Belichick’s gamble against Colts made sense
November 21, 2009
“You play to win the game.”
That phrase has echoed throughout the NFL for years, ever since Herm Edwards uttered it while coaching the New York Jets. It’s exactly what Bill Belichick was doing in Indianapolis last Sunday night. And as for delivering any message of distrust in his defense, maybe it was just the opposite.
This was no Wacky Wyche or Bozo the Coach episode. This was a three-time Super Bowl winner trusting his best player to get him 2 yards and clinch a very big victory.
For all the criticism Belichick has taken this week about not punting from his 28 on fourth-and-2 with a six-point lead and just over 2 minutes remaining, the issue should have been New England’s poor clock management. The Patriots usually have the most precise offense in football, but they wasted two timeouts because of confusion about formations or play calling. One of those timeouts came before the first play following an Indy kickoff.
Such out-of-character errors became especially costly when Kevin Faulk was determined by the officials to be just short of the first down. Faulk bobbled Brady’s pass, so when he was tackled by Melvin Bullitt he was marked short. The Patriots could not challenge because they lacked any timeouts.
That is where Belichick, his staff and players erred.
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As for the decision not to punt, consider that New England’s offense has been revved up recently, and asking Brady to connect with Randy Moss, Wes Welker or the ever-dependable Faulk to gain 6 feet certainly is a good option.
They failed, the Colts wisely used up all but 13 seconds before scoring on Peyton Manning’s 1-yard pass to Reggie Wayne. Matt Stover’s extra point was the difference, and Belichick didn’t even bother putting his headset back on when the Patriots got the ball for one last, desperate play.
NBC analyst Rodney Harrison, who starred at safety in New England for six years, termed it “the worst coaching decision I’ve ever seen Bill Belichick make.”
Tedy Bruschi, who retired this year after 14 seasons as a Patriots linebacker and is as loyal to Belichick as any player to wear a New England uniform, added on ESPN: “The decision to go for it would be enough to make my blood boil for weeks. … I would look at this decision as a lack of confidence in our ability as a defensive unit to come up with a big play to win the game.”
Just maybe Belichick had confidence that, in the unlikely – in his mind – chance the Patriots didn’t gain the 2 yards and salt away the game, his defense would make the key stop anyway.
Also, there have been 303 fourth-down attempts through 10 weeks, with 146 converted (48.2 percent). So the odds of making it are not terrible, and more coaches are trying it than ever. The league is on pace for 538 fourth-down attempts for the 2009 season, which would be the highest since the 16-game schedule was instituted in 1978.
Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis kiddingly expressed his gratitude to his former boss after a tough weekend for both of them.
“He took a lot of pressure off me. That’s my take,” he said, laughing. “I was only the story for a day, instead of two days.”
Then Weis explained what led to New England’s decision.
“Let me just say this, I’ve been in those meetings before, and I can promise you here’s what happened,” he said. “That situation was discussed before the game. That didn’t happen just then. It was discussed with the team. It was discussed with the coaching staff.
“You know, at each game Bill is so meticulous in what he does I’m sure it was discussed with his coaching staff: ‘If this situation presents itself, this is what we’re going to do.’ He doesn’t do things on a whim. When he did it, I’m sure it was with everyone’s knowledge and everyone’s agreement, and it just didn’t work out.”
Given his track record, we can expect future situations to work out for Belichick a lot better than they did for Sam Wyche.
In the second game of 1987, Wyche decided to try to have the Bengals run out the clock with 6 seconds left deep in their territory with a six-point lead. Wyche could have taken a safety and perhaps wasted all the time, or leave the 49ers with nothing more than a return of a free kick. But James Brooks was stopped with 2 seconds left.
To compound matters, Cincinnati then had single coverage on Jerry Rice, and Joe Montana threw a 25-yard touchdown pass for a 27-26 victory.
Barry Switzer went on to win the 1996 Super Bowl after his gambling gaffe. Switzer called for Emmitt Smith to run for a yard on fourth down at the Dallas 29 late in the fourth quarter. The Eagles held, soon kicked a field goal and won 20-17.
That prompted a newspaper to dub Switzer, “Bozo the Coach.”
Don’t look for any such nicknames being placed on Belichick.