Risky call puts Belichick in bad company
When Bill Belichick made the decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28 with 2:08 remaining and a six-point lead over the Colts on Sunday night, the future Hall of Fame coach knew exactly what he was doing.
It was a perfect setup for ego-driven gratification, guaranteed to paint him as an avant garde genius or a misunderstood martyr: Either the Pats would convert the first down and win the game, and Belichick would be heralded as the shrewdest coach in America, or they’d fall short and lose, and he’d be pummeled by lesser mortals like me who simply don’t understand football on a higher plane.
We all saw what happened, and now it’s time for Belichick to assume the position. Bill, meet Barry Switzer. And see that guy over there in the corner of the room with padded walls? That would be one Sam Wyche.
Many people recall Switzer’s similarly dubious fourth-down gamble as coach of the Cowboys, which led to a late-season defeat to the Eagles in 1995. Less familiar to most fans is Wyche’s incomprehensible decision, as coach of the Bengals, to give Joe Montana and Jerry Rice(notes) a chance to beat him in 1987.
In that game, the Bengals led the 49ers, 26-20, with six seconds remaining at Riverfront Stadium. San Francisco was about to fall to 0-2, pending a Cincinnati punt from its own 31-yard line, where the Bengals faced a fourth-and-long. Wyche didn’t want to risk a punt, instead calling a sweep for James Brooks, with the assumption that the play would eat up the remaining time.
It didn’t: Kevin Fagan nailed Brooks for a six-yard loss with two seconds to go, and I’ll never forget the sight of Montana gleefully sprinting back onto the field like a kid who’d just been told that school was letting out in mid-May. Wyche compounded the problem by leaving rookie cornerback Eric Thomas in single coverage on Rice, who reached up to catch Montana’s “Hail Jerry” pass in the end zone, with the ensuing extra point giving the Niners a stunning victory.
As with Sunday, there was a genius in a headset involved in that episode, but in this case Bill Walsh was the guy literally skipping off the field in delight. And Wyche? He was brutalized publicly as the Bengals wheezed to a 4-11 record in the strike-marred season, called a “social leper” by one Cincinnati newspaper and given the nickname Wicky Wacky.
In defense of Belichick, many people have pointed out that he’s perhaps the greatest coach of his era, with three Super Bowl rings and a history of smart leadership. And all of that’s true – but it doesn’t mean that he has complete license to make ill-fated moves without being people questioning whether he has gone off the deep end.
Greater coaches than Belichick have seemingly lost their minds; hey, it’s a stressful profession that feeds God complexes like few others. And it’s not insignificant that two of his most respected ex-players, Rodney Harrison(notes) and Tedy Bruschi(notes), were highly critical of the decision as television analysts.
Trust me when I say that many people currently in the Patriots’ organization, at various levels, were equally perplexed by Belichick’s behavior.
Put it this way: Would Belichick have dared try that move with people like Bruschi, Harrison, Willie McGinest(notes), Mike Vrabel(notes) and Richard Seymour(notes) on the sidelines? If he had, there might have been a full-blown incident on the sidelines – which is precisely why Belichick loved and coached those proud defenders, and why he’s doing a disservice to the Jerod Mayos and Brandon Meriweathers by not giving them the opportunity to define themselves in gut-wrenching situations like Sunday’s.
Back when he trusted his defense with the game on the line, Belichick successfully preached to his players that it was all about team. Granted, he was the unquestioned authority figure, but no one – not even the coach – was bigger than the team.
By not punting on Sunday, Belichick essentially acted like he was above his players – and the fact that the decision backfired could have lasting consequences. All of those arguments in defense of Belichick which suggest that he was simply playing the odds won’t fly in the locker room, where results are the only thing that matters.
Besides, the “odds” of converting a fourth-and-2 don’t take into account the risk, numerical and emotional, of failing in that situation. Playing Russian roulette is another example of playing the odds, and if you get away with it, bravo. But if you don’t? Well, Belichick had best hope the Patriots perform as well as he expects them to in the coming weeks and months, or he may look back on Sunday as the moment it all started to unravel.
The weird thing is, neither Wyche nor Switzer let their moments of ignominy take them down. Wyche took the Bengals to the Super Bowl the following season, losing only because of Montana’s brilliant 92-yard drive in the final three-plus minutes. Switzer’s Cowboys didn’t lose again after that defeat in Philly, going on to capture their third Super Bowl title in four years.
Those two coaches were deservedly ripped after their decisions led to defeats, and they did something about it. My advice to Belichick is to take his punishment, rejoin the mere mortals in his midst and try to muster a similar response.
Now here are 32 other things I most certainly can question, in descending order of concern:
2. Indianapolis Colts: Yo, football gods: If Jim Caldwell didn’t lose on Sunday, will he ever?
5. Pittsburgh Steelers: Is it crazy to wonder whether poor kickoff coverage could cost this team a chance to repeat?
6. New England Patriots: Does this hairless thug who threw down an NFL Films cameraman while escorting Bill Belichick to the locker room think we live in a repressive Third World country ruled by a ruthless dictator – or does he just think the NFL is its own, sovereign nation?
9. San Diego Chargers: How terrific of a play-caller is Norv Turner when he gets in rhythm – and was Sunday’s effort against the Eagles one of his all-time best in terms of keeping an opposing defense off-balance?
10. Denver Broncos: OK, so maybe it’s time to consider the possibility that Josh McDaniels doesn’t have all the answers?
11. Baltimore Ravens: If Monday night’s game had been extended to 40 quarters, would they still have shut out the Browns?
12. Philadelphia Eagles: If a team can’t convert in short-yardage situations – no matter how much talent it features on offense – can it be considered a legitimate contender?
15. Green Bay Packers: Was Sunday’s performance a season-saver – and, if so, what took these guys so long to crank it up?
18. Carolina Panthers: Will Jake Delhomme’s(notes) season get even more miserable now that Pro Bowl tackle Jordan Gross(notes) is out for the season – and can this team sneak into the playoffs in spite of it?
19. Jacksonville Jaguars: When Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) apologized to fantasy owners for not scoring that late touchdown in the Jags’ victory over the Jets because of strategic considerations, how many thousands of them took him literally?
20. New York Jets: After Mark Sanchez(notes) showed up to Sunday’s postgame press conference with a prepared statement, how awesome would it have been an Academy Awards-style orchestra had drowned him out?
24. Washington Redskins: After coach Jim Zorn informed him of his intention to run the creative fourth-down fake that led to a second-quarter touchdown, did designated play-caller Sherm Lewis yell, “Bingo!?”