This week, I will attempt to defend one of the most successful and respected coaches in all of sports. Bold, huh? Well, after the New England Patriots went down to the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night, 35-34, blowing a 17-point fourth quarter lead, defending Bill Belichick might not be such an easy task. The decision in question is as follows. The Patriots had a fourth and two on their own 28-yard line with 2:08 to go. A punt puts the ball back in the hands of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, Peyton Manning, with two minutes to drive about 70 yards. A first down virtually ends the game, barring a miracle. A failed attempt gives Manning the ball with two minutes to drive just 28 yards.
Belichick elected to go for the win by keeping his offense on the field, rather than leaving it up to his defense to try for the stop. Well, the gamble failed, and the Patriots couldn’t convert a pass for the first down. Manning took advantage of the excellent field position to find Reggie Wayne in the end zone with mere seconds to go, and the Colts pulled out the shocking 35-34 win.
When asked in the post-game press conference Sunday if he would make the same decision again if he had the chance, Belichick curtly responded, “You only get one chance,” according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss. That is the bottom line. The Pats had one chance, and they did not convert.New England’s play calling, decision making, and time management were hardly flawless Sunday night, but when push came to shove, Belichick made the right move. He played to win, and the odds were probably on his side. The old adage that “hindsight is always 20/20” has never been more relevant, as the national media bashed Belichick for a decision that would have been lauded as innovative, gutsy and typical of his genius had it been successful.
If you convert that play, with the two minute warning and one time-out remaining, the Colts get the ball back with no more than 40 seconds left and no time-outs. The ball bounces—or bobbles in this case—and things do not always go your way; such is the sport. However, to skewer Belichick for making a “bone-headed” move simply because it did not work is foolish.
Many will point to wasted time-outs. When the Pats lined up against the Colts on that fateful fourth down play, they had no time-outs remaining. Wide receiver Wes Welker had used the first in the third quarter to avoid an illegal procedure penalty. The second was used on the first play of the final drive when, according to Brady, there was a personnel mix-up. The final time-out was used right before the fourth down play; Brady did not like what he saw and wanted to talk things over. A time-out would have enabled Belichick to challenge the spot of the ball after the play or, at the very least, secured more than 13 seconds on the clock for a potential game-winning field goal drive on the ensuing possession.
There are those who say it was a slap in the face to a defense that has been, in years past, the pride of the New England football franchise, but this is irrelevant and oversensitive when you consider that this is a bunch of professional players who know the coach simply wants to win. Besides, it can be argued that such a decision could motivate a defense just as well as it could bring them down. Former Patriot defender Tedy Bruschi, now writing for ESPN, criticized the decision, saying that it would have made his “blood boil for weeks.” But as a coach, having defenders’ blood boiling is not the worst thing that could happen. The national media is not raining a firestorm on the best and most-hated coach in the league because he burned a couple time-outs or because he disrespected his defense. Belichick did something “you just don’t do.” He went for it on fourth down on his own 28 with a lead in the fourth quarter.
The argument that has been so pervasive, from Yahoo! Sports to ESPN to any local paper, is that Belichick made a bad football decision—it was a bad calculation. You just simply do not give the best quarterback in the league (or any quarterback) a short field to win the game. You have to trust your defense to stop anyone with fewer than two minutes and 70 or so yards to go. While this is a reasonable and understandable position, it is not necessarily the correct one, even though it conforms to football convention ,and the Patriots did not convert. Would Belichick do it again if he had the chance? He avoided the question, but I would hope so.
The Patriots’ defense appeared to be winded, and the last time Manning was given the ball in Colts’ territory, he marched them 79 yards in one minute and 49 seconds. That might not have happened again, but it was highly likely, especially given how outmatched the young Patriots’ secondary seemed and how gassed the entire defense was.
The Patriots, on the other hand, convert that play more often than not. The Colts’ defense was consistently struggling to stop Brady and the Pats. Including the immediately previous third and two play, the Patriots converted seven of fourteen third downs, nine of which were longer than two yards. They were four for seven in the second half. Excluding the last third down, they were six of eight on third downs with less than five yards to go. According to ESPN, since Brady became the quarterback in 2001, the Patriots have converted on fourth down with two or fewer yards to go more than three quarters of the time—and with Welker, Moss, Watson, and Faulk splitting out, the present group of backs and receivers is as good or better than any Brady has had around him.
Furthermore, what has been overlooked is the fact that Belichick still gave his defense a chance to win the game. The Colts had to score a touchdown, not simply run the ball and kick a chip-shot field goal. Of course, the blow to the team’s momentum was huge, but if the way the defense performed on the ensuing four plays—allowing the final Colts’ touchdown and leaving only 13 seconds left on the clock—was any indication, they did not have much of a chance to stop them on a longer drive, especially when you consider the thirty-yard drive took essentially two plays, after which the Colts were inside the two-yard-line.
If Belichick has the chance to do such a thing again in a similar situation in similar circumstances he would be right to do so, and he probably would. The fact that he failed might have cost his team a game, but it also might have reinforced a rather close-minded view that you simply do not go for it on a fourth down in that situation. Maybe, in some twisted way, there is some silver lining for Belichick, for if the Patriots had converted, other teams would, smartly, try similar things in similar situations; other coaches would copy Belichick as they have, as they will, and as they should. He is the best coach in the league. This was true on Saturday and remained true on Monday, and it will probably be true for the near future. This decision only strengthens his position as the best.