Unabated to the QB, Week 10: What was Bill Belichick Thinking?

“I recognized no equals. I always considered myself more intelligent than everyone else, as I’ve told you, but also more sensitive and more skillful, a crack shot, an incomparable driver, a better lover.”

—Albert Camus, The Fall

Truth be told, I didn’t watch the Sunday Night game between the Patriots and Colts; I had “better things to do.” Now I kind of wished I had watched it, being that it was only the best game of this regular season and included one of the most stunning coaching decisions in NFL history.

Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 from his own 28 was no doubt surprising, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t rational, like any proper blindsiding from Survivor. Perhaps even more surprising has been the aftermath of the decision, where close to (if not) a majority of sportswriters have supported the decision. Joe Posnanski was behind it (obvs…if he weren’t, I wouldn’t be), citing The New York Times’s statistics. Three of the four guys on Around the Horn liked it, and the one who didn’t was Jay Mariotti, who defended his position by telling the others, “You’re idiots.” Most people in this Fanhouse roundtable supported it, too. Even Gregg Easterbrook defended it, but I don’t really count him as a sportswriter.

Of course, not everyone was behind the call. David Fleming at ESPN—who I had never heard of before—called it “uncharacteristically panicky,” a notion that seems to be rebutted by Charlie Weis saying it was likely planned. Mike Francesa thought it was moronic. And Rodney Harrison called it the dumbest decision Belichick had ever made, which I thought was ignorant of perspective.*

*By this I mean, what are the ramifications of this? The Patriots won’t get home-field over the Colts, which was likely anyway. Maybe they’ll have to go to Cincinnati or San Diego in the playoffs now, but do any of us really think they won’t be favored to win either of those potential games? On the flip side, BB’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-10 from the Giants’ 30 in Super Bowl XLII, eschewing a makeable field goal, probably cost his team overtime in the Super Bowl. Headier stuff.

It’s not a surprise that most of the people killing Belichick’s decision—from Harrison to Tedy Bruschi to Boomer Esiason—are football players. Football players think about things like disrespecting the defense and the signs you give to your football team and how hard it is to stop Peyton Manning from going 30 yards. They also tend to think that they could stop Peyton Manning from going 70 yards.

But here’s the thing about Belichick’s call: It’s not about advanced statistical probabilities or showing faith in your defense or home-field. It comes down to one simple question. What’s likelier: that my offense can get two yards on one play or that my defense can prevent the Colts from getting 70 in two minutes?

That seems like a pretty straightforward question with an obvious answer. The Patriots have a really good offense. Kevin Faulk is virtually unstoppable on third and fourth downs. And the people who say Belichick disrespected his defense ignore some essential caveats to their claim. First, Peyton Manning is incredible. He is the best quarterback in football right now, and it’s not even close. He is possibly the greatest quarterback ever and he is having his greatest season. He always wins in primetime. No team, not even the Patriots, has been able to stop him when it matters most in years.* Belichick’s decision was the football equivalent of Buck Showalter intentionally walking Barry Bonds with the bases loaded. It wasn’t disrespect for his defense as much as respect for the other guy.

*It’s funny how people advocating punting there talk about how Manning would score 100 percent of the time from the NE 30 but probably wouldn’t score from the IND 30. That’s a difference of 40 yards, or like, two seam routes to Dallas Clark. He would have scored, and deep down, you know it.

Second, the Patriots’ defense isn’t very good. We know this precisely because Belichick went for it on fourth down—even he doesn’t have any faith in his D*—but that’s somewhat circular. Harrison and Bruschi still look at the New England defense like it has them and not Brandon Meriweather and Tully Banta-Cain. This defense gave up 24 points to the Bills this season. The Bills.

*People discussed Belichick’s hubris in going for it, but Belichick is a defensive guy. Wouldn’t it be just as, if not more, hubristic to punt it and trust that an inferior defense can stop the Colts just because you’re coaching that inferior defense?

Third, if “getting (dis)respected by your coach means so much,” how come no one is talking about how encouraging this is for the Pats’ offense?

In my opinion, it was clearly the right decision, and I’m not even going to get on Belichick for the play calling. Faulk gets that first down 95 out of 100 times on that play. And you throw the ball on third down because a) you don’t have a running game and b) even if you know you’re going to go for it on fourth down, you don’t want to have to go for it on fourth down.*

*I didn’t understand this logic that much; that is, the whole, “If you’re gonna go for it on fourth, you should run it on third to make it easier.” That’s a sound strategy on 3rd-and-18 or something in two-down territory, but this was TWO YARDS. It’s not like there’s a big difference between 4th-and-1 and 4th-and-2 for a team that throws the ball. It’s not like the playbook opens up to include all those 1-yard passing routes you run. Now I know, it turned out this way, because the Pats completed the pass short, but that was an aberrational outcome of that play because of the bobble, spot, etc. And again, just because you’re willing to go for it on fourth down doesn’t mean you’re not going to try to avoid that eventuality by picking up enough yards on third down.

In the end, Bill Belichick: still really smart.

  • Jets Bash of the Week: It’s gotten too easy. Ideally, they should have let Mercedes Lewis score on the big pass play before the two-minute warning, but it’s very tough to have your team prepped for that. Smart play by Maurice Jones-Drew, and now the Jets have virtually no chance to make the playoffs.
  • Chiefs Plug of the Week: Too easy. They beat the Raiders! I don’t need to defend them. (And that’s two road wins for KC this season!)
  • The Bengals are 4-0 against teams that were in the AFC Championship last year, which is the equivalent of a team beating BOTH the Cardinals and Eagles in the NFC twice. Cincinnati’s really shown me something the last two weeks, especially defensively. It’s amazing how quick the defensive turnarounds have been in Cincy and Denver.
  • Do the Vikings ever have to play a good team? They’ve won three games against teams over .500, and those teams are 5-4 (the Packers twice and the Ravens, and they should have lost to Baltimore). And their next two are Seattle and Chicago at home. I’m looking forward to their trip to Arizona after that and a home date with the aforementioned Bengals, not to mention Big Blue’s Week 17 sojourn to the Metrodome.
  • The Saints remind me of a really good college football team at this point. They score a lot of points, so it’s no big deal if they come out flat and fall behind early. They play down to competition. Reggie Bush played well for them. Eventually, though, they’re gonna drop one of these.
  • P.S. The Saints are still No. 1 in the SBCS, although most people agree Indy should have passed them. The point differential is still carrying New Orleans. Indy’s two, Minny three, Cincy four, and Pitty five.
  • Jay Cutler in primetime: 11 interceptions. Not coincidentally, the Bears in primetime: 0-3.
  • A lot of people said this already, but that was a great bye week for the Giants.
  • I saw that Redskins-Broncos game coming, and I ignored it. Does Denver make the playoffs? They’ve still got three with KC/OAK, but those are the only three they’ll likely be favored in. I was right about them all along.
  • I was really close to making the Dolphins my pick in my Suicide pool, but then I thought, “What if Josh Freeman turns out to be an unbelievable fourth-quarter QB?” (based off Freeman’s excellent final period in his debut). So I held off on Miami, and Freeman looks like an unbelievable fourth-quarter QB; Tampa has 35 points in the fourth in his two starts. It’s just too bad he left Chad Henne with so much time.
  • Does anybody have a read on the Carolina Panthers? Anything?

Prior to the Week 11 Snap:

Last Week: 6-9

This Season: 54-74

CAROLINA (-3) over Miami

Only because Ronnie Brown isn’t playing.

Cleveland (+3.5) over DETROIT

Field goal game. Literally. Probably all field goals.

JACKSONVILLE (-8.5) over Buffalo

The Jags are going to be 6-4. Weird.

Pittsburgh (-10) over KANSAS CITY

Even without Polamalu, who scares you on KC?

BALTIMORE (+1) over Indianapolis

Letdown game! And a big one for Ray Rice.

NY GIANTS (-6.5) over Atlanta

I don’t think the line should be this high, and I’m worried, but this team just lost to Carolina. We have to beat them, right?

San Francisco (+6.5) over GREEN BAY

Surprising performance by the Pack on Sunday, but the Niners keep things close.

MINNESOTA (-11) over Seattle

Yawn.

DALLAS (-11) over Washington

Redskins will challenge Cowboys at FedEx later this year.

TAMPA BAY (+11.5) over New Orleans

A pair of late, meaningless fourth-quarter TDs from Josh Freeman cover the spread.

Arizona (-9) over ST. LOUIS

I guess no SB letdown for the Cards?

NEW ENGLAND (-10.5) over NY Jets

“At the end of the first quarter, it’s New England 17, the Jets 0.”

Cincinnati (-9.5) over OAKLAND

It’s not about who starts in Oakland; it’s about who finishes: Bruce Gradkowski.

San Diego (-3) over DENVER

“Cuz I’m free… / I’m free-fallin…”

CHICAGO (+3) over Philadelphia (outright)

Because that primetime stuff is incidental. Bears win on Sunday night.

Tennessee (+5) over HOUSTON (outright)

Titans are hot, and this is the kind of game the Texans need to win to make the playoffs. They won’t.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on November 18, 2009 at 3:39 PM

    A brief defense of running the ball on 3rd-and-2: You’re not running on 3rd to make 4th down easier; you’re running to get the first down. Even the Patriots ought to be able to pick up 2 yards on a run. But IF you don’t, then you keep the clock running, and likely make a potential fourth down shorter. Let’s say a 3rd down run had been stopped just short. I don’t think Belichick gets killed for going for it on fourth and inches, like he does for going on 4th and 2. Based on the time/situation of the game. The value of any yards picked up beyond the hashmark is negligible; the main goal is getting a first down. Throwing the ball seems to overvalue getting more than 2 yards, when you don’t really need any more than that.

    Reply

  2. Posted by doc on November 21, 2009 at 9:48 PM

    Belichick’s call was based purely on fear – he knew the Pats defense could not stop Manning from driving 70 yards. It was a moronic call intellectually (I don’t care about those NY Times stats – give me the stats on how teams do on 4th and 2 on their own 28 at the end of a game they are winning), but emotionally it made sense. When you are scared, you sometimes blink first. Bottom line – they lost and Belichick’s defense knows that he has no confidence in them in big games.

    Reply

  3. [...] took me awhile, but I knew I had already made this comparison. And I did it only three weeks ago: The Saints remind me of a really good college football team at this point. They score a lot of [...]

    Reply

  4. [...] big issues surround the New England defense, a unit so porous in 2009 that Bill Belichick started randomly going for it on 4th down (at least, that’s how I recall it). They were simply run over by the Ravens in the playoffs, and [...]

    Reply

  5. [...] was again behind Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 at midfield up three in San Diego on Sunday. But, I would never have handed the ball [...]

    Reply

  6. [...] Farokhmanesh took the shot anyway. I wanted to call it college basketball’s equivalent of Belichick going for it on 4th-and-2 or Osborne going for two and the title, but really, those things were far smarter, had far better [...]

    Reply

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