followed conventional thinking by punting it away and taking his chances — as I probably still would today. But I don’t think it came down to “hubris” as Dan Shaughnessy suggested in the Globe on Monday morning.
Instead, I think the decision came down to this sobering truth. He thought it was a greater gamble and bigger risk to hand the ball over to Manning 80 yards from the goal for his defense to stop than to try the unconventional strategy of giving it to Tom Brady for one make-or-break play. In other words, he thought the defense was going to lose the game for them whether Manning got it at Indy’s 28 or the Patriots 20 and thus his best (only) way to win was to gamble for a first down and run out the clock.
And since the Colts just walked through the defense like it wasn’t even there on four plays to get that winning score from the 28, he probably was right. Though none of us will ever really know what would have happened.
We just think we do.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.