November 16, 2009
Bill Belichick's swagger and arrogance helped the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl titles earlier this decade. Sunday night, those attributes put a big dent in the team's quest for a fourth.
Nursing a six-point lead with 2:08 to go, Belichick decided to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28 instead of punting the ball and making Peyton Manning(notes) and the Indianapolis Colts go 80 yards for the score. The fourth-down play failed, the Colts took over possession and scored with ease, winning their ninth straight game to start the season and getting in the driver's seat for home-field advantage in the AFC.
Personally, I appreciated the call when it happened, mainly because I like watching teams take risks. But this wasn't the spot to go all-in. It was too risky.
You go for it on the Colts' 38, not your own 28. That would be daring, but not stupid. Going for it from your own 28 fits both categories. A 70 percent fourth-down success rate (which is about what the Patriots have had in the past five years) is a good bet most of the time, but not if 30 percent of the time puts Peyton Manning eight yards away from the red zone after the two-minute warning.
Punting would have put Peyton about 80 yards away, so there still would have been plenty of time for him to march down the field and get the game-winning touchdown. But there would have been plenty of work left to do. When the Pats failed to get the first down, it felt like the Colts had already scored that TD even though they were 28 yards away. I don't think anyone involved in that game thought any differently. The mental aspect of it was huge. It wasn't just that the Patriots gave Peyton the ball back, it's that they were mentally defeated the instant they did.
Heck, maybe that was the case before the play too. The Pats have always embraced Belichick's swagger, but when the call came in to go for fourth-and-2 from their own 28, it wouldn't have surprised me if a few thought, "wait ... what?!" to themselves before breaking the huddle. Suddenly, the team isn't as confident as it once would have been.
After the game former Pats safety Rodney Harrison(notes) said on NBC that going for it was the "worst decision" he's ever seen Belichick make. Tony Dungy, normally one to hedge his criticisms of former colleagues, said the Pats "had to punt in that situation." It was the kind of call that's so bad that if it was made by your friend during a game of Madden, you'd say, "come on, play for real."
The post-game chatter all put the blame squarely on Belichick (and he admitted to it), but NBC cameras captured Brady saying something to Belichick before the play that caused the coach to smirk and give one of those "that's not a bad idea ..." smiles. It was a bad idea ... a really bad idea. It may have worked and it may have won the game, but its failure almost assured a loss.
When his career is done, Bill Belichick will go down as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. You wouldn't know it from watching the fourth quarter last night.
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