By Dan Snapp, Patriots Daily Staff
The best take I heard on Bill Belichick’s now-legendary fourth down call:
You’re Jim Caldwell. In a rare league occurrence (and one Bill Polian’s having the Competition Committee consider for next year), you get to make the Patriots’ decision on fourth-and-two. So your choices are have them punt the ball, with a 100 percent chance of getting the ball back; or have them go for it, with more toward a 50-50 chance. What’s it gonna be, Jim?
By now you’ve witnessed the ocean of opinions flow in about the call. If nothing else, Belichick’s gambit has galvanized the airwaves. The reactions ran the full gamut: some hated it; some loved it; some gleefully added a new “B” entry to their “Boston Misery” Rolodex, to be revisited many, many, many times.
And now as we stretch past two full days of review, in hindsight we discover not only was it a ballsy call, but likely the higher percentage call as well.
As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. Consider all the factors going into the decision: the percentages for and against; the fact the tired Patriots defense had given up not one but two 79-yard, two-minute scoring drives that quarter; the concept of giving Peyton Manning 70 yards to go, with two full minutes and a timeout, and four full downs to get first downs; the fact Manning had also thrown up two wounded duck interceptions that half; and the knowledge that your offense has chalked up 470 yards already on this defense.
We’ve had two days to absorb all this information, plus the benefit of the outcome of the play, to then come to the conclusion that at worst, it was a 50-50 call. Belichick had a minute to decide. He made the call decisively, and stood by it afterward.
This isn’t a Belichick-can-do-no-wrong missive. He did plenty wrong: the conservative play-calling late in the game when they could have delivered the knockout blow; the inexcusable waste of their last two timeouts, when the penultimate play of the game would occur outside of the two-minute warning; the uncharacteristically poor clock management; and most damningly, the failure to call a running play on third down when (as Belichick said later) he already knew he’d go for it on fourth down. Running the ball either gets it down to the two-minute warning or forces Indy to use their last timeout; Instead, they pass AND call a timeout themselves. Shameful.
A slew of coaches, both pro and college, have now come forth in support of the decision. They didn’t talk about any of the manufactured storylines (“What does it say to your defense?” “Manning’s now in Belichick’s head,” “This is just Belichick thinking he’s smarter than everybody else.”). They just looked at it as a play to try to win the game.
What struck me, though, was something Tony Dungy said in the postgame show. “You gotta punt,” he said. “You gotta play the percentages.” Just like that. No consideration of the alternative. A coach as long-tenured and successful as Dungy, and the “safe play” was the way to go. I’d have thought in all the years he’s coached, he’d have seen such an instance and have a pretty good sense of the pros and cons and percentages.
Nope. He gives the same answer as the first-year coach whose first order of business is trying not to get fired: Play it safe. You may still lose, but at least you played it safe.
Now neither Dungy nor any of us knew at the time that Belichick’s percentages were actually pretty decent, and the “safe play” may not have been any safer than going for it, but that’s not the point.
Everyone has accepted as a given that only Belichick would attempt such a thing, and upon attempting it, the only one to get away with such a thing. Were he still coaching, Dungy could get away with it, but he already acknowledged he’d never try it in the first place. Other coaches in the league are either so new, or in such precarious situations, they don’t have the clout to do it, even if they wanted to.
Belichick just did them a favor. The precedent’s set, with statistical backup, and they’re free to make the same call without fear of reprisal.
Even if Belichick knew the odds in his favor, he still had to know it was a controversial decision. He had to know if it didn’t work, he’d be crucified. Everyone who wanted their pound of flesh from him, for whatever multitude of sins they thought he committed (Spygate, Handshakegate, Runningupthescoregate, Whydontyoureturnmycalls?gate), would be coming to collect. He made the call anyway.
And therein lies the beauty of Bill Belichick: he doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks of him.
Michael Silver described the call as a “setup for ego-driven gratification.” Peter King said it “smacked of I’m-smarter-than-they-are hubris.” “Too smart for his own good,” wrote Dan Shaughnessy, “The sins of hubris.” Michael Wilbon called it “The most arrogant end-of-game decision I’ve ever seen in 40-plus years of watching pro football.” And Shaughnessy asked yesterday, “Why is it so terrible to say that this was a mistake?”
Self-gratifying. Proud. Arrogant. Obstinate.
These guys don’t have a clue. They can’t understand why he won’t do what they expect him to do. They don’t get why he won’t admit to a mistake he doesn’t think he made. Even after the numbers back him up, they still want him to admit it was wrong (“I’m not saying the mathematical theory is wrong; it’s not,” King wrote yesterday. “I just think there’s a certain amount of playing by feel.”).
And they don’t get that neither pride nor arrogance – assuming Belichick possesses both in spades – have any bearing on how he calls a football game. Since he arrived in Foxboro 10 years ago, on the field he’s displayed nothing but a singular focus toward winning. He never let any distractions – Terry Glenn, Drew Bledsoe, Lawyer Milloy, et al – get in the way of the team’s focus on winning the next game. Often, those decisions came at the expense of his own personal reputation. So be it so long as we’re winning – that seemed to be the credo.
Bill Belichick is beholden to none, and that’s a powerful thing. Sure, he answers to Robert Kraft, but Kraft’s lone directive to Belichick is “Win.” That’s like commanding sharks to eat.
Belichick’s responsibility to the players is to put them in the best position to make plays. He doesn’t owe apologies, any more than he’d expect one from a player. Listen to the interviews when they lose. To a man, it’s typically, “Coach expects us to execute the play, and we just didn’t do that.” When’s the last time you’ve heard a Patriots player not repeat the “What’s best for the team” mantra?
Belichick’s responsibility to the fans and the media? Nothing, save for the press conferences and interviews to which all head coaches are bound. He doesn’t owe us explanations. He doesn’t owe us reasoning into every minute detail of team operations. He’s trying to provide us wins, and that trumps every other consideration.
He’s not going to spout off with some pretense of bravado like Rex Ryan, or strut like some popinjay like Jack Del Rio, or play favorites like Brad Childress.
None of these coaches would forgo their reputation like Belichick routinely does. None would risk the wrath of the media, whom they so desperately court. Winning is still important to them, but none are willing to make the same sacrifices.
Michael Silver talks of ego. Ego? Belichick is the most reviled man in the league. If he really wanted to stroke his ego, he’s had countless opportunities to play the game they want him to play. To explain himself, to apologize, to become beholden to them and to us. Belichick won’t do it.
The team’s got some problems. They can’t run when they need to, nor rush the passer when needed. Either may prove a fatal flaw. Still, they had the Super Bowl favorite on the ropes for 56 minutes. Just because they didn’t win doesn’t mean they’re not good enough to do so.
The fact they’ve got a coach willing to make the tough call, who’s decisive in doing so, and unwavering in the backlash after it fails – well, that’s only an asset to the cause.