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Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Fourth-and-2 vs. fourth-and-twice

By Ed Werder
ESPNDallas.com

We now know with absolute certainty that nobody else would have made the same bold, unconventional coaching decision that sprang from the calculating brain of Bill Belichick in the New England Patriots' controversial Sunday night loss to the undefeated Indianapolis Colts.

We know this with absolute certainty because Barry Switzer told me it was not something he would have done, even though he made a very similar decision from the Dallas Cowboys sideline on a cold and windy Philadelphia day 14 years ago.

"It's totally different,'' Switzer said. "We had fourth-and-3-inches. If it had been fourth-and-2, we'd have kicked the SOB.''

Belichick is among the most accomplished coaches in football history, a man of defensive genius whose brilliance was uniquely honored when the Pro Football Hall of Fame displayed the Patriots' defensive game plan from his first Super Bowl victory as a head coach.

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick came out on the losing end of his fourth-down gamble. "It would be fun to see Brady try that same play 10 times in a row," Barry Switzer said. "So now the press is on him because he's Belichick, the best coach in the history of football."

Fairly or not, Switzer is infamously remembered as the former Cowboys head coach who toted a handgun through an airport and basically proved Jerry Jones' contention that 500 coaches could win the Super Bowl with the talent he accumulated when Jimmy Johnson was coaching the franchise.

Until Sunday night, they were perceived as being at opposite points on the NFL coaching spectrum.

But Belichick seemed to channel his inner Switzer with an unconventional game-turning decision. With the Patriots holding a six-point advantage and facing fourth-and-2 from their own 28-yard line, Belichick did what Switzer attempted to do in 1995. Late in a 17-all game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Switzer refused to punt the football from the Dallas 29-yard line.

"I know what he's thinking,'' Switzer said Monday night, briefly interrupting his regular dinner with friends at a small Italian restaurant in Norman, Okla. "Belichick is thinking, 'If we make this play right here, we win the ballgame.'

"He didn't want to punt to Peyton Manning. In pro football, two minutes is an eternity, and he's seen the two best quarterbacks in football go up and down the field on each other. When that happens, you're thinking, 'My defense can't stop them, but I know how I can win the game with one play.'"

In both instances, the Patriots and Cowboys tried to have their best player make a pivotal first down. Belichick had Tom Brady throw. Switzer had Emmitt Smith run. Both failed. Their teams lost. The criticism was intense.

Everybody thought when you don't get it the first time, you've got to punt it. But what was I going to do at that point, change my mind and basically say, 'I don't believe in you guys'? Hell, you're committed at that point.

-- Former Cowboys coach Barry Switzer
on his fourth-down decision(s) in 1995.

Belichick's decision was more rational. He was trying to avoid giving a prolific Super Bowl-winning quarterback another possession. Not only that, but a first down virtually guaranteed victory since the Patriots were protecting a narrow lead. The Cowboys were competing against journeyman Rodney Peete. A first down for the Cowboys would have merely prolonged their possession in a game that was even, perhaps forcing overtime.

"Troy [Aikman], Emmitt and Michael [Irvin], they all wanted me to go for it,'' Switzer said. "If you can't make three inches, you don't deserve to win the ballgame. What everybody forgets is how windy it was; we'd already had one punt come right back in our faces because of it. I figured we had to get some field position or we weren't going to win it so I said, 'Let's get a first down.'"

The Cowboys ran Smith -- the NFL's career rushing leader -- on a short-yardage play called Load Left. The Eagles swarmed and stopped him short of the first down, only for the Cowboys to be allowed a reprieve. The officials ruled the two-minute warning had occurred before the snap.

Surely, with the chance to reconsider, Switzer would punt. Instead, the Cowboys ran the same play that had just failed. Smith's second attempt was no more successful.

"Everybody thought when you don't get it the first time, you've got to punt it,'' Switzer said. "But what was I going to do at that point, change my mind and basically say, 'I don't believe in you guys'?

"Hell, you're committed at that point.''

The headline referencing Switzer's two game-deciding calls in the next day's newspaper: "Dumb and Dumber.'' The headlines in the Boston newspapers this week were harsher than when Belichick and his undefeated Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.

Barry Switzer
Cowboys coach Barry Switzer, who was widely criticized after his fourth-down failure versus Philadelphia, eventually had the last laugh as the Cowboys won the Super Bowl that season.

A little-known fact: Since Brady became the Patriots' starting quarterback in 2001, New England had converted a fourth-and-2 or shorter 76.4 percent of the time. So Belichick played the percentages, although you also have to weigh the consequences of failure -- and that Manning scores touchdowns nearly every time on possessions that begin inside the opponent's 30-yard line.

So Belichick paid Manning the ultimate compliment. I know for a fact that other NFL head coaches have been hesitant to punt to Manning's team and considered the same strategy invoked by Belichick. But lacking three Super Bowl rings, the other coaches elected not to subject themselves to the potential of withering criticism. I can practically guarantee you that Manning and the Colts' coaching staff were displeased when Belichick decided not to punt.

You have to admire the fact that Belichick has refused to engage his critics, declining to debate those who have assailed him -- including former Patriots defensive players such as Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. Maybe Belichick would have trusted his defense to stop Manning if it had demonstrated during the course of its performance late in the game against Manning that it was capable of doing so and therefore worthy of trust that proved absent.

"It would be fun to see Brady try that same play 10 times in a row and see how it comes out,'' Switzer said. "So now the press is on him because he's Belichick, the best coach in the history of football. Well, I know this: If he would have punted and Manning would have gone 70 yards to win the game, they'd have said he should have gone for that first down.''

If Switzer could endure the harsh criticism, it will surely be no problem for Belichick. There is no better coach when it comes to crisis management, and nobody has more control over the players in his locker room.

And one more thing that Belichick might want to know about the similarly odd decision Switzer made 14 years before. It was portrayed at the time as a loss the Cowboys -- who had other inner turmoil -- would never overcome. It was suggested they might not win another game that year.

Instead, the Cowboys never suffered another defeat.

"When people bring that up,'' Switzer said, with a chuckle, "I just smile and say, 'You know what? We won the Super Bowl that year.'"

Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.com and contributes weekly to ESPNDallas.com.