Monday, November 3, 2008

Going for two was too much

It's not often that Patriots defeats can be pinned on Bill Belichick.

The veteran coach, winner of three Super Bowls, unquestioned defensive mastermind, director of the most prolific offense in NFL history, rarely does anything to give anyone reason to question his decisions.

Start Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe? Sure.
Draft Logan Mankins in the first round? Of course.
Trade for perennial malcontent Randy Moss? Why the heck not?

But Belichick, perhaps for the first time in his nine seasons with the Patriots, might be more culpable than anyone after the Patriots' 18-15 loss at Indianapolis. Yes, David Thomas committed the game's decisive penalty. Yes, Jabar Gaffney dropped a huge touchdown pass. But both mistakes might have been mere blips if not for a couple of big mistakes by Belichick.

Belichick squandered two big timeouts in the second half. He wasted the first on a fairly pointless too-many-men-on-the-field challenge when the half was less than four minutes old and the Patriots had the ball at midfield; the cost (a timeout) was far greater than the best-case payoff (first-and-5 at the 50 rather than first-and-10 at the Pats' 45).

But that wasn't the only time Belichick would squander a timeout. He wasted another on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak that he chose instead to turn into a field goal. He chose to turn an aggressive play into a conservative play. Some are blasting the decision mostly because Matt Cassel converted the sneak, but that's 20-20 hindsight and unfair. Even if Cassel had been stuffed, it was a poor job of clock management. If you want to kick the field goal, kick the field goal. Don't blow your last timeout with more than 11 minutes to go just because you put the wrong unit on the field. Don't put the wrong unit on the field. Belichick is better than that.

And that play only grows more perplexing when you look at the conservative-versus-aggressive decision Belichick made in the third quarter. The Patriots took a 12-7 lead on a BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- love the "Law Firm" nickname, by the way -- touchdown midway through that quarter, and Belichick had a choice of whether to kick or go for two.

Some coaches operate by a cardinal rule: Never go for two before the fourth quarter. It's a conservative way to go, but in a lot of cases, that rule makes sense. Let's look at what might have happened on Sunday:

* If the Patriots had kicked the extra point, they would have led 13-7 rather than 12-7. (Kevin Faulk was stuffed at the goal line; Belichick didn't challenge the play because he'd already burned a timeout on the too-many-men challenge.)
* After the Colts scored on a Peyton Manning touchdown pass, they would have kicked an extra point rather than going for two and would have led by a 14-13 score.
* That means that Stephen Gostkowski's 25-yard field goal would have put the Patriots up by a 16-14 score early in the fourth quarter rather than tying the game at 15.

And if you go up by two points at that point, you force the Colts to play with some urgency. Adam Vinatieri's 52-yarder still would have won the game, true, but it's a different kick if you're playing from behind. He had the luxury of knowing that the game still would be tied if he missed. It's not the same type of kick if you have that sort of safety net. Even Vinatieri, the most clutch kicker in NFL history, operates better with a safety net -- both of his Super Bowl-winning kicks came with the score tied. (I'd be interested to see stats on that throughout his career, but I'm not sure those stats exist.)

You change the tone of the game when you're playing with a lead. In the first three quarters, unless there are extremely extenuating circumstances, it's best to take every point you can get with an eye toward playing with a lead. Belichick chose not to do that; he chose to gamble, and he lost. It was one of several decisions that cost his team the game.

And while there are plenty of moral victories to take out of a game like this, the fact remains that the Patriots -- tied for first in the AFC East -- need as many real victories as they can get.

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