Risky call puts Belichick in bad company

Follow Michael Silver at Mogotxt and Twitter.

Belichick's decision helped drop the Pats to 6-3.
(Brian Spurlock/US Presswire)

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:

1. New Orleans Saints: How scary is it that Darren Sharper’s(notes) replacement, Usama Young(notes), had an end-zone interception in his first start?

2. Indianapolis Colts: Yo, football gods: If Jim Caldwell didn’t lose on Sunday, will he ever?

3. Minnesota Vikings: Did anyone besides Brett Favre(notes) know Sidney Rice(notes) was this good?

4. Cincinnati Bengals: With Cedric Benson(notes) enjoying a career revival and Larry Johnson(notes) apparently on his way to Cincy, is Corey Dillon(notes) next?

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?

7. Arizona Cardinals: Is Beanie Wells(notes) becoming a big-time back – and, if so, how scary could this offense be come January?

8. Dallas Cowboys: Yo, Jason Garrett: Did Marion Barber(notes) get tossed from Lambeau after the first quarter for making an inappropriate comment to Mike McCarthy, or did it just seem that way?

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?

13. Atlanta Falcons: After Sunday’s game in Carolina, to which his team took buses, did coach Mike Smith(notes) ponder telling his players they had to hitchhike home?

14. Houston Texans: Are they ready for another Vince Young(notes) homecoming – and, if Sunday’s game against the Titans goes into overtime, should they try to guard against this?

15. Green Bay Packers: Was Sunday’s performance a season-saver – and, if so, what took these guys so long to crank it up?

16. New York Giants: Is this Jerry Reese’s way of putting pressure on Tom Coughlin?

17. Miami Dolphins: Is Ricky Williams(notes) ready to become a workhorse once more?

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?

21. Tennessee Titans: When you’re an 86-year-old rich guy whose team is winning a football game, is there any reason not to wear your feelings on your middle fingers?

22. San Francisco 49ers: Don’t you get the feeling that Michael Crabtree’s(notes) breakout game is coming any week now?

23. Chicago Bears: Did Jay Cutler(notes) send a thank-you gift basket to Bill Belichick Sunday night (and, if so, was it intercepted)?

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!?”

25. Seattle Seahawks: Yo, Nate Burleson(notes), can you also guarantee that Stanford will defeat Cal on Saturday?

26. Buffalo Bills: What do Terrell Owens(notes) and former Packers coach Mike Sherman have in common?

27. Kansas City Chiefs: After watching the way Jamaal Charles(notes) ran the ball Sunday, don’t you wonder why he wasn’t starting ahead of Larry Johnson from the get-go?

28. St. Louis Rams: Are Rams receivers becoming like Spinal Tap drummers?

29. Oakland Raiders: Has there been a funnier line about the Silver and Black recently than this one about a perilous trapeze act from incisive San Francisco Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler?

30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is it possible that, contrary to the pre-draft hype, Josh Freeman(notes) is the most polished rookie quarterback of this year’s class?

31. Detroit Lions: When I described the Lions’ defense as “toothless” on Sunday, did you realize I was being literal?

32. Cleveland Browns: In retrospect, instead of skipping the opening kickoff, shouldn’t those Dawg Pound dudes have advocated a boycott of Monday’s entire game?

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Nov 17, 2009