No matter which way you dissect it, Bill Belichick made the wrong call
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NEW YORK -- Three o'clock in the morning, and I'm still rolling Bill Belichick's call around in my head. I wonder how many people in New England aren't asleep yet ... and how many won't be able to sleep all night.
This call reminds me a lot of Grady Little's call in the 2003 playoffs, when all logic said he had to take a done-in Pedro Martinez out of Game 7 of the ALCS playoffs in Yankee Stadium. But he refused, rode his horse into the valley of death, and watch Martinez give up the lead and, as it turned out, the season. This call is certainly as controversial, but it doesn't quite have the finality of Little's laissez-faire foolhardiness. The Patriots should still win their division and host at least one home playoff game. That's not the same as having home-field advantage through the playoffs, which was possible midway through the fourth quarter but is now out the window.
Very interesting day in the league, particularly in New Jersey and Pittsburgh, but The Call Heard Round the World takes the spotlight now, and I'm going to try to dissect it logically, after a couple of hours considering every angle.
Let's start with 2:23 left in the game, New England up 34-28 with two timeouts left. The Colts had three timeouts left, plus the two-minute warning stoppage, so New England needed at least one first down to bleed much of the clock, and two to run the clock out entirely. As Tom Brady got to the huddle and saw the play clock winding down, he noticed the wrong personnel group on the field for the play that was called. A very uncharacteristic mistake by the Patriots, and Brady signaled for a timeout. One left for New England, which really was only important in case the Patriots wanted to challenge an officials' call in the next few seconds.
Kevin Faulk up the middle for no gain; Indianapolis timeout. Brady eight-yard pass to Wes Welker; Indy timeout. On third-and-two, Brady, pressured, threw a ball for Welker that was nearly picked off by Colts rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers. Incomplete. Fourth-and-two.
New England timeout, 2:08 left. The Patriots' last one.
Why? I wondered. Get the punt team on the field, try to pin Peyton Manning back as far as you can, and make him drive 70 or so yards. The New England punter, Chris Hanson, hadn't had any of his four punts returned, and he'd averaged a 44-yard net. So if he did what he'd done all night, the Colts would start at their own 28 at the two-minute warning with one timeout left.
Belichick was talking to Brady on the sidelines. I was sure they were talking about trying to draw the Colts offside with a hard count; there was no way he'd be authorizing going for it on fourth down. But back went Brady to the field, and he lined up in the shotgun, and started calling signals without the head-bob you normally associate with trying to draft a team offside.
"My God,'' I thought, "he's going for it!'' (Full video here.)
Two things had to factor in here. One: Belichick didn't want to give Manning the ball with two minutes to go; he'd just seen Manning take the Colts 79 yards in six plays for a touchdown. Two: He trusted Brady to get two yards. Let's place the odds of Brady getting two yards at 60, 65 percent. The odds of Manning going 72 yards to score a touchdown in less than two minutes ... that's maybe 35 percent.
You might say Manning's chance of taking his team 72 yards are better than 35 percent. Not sure I would. On his previous seven possessions, covering about 30 minutes of game time, Manning had done the following:
· Six plays, 79 yards, touchdown.
· One play, zero yards, interception.
· Five plays, 79 yards, touchdown.
· Six plays, 16 yards, punt.
· Four plays, 24 yards, interception.
· Five plays, 16 yards, punt.
· Three plays, no yards, punt.
Three punts, two interceptions, two touchdowns. Now, maybe Belichick thought his defense was tired. Maybe he feared Manning. Maybe he trusted Brady. Whatever, the faulty logic here is that Manning was a sure thing to ram it down the Patriots' throats. Yes, he'd just done that, but on the series previous to that one he'd thrown a interception, his second of the night. So if the theory was Manning was going to score for sure, I don't buy it.
Against Atlanta in Week 3, there was a play something like this. New England had fourth-and-one at its 24 late in the third quarter, up 16-10. Sammy Morris ran for two yards, first down, and the Patriots went on to kick a field goal on the drive. But that was one yard, not two, and even if it had failed and the Falcons got the ball and scored, the Patriots would have had an entire quarter to rectify things.
Brady looked for his old reliable, Kevin Faulk, blanketed to the right by safety Melvin Bullitt. The pass was on target, and it hit Faulk's hands between the 31- and 32-yard lines, but Faulk juggled the ball as he was jostled by Bullitt. As Bullitt pushed him back inside of the 30-, where he needed to go to make the first down, Faulk got control of the ball and he went down at about the 29-yard line. Immediately, head linesman Tom Stabile gave the signal of both hands going up and down alternately, palms up, which meant Faulk was juggling the ball. And the ball was spotted about a yard shy of the first down.
The clock just then hit the two-minute warning. Under the rules of the replay system, a team can challenge a play until the first play after the two-minute warning; then all reviews are dictated by the replay official upstairs. At all other times, teams can challenge calls, but they have to have a timeout remaining so that if their challenge is wrong, they can be docked a timeout, as called for by the rules.
But the Patriots had no timeout left. The team that never makes dumb mistakes made one with 2:23 to go, calling one because of the miscommunication that resulted in the wrong personnel being on the field.
If they could have challenged the spot, what would referee Scott Green have ruled? I saw the replay eight or 10 times. There wasn't a perfect angle with a camera right at the 30, and you couldn't see exactly when Faulk stopped juggling the ball and got indisputable possession. Over and over again in the wee hours this morning, I watched to see when Faulk had the ball, and it was very, very close. But I'm fairly certain Green wouldn't have been able to change the call, because of how difficult it was to tell when Faulk had it cleanly.
"If we gain seven more inches, it's a great call,'' Brady said at his post-midnight press conference.
Try 30 more inches. And this would never have been a great call. Even it you think you've got a two-out-of-three chance to make two yards deep in your own territory, the cost of missing it is too great. The difference between Manning driving 29 yards for the winning touchdown and 72 is too great. Too many chances for him to err in 72 yards, as he'd been doing occasionally during the night.
One more variable. If Tony Dungy had been the coach, Brady could have counted on no blitz on the play, because Dungy would have relied on his Cover 2 scheme and used seven or eight players to cover. But new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer is more blitz-minded, and he sent two extra rushers here, hurrying Brady as his pocket collapsed; that just made the conversion more of a problem. So maybe making two yards there with a coordinator more likely to bring the heat would be tougher than under Dungy.
It took only four plays for the Colts to drive for the winning touchdown, a Manning-to-Reggie Wayne slant from a yard out.
All in all, I hated the call. It smacked of I'm-smarter-than-they-are hubris. Let Manning, with the weight of the world on his shoulders and no timeouts under his belt, drive 72 yards in two minutes, with his mistake-prone (on this night) young receivers and the clock working against him. Sure he could do it. But let him earn it. This felt too cheap. It was too cheap. Belichick's too smart to have something so Grady-Littlish on his career resume, but there it is, and it can never be erased.
The Jags are riding Maurice Jones-Drew's cape.
Now that was a weird end to a game at the Meadowlands. At the two-minute warning Sunday, the Jags trailed the Jets 22-21. New York had no timeouts left, and Jacksonville was going down the field in big chunks. When running backs coach Kennedy Pola and coach Jack Del Rio told Jones-Drew to take a knee at the one-yard line if he got that far, he said, "Really?'' And they explained why: The Jets were without timeouts, and if he could get to the one and then the Jags could bleed the clock, they could kick a field goal and go home with the win.
So on the next play, Jones-Drew burst through the middle -- unbeknownst to him, the Jets were instructed to not tackle -- and went down by himself at the one. A couple of Jets yelled, "C'mon! Score!'' Said Jones-Drew: "The Jets guys were laughing. One of them said, 'Why'd you do that?' '' The Jags let the clock run down, and Josh Scobee kicked the winning field goal at the gun.
"Great job not being selfish,'' Del Rio told Jones-Drew.
Now the Jags are 5-4, winners of three of four, and only a game out of the Wild Card. And Jones-Drew, with 1,080 rushing-receiving yards, is showing no signs of slowing in his first year as an every-down back.
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