Monday, November 16, 2009

On Belichick

What follows is utter speculation, as is every bit of angst and schadenfreude spilling from the sporting corners of these here Internets today. Nobody really knows what Bill Belichick was thinking when he made the decision to go for broke against the Colts last night, and we probably never will know. The Patriots are as sealed and secretive a franchise as we've ever seen in the modern age, having adapted the pathologically competitive nature of their coach; therefore, it is up to us to guess, and to argue, and in this way, Belichick has done us a favor: He has given us perhaps the single-most interesting regular-season NFL game of the decade, another watershed moment in what has now become the aughts equivalent of Lakers-Celtics.

For that alone, it is hard not to offer Belichick a little bit of credit, even if you hate his guts. We spend our lives calling on coaches to take chances, to defy conventional wisdom, to do something interesting, for once, rather than falling back on the somnolent principles of Tresselball. Well, Belichick did something so interesting that I still kind of can't believe it actually happened in the NFL. It essentially reinforced his own stereotype (as an arrogant jerk) while simultaneously questioning everything we think we know about football. The backlash, of course, will be unrelenting, because people outside of New England have developed an irrational hate of Belichick (for reasons both justified and idiotic), and because it's always difficult to grasp something that seemingly defies logic, but is, in fact, utterly rational. And yes, this was a rational decision, according the simple calculations made by a dude named Brian over at a blog called Advanced NFL Stats. Read it; the numbers make sense. There is a better chance of the Patriots converting on a 4th-and-2 then there is of the Patriots stopping Peyton Manning on a protracted drive with two minutes to play.

So yes, I think Belichick made the right call. In fact, if he made any mistake at all, it was A.) Stupidly (and uncharacteristically) wasting his time-outs, and B.) Not taking his counterintuitive logic far enough. For by making this decision, he was essentially admitting that his defense could not stop Peyton Manning on a 70-yard drive. How, then, could he imagine his offense might stop Manning on a 30-yard drive? At that point, once the Patriots failed to convert on that fourth down, New England had no time outs left. They had no choice. They should have let the Colts score. By that, I mean bring the house on a blitz. If you get to Manning, then fine; if you don't get to him, then Indianapolis scores quick, goes up by a point, and you still have a minute left with an offense that had already driven the length of several Northeastern states. There is no question in my mind, if the Patriots had gotten the ball back with one minute to play and one time-out remaining, they could have set up for a field goal to win the game. Hell, the way this one was going, Moss might have even scored six.

Still, it's almost better that the Patriots failed. It adds another layer to depth of this rivalry, it adds another layer of drama when these teams inevitably meet again in the playoffs,* and it means that the oft-stodgy pastime of professional football has proven that it can be even more intriguing than the college game, if only for a single play.

*And clearly, the Patriots could afford to take a chance, because they are going to win their division, they could still get a first-round bye, and they have obviously proven that they can beat Indy on the road.

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