Bill Belichick is Afraid of Peyton Manning

The New England Patriot’s 35-34 loss to the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night was one of the most frustrating, infuriating, painful losses I can remember for a regular season game in a long, long time. I know I more or less said something similar after last year’s loss to the Colts, but this is worse because we squandered a mostly wonderful game by Tom Brady and the offense.

Frankly, I am still so sick about losing this game I’m not really sure where to start in trying to discuss it. It really all came down to one play and one coaching decision at the end of the game. But before getting into what will go down as one of most infamous coaching decisions in NFL regular season history, let’s look at the positives for the Patriots. That might make me feel a little better, but I doubt it.

First, Tom Brady had an outstanding game. He actually outplayed Peyton Manning and is really starting to look like the Tom Brady of 2007. His pass to Kevin Faulk on the 4th and 2 at the end of the game was perfect and should have resulted in a first down (and some would argue it did, the officials just didn’t see it that way). Randy Moss and Wes Welker had outstanding games as well.

Second, the offensive line did an excellent job of protecting Brady most of the night. Sebastian Vollmer, the backup rookie left tackle, did a very good job of controlling the pass rushing machine, Dwight Freeney, most of the night. Nick Kazur, the right tackle, struggled a bit with Robert Mathis but he played well enough for the most part. A fellow Patriot fan suggested that maybe Matt Light, or normal left tackle who usually struggles mightily against Freeney, starts at right tackle when he is healthy and Kazur rides the pine. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

Finally, the young, inexperienced defense didn’t play as poorly as the score might look. While they didn’t look like the ’85 Bears, they were able to stop the Colts often enough for us to win the game and forced a couple of turnovers. They played well enough to win, but didn’t.

For the most part this game went the way I expected it to if the Patriots were going to pull off a win – the offense scoring a lot of points and the defense doing just enough to hold off the Colts’ prolific offense. The Patriots had a 17 point lead in the fourth quarter but I knew it wasn’t over. I was nervous, and had every reason to be as it turned out.

This is a game the Patriots had no business losing and it mostly comes down to Bill Belichick squandering all our time outs and his decision to go for it on 4th down and 2 yards to go from our own 28 yard line while protecting a 34-28 lead with 2:08 left in the fourth quarter. This was an all in gamble by Belichick. Make the first down and the game is basically over as the Patriots could have taken nearly all the time off the clock. Don’t make the first down and you give Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, the ball at the New England 28 yard line with plenty of time left on the clock.

As most NFL fans know by now, the Patriots didn’t make the first down (or so the officials say) and Manning threw a winning touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with almost no time left on the clock. Game over.

And one other thing to note before discussing Belichick’s gamble on 4th down, the Laurence Maroney fumble in the end zone also was a game deciding play. Instead of scorning a touchdown we gave the ball back to the Colts on the 20 yard line. While the Colts went three and out and we did score a touchdown on our next possession, it still costs us seven points and possibly the game. Had he scored and the Colts went three and out, we would have ended up with decent field position and likely a field goal or even another touchdown, putting the game out of reach. Turnovers kill and that was a killer. Couple that with the squandered time outs and the fourth quarter was an absolute disaster for the Patriots.

Bill Belichck’s 4th Down Gamble

What to make of Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth down deep in our own territory when he could have punted the ball and made Manning and the Colts march 70 yards for a winning touchdown? (Note most football pundits agree that the most likely result of a Patriots punt would have been the Colts with the ball at around their own 30 yard line). I have seen two schools of thought on this.

Belichick is an Idiot and Didn’t Give His Team a Chance to Win

Most analysts basically called it a “blunder.” The usually politic Tony Dungy more or less called it “stupid.” Most others are also saying that Belichick’s decision showed arrogance, a lack of respect for the defense, and it was simply a really, really bad coaching decision.

Arrogance is the funniest and silliest adjective to describe Belichick’s decision. Arrogance? Do you believe it is arrogant that the coach wanted to put the game in the hands of his offense and Tom Brady instead of the hands of Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne? Instead of arrogance it showed respect, or even fear, of Peyton Manning.

I am also sick of hearing that Belichick had no confidence in his defense. I don’t think that is the case at all. The defense is young, the Patriots have numerous injuries on their defensive line meaning defenders were playing more snaps, they lost their best pass rusher early in the game, Tully Banta-Cain, they were tired, and the Colts clearly had the momentum on offense. Two consecutive nearly 80 yard drives, and quick ones at that, certainly factored into the decision.

It’s not that Belichick had no confidence in his defense.

He is scared of Peyton Manning. Belichick’s calculation was that Peyton Manning was more likely to score a touchdown, regardless of where he got the ball on the field than the chances were of not making the first down on 4th and 2. Again, not because he has no confidence in the defense, but he’s afraid of Peyton Manning. Which leads me to the second school of thought.

Belichick is a Genius and it Just Didn’t Work Out

Maybe Belichick is right. Had the Patriots punted the Colts very well may have taken the ball 70 or so yards and scored a winning touchdown. This Web site argues that Belichick made the right decision to go for it on 4th down based on statistics of NFL teams The basic argument is given the probability of making it on 4th down versus the probability that the Colts would score a winning touchdown if the Patriots punted the ball, Belichick made the right decision and gave his team the best chance to win. And the greater the probability you think Manning would drive the Colts for the winning score, the more the decision to go for it on 4th down makes sense.

I thought when we did not get a first down on third down that the Colts would probably win because we would punt the ball and eat a Manning touchdown in the face. But I also thought our defense could summon up one more stand against the Colts. But wait! There is no Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinnest. We have rookie defensive backs and newcomers learning the system. Let me rethink that.

So Doug, What Do You Think About the Call?

My first and immediate reaction can be summed up better by one of my fellow Patriots fans. Here I quote one of them after the game:

…I don’t know what the odds are that he makes that play on fourth down…? But let’s say it’s 50-50 or let’s even say he would make it two out of three times…I understand Bill’s concern about kicking and giving the ball back to Peyton with 2:00 left on the clock…the problem I have with the call is that it seems like he gambled the whole game on that one play. He’s the genius, but I don’t get it…if he gambles and they make the play, Patriots win, game over, I get that, but it’s all based on a huge all-in gamble. If they kick it, at least Peyton has to go the length of the field, or most of the length. Obviously, it’s Peyton Manning, and there is a decent chance he marches down and wins the game anyway, but at least you have several chances to stop them. By risking the fourth down where they were on the field, you know that if you don’t make the play, game over, there is essentially a 100 percent chance that we lose by giving one of the greatest QBs of all time the ball back on a short field. It was gambling pure and simple to me. I wish we had taken our chances with our defense. Easy to say in hindsight, but that’s how I feel.

I was very emotional and upset with Belichick for going for it after the game. After further reflection, intellectually, I think he made the right call. I am convinced by the statistics and probabilities that Bill Belichick, by going for it on 4th down and 2 from their own 28 yard line, gave my team their best chance to win the game. I see the math and I’ve seen Peyton Manning win games like this against better defenses on more than one occasion. If we had made the first down we wouldn’t even be talking about it.

And while I have not read the study on 4th down conversions that argues that coaches should be much more aggressive in going for it, I am aware of it, and Bill Belichick has studied it (see David Halberstam’s biography of Bill Belichick). He’s made this decision before and been rewarded for it far more often than not, just not on such a big stage.

So the bottom line is I think Belichick made the right call.

But the emotional part of me thinks he should have punted the ball. At least then you could say he gave his defense a chance to win the game. Had the Patriots punted the ball and the Colts drove for the winning score I would find it much easier to swallow than for Belichick to give the game away on a fourth down gamble. And while the defense was very tired and the Colts did have the momentum, the defense had shown they could stop the Colts. Why not give them the chance to try to do it?

But Bill Belichick is smarter than to let emotions rule his on field decisions. He made the right call. It just didn’t work out.

6 thoughts on “Bill Belichick is Afraid of Peyton Manning

  1. Very, very interesting post. My gut reaction was that I couldn’t believe they actually snapped the ball on fourth down. I was expecting them to try to try the defense offside or something like that. The thing is, if they made the first down the game is over, and so if it worked then Belichick would be labeled as a genius and it would be lauded as one of the great and gutsy decisions in NFL history. I also think if a more inexperienced coach (say Josh McDaniels) made this call and it didn’t work he would be universally roasted over the coals. Because it’s Belichick, it’s easier to argue he made the right call and it just didn’t work.

    I happen to think they should have punted, only because Manning would then have had to drive 70 yards, but it is a reasonable argument to assume the Colts would have scored anyway. I think the bigger issue for New England was wasting their timeouts, otherwise it would have been easier to punt knowing you might have time with the ball back at the end.

  2. Great post, definitely agree with most of what you said. I personally think they should have punted. I never think you should give Peyton Manning a short field. EVER. Yes, the offense was the best chance to win but I can’t get past where they were on the field. Yeah Manning could also have won it from his own side of the field but at least make him work for it.

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