Belichick: Late fourth-down strategy was a “tough decision”

Mike Florio
ProFootball Talk on NBC Sports

The Buccaneers had a chance to win last night’s game against the Patriots, thanks in part to a decision from Bill Belichick to take the ball out of the hands of Tom Brady on fourth and three from the Tampa Bay 30 and place it on the foot of Stephen Gostkowski and, ultimately, on the backs of a the worst defense (statistically) in football.

Let me stop right there and emphasize this point, since if you were watching the game last night it was never mentioned: Belichick took the ball out of the hands of the greatest quarterback who ever lived and entrusted the outcome to a consistently leaky defense.

And that defense nearly leaked right down its leg by allowing Tampa Bay to drive the ball in position for one last shot at a victory.

The CBS broadcast failed to properly characterize (if it even mentioned it at all) the decision to not let Brady win the game and instead to trust a bad defense not to lose it. Even if the man who instantly has been crowned the greatest analyst in any sport didn’t realize in real time the significance of the strategy, repeated shots of Brady’s sideline demeanor should have given him a clue: Brady was not happy that Belichick chose to not let the quarterback win the game with a quick three-yard pass.

Belichick explained his thought process in a post-game press conference.

“That was really a tough decision,” Belichick told reporters. “First down ends the game. We don’t have to play anymore. It’s a long kick. It was 45 yards, something like that. The wind was challenging; it was a cross wind. So, you know, Steve hit a great ball. I definitely thought about — you know, if we could pick up fourth and three, then the game would be over. That would be it. So one play would have ended it. I just felt like the percentage play was the field goal, and Steve came through. The defense came through. That’s one that really could have gone either way. And honestly punting was an option there too. Had it been a couple yards further out like we did earlier in the quarter and tried to put them down inside the five yard line. A field goal would have won but, you know, [they were] out of time outs. It would have put another, if we could have executed it well, put another 20, 30 yards on the drive. So, you know, that was one of those that there was some options. It was a tough decision.”

Maybe it’s a tough decision if: (1) Brady isn’t the quarterback; and (2) the defense isn’t terrible this year, statistically. But with Brady in position to throw the ball three yards and deliver the dagger, that’s what Belichick should have done.

Indeed, that’s the only outcome that doesn’t put the New England defense on the field with a chance to blow the game. Made field goal? Touchdown loses it. Missed field goal? Bucs have the ball at the 37, and a field goal loses it. Punt? Bucs have the ball at the 20 at worst inside the five at best, and a field goal loses it. Go for it and fail? Bucs have the ball on the 30, and a field goal loses it.

It ultimately worked out, barely. And maybe the faith Belichick showed in his defense will improve their confidence down the stretch.

And maybe the lack of faith Belichick showed in Brady will make him even more determined to show Belichick that Brady can and should be trusted to win and/or not lose any and every given game.

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