Even when it costs Pats, in Bill they trust
November, 16, 2009
By Tim Graham | ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- There actually is an explanation.
You might not agree that Bill Belichick's decision was justified or even logical by lobotomized standards, but there was a reason he astonished us all Sunday night.
Common sense dictated the New England Patriots punt. They faced a fourth-and-2 situation from their own 28-yard line with 2 minutes, 8 seconds to play. They were ahead of the Indianapolis Colts by six points.
But Belichick defied convention. That's what geniuses do sometimes. They'll try some crazy maneuver every now and then. Belichick saw this as the perfect moment.
He called a timeout to shoo his punt unit off the field. He sent his offense back to the field. Surely, Belichick ordered Tom Brady to induce the Colts to jump offside with a hard count and some wild hand gesticulations.
There was no way the Patriots were going to snap it, right?
Then the ball soared between center Dan Koppen's knees. The play was live. This was it, do or die. Brady threw to his right to running back Kevin Faulk, who bobbled the ball but corralled it as he went to the turf -- short of the first down by six inches or so.
Anybody who watched the play unfold was stunned.
"That was like a video-game play," Colts punt returner T.J. Rushing said. "You're playing your buddy and you're like, 'I'm just going to go for it.' I guess they figured no matter what, if the offense got the ball back, we were going to win. That's the only thing I can think of."
The Patriots gave Colts quarterback Peyton Manning a short field and braced for the inevitable.
You knew it was going to happen. Four plays later, he threw a strike to Reggie Wayne for a touchdown to give the Colts an implausible 35-34 victory in Lucas Oil Stadium.
What was Belichick thinking?
"We tried to win the game on that play," Belichick said, elaborating little.
Brady defended the call. So did the Patriots players who weren't too disgusted to speak to reporters after the game.
The Patriots have one of the NFL's best offenses. Brady is one of the game's all-time greats and was enjoying a monster day. They had amassed 477 yards from scrimmage, with 375 yards spiraling from Brady's right hand. They had the ball and wanted to keep it.
Quite simply, they thought 2 yards were more than attainable.
ESPN Stats & Information dug through the archives and found that entering Sunday's game, the Patriots had converted a fourth-and-2 or shorter 68 out of 89 times (76.4 percent) since 2001, Brady's first year as a starter.
"I don't ever second-guess coach Belichick," Brady said. "He makes the right decision out there a lot of the time. We as players have to go out there and do our jobs and execute the plays that are called. He's not responsible for turnovers or penalties or missed throws. We had our offense out there, and we're one of the best offenses in the league. We have a chance to go out there and make the play to win."
"In Bill We Trust" is a popular slogan among diehards. Even their devotion will be tested.
Belichick has built up a lot of faith equity over the years. He runs one of the NFL's dominant franchises, the team of the decade. He has three Super Bowl rings and four AFC championships.
That doesn't make him infallible.
"He's the head coach," Faulk said. "He makes the calls. They're not all right, but he's the head coach. No matter what he does, to us, that's going to be the right call."
To most everyone else, it was the wrong call for the Patriots.
"It's a game of inches, guys," Brady reasoned with reporters at his postgame news conference. "It's easy to second-guess, obviously. If we gain seven more inches, then it's a great call."
The Patriots (6-3) were afraid of Manning. In their minds, it didn't matter where Manning gained possession of the ball. He had a timeout at his disposal and probably the two-minute warning to help him manage a fantastic finish.
What had the Patriots particularly spooked were Manning's two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. He twice drove the Colts 79 yards. The first took five plays and 2:46. The second -- after the Patriots grabbed a seemingly safe 13-point lead with four minutes left -- took six plays and 1:49.
"It's not like as a coach you're thinking 'Let's see if they can do that again,' " Brady said. "He's thinking 'We've got our offense on the field. We have over 450 yards of offense at the time. We got a lot of great players on our offense.' "
Colts strong safety Melvin Bullitt said after the game defensive backs coach Alan Williams had been drilling into them all week that if the Patriots went for it on fourth down, the ball was going to Faulk or Wes Welker.
Bullitt was all over Faulk to make the game-saving tackle.
There's more than one way to look at Belichick's decision. Some might view it as having faith in his offense. Others might see it as an indictment of his defense.
Patriots cornerback Leigh Bodden disagreed that the move suggested Belichick didn't have faith his defense could make a stop, noting that the coach entrusted his men to stop Manning to score in an Arena League situation.
Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe Manning drives the length of the field to stick a dagger in the Patriots' chests anyway. But the Patriots didn't have to make it so easy for him.
The Colts (9-0) are unbeaten, but Manning's not infallible either. He threw two bad interceptions early in the game. There was no guarantee he would have driven the Colts 80 yards. The Patriots should have made it tougher rather than put Manning on the doorstep.
"Against this team, you've got to play 60 minutes," Brady said. "If you don't, you'll get beat. When you're up 13 with four minutes left and you can't close them out, I think that's going to sit with us for a long time."