By and large, fourth-quarter strategy is discussed in terms of timeless horse sense. Kill clock to protect a late lead, run out of bounds to save time for a late comeback, cling to your timeouts for dear life—that sort of thing.
(And, of course, John Madden's sage admonition to play for overtime when tied.)
Within that school of thought, punting for field position when leading and never taking sure points off the board when trailing are two sacrosanct truths.
Facing 4th-and-2 from the Patriots' own 28-yard line, with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter and a six-point lead over the Colts in Indianapolis, Bill Belichick kept his punt team on the sideline as New England's offense attempted to sustain a game-ending drive Sunday night.
Earlier in the day, Jaguars' running back Maurice Jones-Drew startled onlookers (and enraged his fantasy owners) by kneeling down on a red zone run—one yard away from a score that would have put Jacksonville up 27-22 on the New York Jets—on coach Jack Del Rio's orders, with less than two minutes remaining.
Belichick's gamble fell inches short as running back Kevin Faulk caught a pass short of the first-down marker, while Del Rio's paid off when kicker Josh Scobee's game-winning field goal split the uprights.
Both, though, drew criticism from advocates of traditional tactics.
Wednesday on Football Fix , ESPN Radio 's Colin Cowherd acknowledged Belichick and QB Tom Brady's 76 percent success rate on fourth down, with an interesting twist.
"Suppose you're jumping out of a plane," Cowherd analogized, "and 76 percent of the time, you have a great time. The other 25 percent, [sic] death."
"You're not jumping out of that plane."
Former Denver Broncos' linebacker Tom Jackson, similarly used math to question Del Rio's decision on ESPN 's Monday Night Countdown. Arguing that a short field goal was hardly a certainty, Jackson noted that the Jets were allowing Jones-Drew to cross the goal line.
"100 percent of the time [in that situation], you score," he quipped.
Those down-to-earth counterarguments have merit, of course.
By turning the ball over on downs so close to their own goal line, the Patriots practically handed Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and his receivers six points. Two plays, both passes, put the Colts on the one-yard line with time to burn, and a slant route touchdown toss to Reggie Wayne made their comeback official.
New England punter Chris Hanson, averaging 44 net-yards per punt that night, could (theoretically) have flipped the field, pushing Indianapolis' offense back to their own 28-yard line.
Manning had completed seven of his 10 passes in the quarter, throwing for over 100 yards and a touchdown, but 72 yards in two minutes would hardly have been a cinch.
For the Jaguars, Jackson's caution that even a field goal from extra point distance isn't an automatic three points should have rang especially true.
Two weeks earlier, a botched point-after by their field goal team blunted Jones-Drew's potential game-tying touchdown in the third quarter against the Tennessee Titans. Coming onto the field for the kick, Scobee was an unimpressive 9-of-15 on field goals and had already pegged one of Giants Stadium's left uprights earlier in the game.
Injuries—the indefatigable bugger of even the best-laid football plans—factored into both coaches' decisions.
Had Belichick been able to count on absent defensive linemen Ty Warren and Jarvis Green to pressure Manning, he might have been more willing to trust his defense against the Colts' aerial attack. For Del Rio, cornerback Rashean Mathis' groin injury on the Jets' last drive left his defensive secondary dangerously thin.
The decision by both coaches to kill clock and keep their opponents' offenses off the field was, in and of itself, hardly radical. Their aggressive pursuits of that strategy though, have sent shock waves through the national sports consciousness.
As of Monday morning, every major news outlet and NFL blog had an opinion, and every water cooler, break room, and work shop has been buzzing with talk. Depending on who's asked, Belichick either made an epic goof or showed big-time chutzpah; Del Rio's call was either a heady play or a lucky gamble.
Overlooked in most of the back-and-forth is the simple fact that both men refused to react passively in crunch time.
Punting and taking the free touchdown, respectively, would have been inoffensive calls. Both coaches would have been given credit, at least for "trusting the defense." Neither would have received much postgame attention had Manning or New York's Mark Sanchez led successful comeback drives.
In the gut of a head coach though, is the realization that—as Del Rio said after his Jaguars' 24-22 win—in such close games, "It comes down to being able to make a play to win the game."
On that task, neither wanted to defer to his opponent.
Hindsight says that one stumbled into a loss while the other escaped with a win. But come January, teams steered by coaches bold enough to go all-in on one play are better equipped to succeed under the win-or-go-home pressure of playoff football. On 4th-and-2, or with one shot at a game-winning kick, they've been there before.
Because at some point in any playoff team's season, there's a deciding play and, as Belichick said after the Patriots' 35-34 loss, "You only get one chance."
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