Belichick fortunate another fourth down gaffe doesn’t cost Patriots a win

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick looks on during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Foxborough, Massachusetts September 12, 2010. REUTERS/Adam Hunger   (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Oh come on, you knew Bill Belichick would go for it.

Up 23-20 in San Diego on Sunday, the Patriots faced a 4th-and-1 at their own 49-yard-line with two minutes remaining. They didn’t have any time outs, so if they went for it and didn’t convert they would be handing the ball back to the Chargers (who had all of their timeouts) in prime scoring position.

The situation was obviously eerily similar to when Belichick decided to go for it deep in their own field position against the Colts a few years ago and the Pats failed to convert. They went on to lose that game, but history didn’t repeat itself this time (ah, sort of).

BenJarvus Green-Ellis was stuffed on fourth down but after the Chargers moved the ball to New England’s 32-yard line, Kris Brown missed a 50-yard field goal that would have tied the game. It didn’t help that the field goal was five yards longer than it should have been following a false start by one of the Bolts’ offensive lineman, but it was a heartbreaking loss after San Diego battled back from a 23-6 fourth quarter deficit.

What also hurt was the fact that the Chargers were missing regular kicker Nate Kaeding, who was out with an injury. The field goal certainly wasn’t a gimmie, but the miss hurts nonetheless, especially for a San Diego team that is now 2-5 on the year.

As for Belichick, I assume that if he’s faced with a similar decision in the future that he’ll go for it again. He’s not going to change his style of coaching and he clearly buys into the notion that teams shouldn’t always punt when faced with a fourth down – no matter where they are on the field.

That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t fortunate today though. If the Pats would have went on to lose like they did to the Colts, that would have made them 0-2 when Belichick decided to go the less-conventional rout.

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Bill Simmons vs. Wayne Winston

In last week’s column about Bill Belichick’s ill-fated decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 on his own 28, Bill Simmons took a shot at Mavs stat-man Wayne Winston.

Which brings us back to statistics. Yes, they enhance the discussion. Many times. (FYI: The “to punt or not to punt” numbers, in general, are interesting. You can make a strong case that good offenses should almost always go for it on fourth-and-short beyond their own 40.) There are also times when statistics make that same discussion dumber. For instance, a former Mavericks statistician named Wayne Winston recently debuted a complicated plus-minus statistic for basketball that included the following two revelations:

1. Kevin Durant made the 2008-09 Zombie Sonics worse.
2. Tim Thomas is underrated.

(Deep breath.)

I don’t want to get into my thoughts about plus-minus data and all the inherent problems with it. Some other time. We’ll ignore the Durant lunacy for now. But to argue, insinuate or even blink that Tim Thomas is underrated — by any metric — cannot be allowed.

He goes on to discuss Thomas’s lack of heart, and how he hurts his team spiritually and emotionally.

Winston got wind of Simmons’ shout out and responded on his blog.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bill Simmons on Bill Belichick’s ill-fated decision

In his latest column, Simmons rails on those that defend Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 against the Patriots Sunday night. First, he skewers the idea that it was statistically the right move. Then he questions the assumption that the Colts would have scored had the Pats punted. After that, he questions a few other justifications for Belichick’s decision. The whole thing is a good read, but here’s the meat of his conclusion…

Did it feel like the end of an era? Yeah, a little. The truth is, Belichick is 57 years old. I doubt he’s banking those famous 19-hour work days anymore. I doubt he possesses the same hunger that fueled him when he was trying to escape Bill Parcells’ shadow and make a name for himself. Everything is gravy for him at this point. His place in history is secure.

Career security can be damaging in one of two ways: either you stop taking chances, or you feel emboldened and start taking too many of them. Belichick’s recent history shows that he would rather roll the dice than do something conventionally. He made so many trades in the draft this past April that I can’t even remember where we ended up picking. Right before the season, with the Patriots picked by many as the clear Super Bowl favorite, he dealt one of his defensive pillars (Richard Seymour) to Oakland for a future first-round pick. On Sunday night, he went for the jugular in Indianapolis when the situation demanded prudence.

There is a time for statistics and a time for common sense. And on the road, up six, facing a 4th-and-2 on your own 28 yard-line? That’s a time for common sense.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Bill Belichick was right…

…at least according to Gregg Easterbrook.

Indianapolis had only one timeout, so a first down would have all but won the game. On the night, the Patriots had averaged 6.6 yards per play, so the chance of gaining 2 yards was auspicious. As Tim Graham of has noted, since Tom Brady became New England’s starting quarterback, the Patriots have converted 76 percent of their fourth-and-short attempts. A 3-in-4 chance to win is a pretty inviting opportunity.

Which seems like a better gamble — 2 yards to win the game, or two minutes to shut down Peyton Manning when the Colts are hot? In 2007, AccuScore did thousands of computer simulations of the punt-or-go-for-it question for TMQ. One finding was that between your own 21-yard line and your own 35, you should go for it on fourth-and-2 or less. In test after test, doing this improved a team’s chance of victory — though, of course, there is no guarantee. No coach can control what happens on the field. Had New England punted, Indianapolis might have run the kick back for a touchdown, for instance. All the coach can do is make a decision that improves the team’s odds. Belichick made such a decision.

Two things to note:

1. While the Pats did average 6.6 yards per play on the night, they only averaged 2.8 yards per play in their final three possessions (not including Faulk’s 1-yard catch). The New England offense wasn’t as productive in the fourth quarter as it was during the first three.

2. While Brady may own a 76% success rate on fourth down, during those last three drives, just six of the preceding 16 plays (38%) went for more than two yards. That didn’t bode well for the Pats’ 4th-and-2.

I have no problem with computer simulations, but there is something about a 4th-and-whatever with the game on the line that can’t be quantified. Emotions are higher and everyone tightens up. It becomes tougher to execute. Officials are less likely to call a penalty, thinking that unless it’s obvious, players should decide the outcome (especially when the home crowd isn’t going to like your call).

Belichick’s reasoning is understandable. Tom Brady is his best player and he’d rather have the ball in his hands then punt it to Peyton Manning, who just made short work of his tired defense on the previous possession. Had Faulk caught the ball cleanly, we’d all be talking about how gutsy (and brilliant?) it was to go for the first down to win the game.

But it didn’t work out, and Belichick is left with egg on his face.

Belichick costs the Patriots a win over Colts

Bill Belichick is a genius. In fact, he’s so much of a genius that he cost his team a win on Sunday night by making one of the dumbest decisions by a head coach in quite some time.

The Patriots absolutely dissected the Colts for 58 minutes tonight. Tom Brady threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns on 29-of-42 passing, while Randy Moss (nine catches, 179 yards, 2 TDs) and Wes Welker (nine catches, 94 yards) abused an injury-riddled, inexperienced secondary on their way to taking a 31-14 fourth quarter lead.

Then Peyton Manning worked his magic to cut Indy’s deficit to 34-28 with just over two minutes remaining. But all the Patriots had to do was pick up two first downs (something they had done with ease the entire night) on their ensuing possession and put the Colts away for good. Instead, Indy’s defense rose to the challenge and stopped the Pats on a 3rd and 2 from New England’s 28-yard line to force a punt.

Or what everyone thought would be a punt, that is.

Instead of punting and making Manning drive the length of the field, Belichick decided to call a time out (the second of the drive) and go for it on fourth down. What ensued was a 1-yard catch by Kevin Faulk, a controversial spot of the ball and a turnover on downs for New England. Four plays later, Manning found Reggie Wayne for a 1-yard touchdown pass to give the Colts a stunning 35-34 victory.

Now, I don’t fault Belichick for being who he is: An aggressive decision-maker and a coach that not only likes to beat his opponent, but rip their soul out of their bodies and do a tap dance number on it. That’s who he is and that’s what he does. He’s won multiple Super Bowls with that strategy and he’s not going to change his philosophy now.

But the problem with that strategy in this case is that it just wasn’t a smart football decision. Belichick has to punt the football and trust his defense in that situation by forcing Manning to drive the length of the field to win. There’s nothing wrong with being aggressive, but that was just a flat out stupid decision by a head coach that knows better.

Granted, if the Patriots picked up that first down and never gave the ball back to Manning, everyone would be lauding Belichick’s fearless style. I get that, and I don’t want to lose sight of that fact because the media can be two-faced in scenarios like these. And in Belichick’s defense, with the way his offense had been moving the ball all night, gaining a first down on 4th and 2 must have seemed like a lock and why give the ball back to Manning after he just carved up your defense the previous two drives?

But the Patriots didn’t pick up that first down and there was really no reason not to punt the football in that situation. It wasn’t like they were at midfield – they were at their own 28-yard line and if their gamble didn’t work, Belichick had to have known he was handing a win over to the Colts. Furthermore, for Belichick to burn two timeouts before making that decision and leaving himself without the option to stop the clock had his offense not picked up the first down was just as stupid.

I’ve never seen a team dominate like the Patriots did for 58 minutes, only to lose on a decision like that. New England will surely rebound and I wouldn’t doubt it if we saw these same two teams play in the AFC Championship Game in the same stadium. But nevertheless, this was an awful decision by Belichick and he cost his team tonight.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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