Bill Belichick, Fourth and Two, and the Decision of the Decade

T.J. DoneganCorrespondent INovember 16, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 15:  Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on during warm ups before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 15, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Early 20th century newspaperman Heywood Broun once wrote that "great circumstances produce great actors."

Well, we saw the opposite last night as one of the principal players of this little Patriots-Colts rivalry handed Peyton Manning all the circumstance he needed with his incredible decision to go for it on 4th-and-two from the New England 28.

Now, I know a thing or two about questionable decisions.

There's sampling "Forever Young" for Blueprint 3 questionable, and then there's what Bill Belichick did.

It was all on Belichick's face after his team turned the ball over, when he looked like a hungover college student looking at last night's "dialed calls" list.

It's a monumental decision that will be chewed over again and again this week.

Was it arrogance? Ballsiness? Imprudence? Foolhardy? Just plain stupid?

I don't know, but (and bear with me here) looking at the decision analytically I can say that I don't have a problem with the ultimate conclusion to commit to being in four down territory given the opposition and situation, despite the field position.

It's not arrogance to assume your football team can get two yards in one down, let alone two.

Bill Belichick didn't go for it because he wasn't afraid of Peyton Manning. He did it because kicking the ball to Manning's Colts when he has the two minute warning and a timeout is how plenty of coaches have lost football games in the past.

My real issue is that if Belichick was gutsy or savvy enough to already have it in his mind to go for it on fourth down from there—which would've been a pretty brilliant thing to know beforehand since nobody would've expected it—then why did he choose the play he did on third down? Why send the punter Chris Hanson out before calling timeout and letting Brady go for it?

If you already know that, barring a sack or a big loss on third down, you're going for it the next play, then why put BenJarvus Green-Ellis (who has all of zero carries), as your lone back on the crucial third down play, and then pass the ball?

Even if you went into a two-back big set with Green-Ellis as the fullback, as he was on Maroney's touchdown run earlier in the game, and run into the teeth of a third down blitz, you have to assume that you can get at least a yard or two, if not the first down, against a soft Colts interior defensive line.

Had they come out in a running formation, the Colts may have even guessed that they might pass, since they did the exact same thing on their last drive, with Brady hitting Randy Moss for four yards.

But lining up from the shotgun with only BenJarvus in the backfield just screamed pass to the Colts, who simply blitzed, played hard press coverage, and hoped they'd make Brady throw before somebody really got open.

If they simply ran a conventional run play from a running formation, which the Colts might've been wary to all-out commit to stopping given the aforementioned pass to Moss, the Patriots likely would've gained the first down or at least a yard.

Even if they'd been stuffed and were then in a fourth and one or fourth and inches, that opens the possibility to sneak and grab a first down that way.

Regardless of what may or may not have happened on the next play, running on third down at least forces Indianapolis to use their third timeout, which gives the Patriots a greater chance of stopping Manning if they did ultimately have to punt.

Do the Colts audible out of the blitz if Faulk, having the game of his life, is in there on third down instead of Maroney? If the Patriots ran on third, let the Colts burn their timeout, then ran the same play to Faulk on fourth do they challenge and get the first down?

These are the things we can only speculate about, but there are a thousand different ways the Patriots could've at least kept the Colts on their toes and instead they basically broadcast with their personnel selection that they were going to pass on third and short.

It's funny, because if you pay heed to certain statistical analysis, Belichick is the least risk tolerant coach around.

Now I'm not privy to the communication between Belichick and his coaches or his players. I don't know what led him to make the decision he made. I don't know if they've run that play in practice 1,000 times and completed 1,000 of them for 3 yards.

But from where I'm sitting, it was the combination of a schizophrenic decision making process and a poor selection of plays and personnel on third and fourth down that cost the Patriots a deserved victory.

In a game where Manning and his receivers were on completely different pages at times, when Kevin Faulk looked like Adrian Peterson, when it was 55 degrees in November in New England, it's only fitting that Bill Belichick mismanaged the clock and forced his team into giving up a victory that was all but in the bag.

I don't really buy into all this "...of the decade" business (despite the headline), but in what has been a classic matchup of wits between Manning and Belichick, Bill may have finally out-thought himself.


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