Bill Belichick is famously unsentimental. That, really, is his legacy as a football coach. Herm Edwards shouted "You play to win the game!" but that was just fun talk. It is Belichick who has lived those words during his amazing career as a coach.
He callously releases and trades beloved players if he thinks it will help the team win. He benches quarterbacks if he thinks it will help the team win. He videotapes the opposition sidelines if he thinks it will help the team win. He has players change position, he has no use for stars, he tears up the team's game plan week after week and replaces it with a new game plan, a specific game plan that, like the prizes on "The Dating Game," was chosen just for you.
This is what Belichick is all about: Winning football games without sentiment. Like Michael Corleone says in The Godfather, "It's business." If the Packers were about Vince Lombardi's pursuit of perfection, and the Steelers were about the Steel Curtain, and the 49ers were about the West Coast Offense ... the Patriots are about business. They are about Tom Brady, I suppose, but they won their first Super Bowl when he was still learning, and their second when they had the best defense in the NFL (and a middling offense). They are about good team defense, I suppose, but they haven't played truly great defense in a while. The truth is they're about winning games. Whatever that takes. It's business.
With that in mind, I fully understand Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th and 2 in Sunday's night's remarkable Patriots-Colts game. You already know the situation: The Patriots led by six, they were deep in their own territory -- the first down marker was at their own 30 -- and there were just a few ticks more than two minutes left.
The conventional choice there is to punt. In fact, "conventional choice" does not begin to describe it. It was the obvious choice. The incontestable choice. I suspect 31 other NFL coaches would have punted there without even thinking twice about it. I suspect that had Belichick decided to punt there, nobody -- not one interviewer, not one talk show host, not even one radio caller -- would have second-guessed him there (and anyone who would second-guess him there would have been mocked and told to learn about football). I simply cannot remember any team going for it in a similar situation. You punt the ball and make Peyton Manning and the Colts go 70 yards to try to score the game-winning touchdown. It's as obvious as bringing Mariano Rivera in the game in the 9th.
But ... Belichick went for it. And here's the reason: He doesn't care about any of that stuff. He doesn't care about sentiment or history or what every other coach would do. He doesn't care about anything at all except winning the game. The best explanation I've read of the decision so far this morning comes from Brian Burke in the New York TimesFifth Down Blog. Burke was a Navy pilot, and now he writes the Advanced NFL Stats blog.
His explanation is this: A team picks up 4th and 2 about 60 percent of the time -- and we all know that a fourth down conversion in this case means certain victory. On the flip side: A team would score a game-winning touchdown from the 30 about 53 percent of the time. This leads to this formula -- the first part is the 60 percent multiplied by 1 (1 signifying the certain victory if the play is converted). The second part is 40 percent multiplied by the chance of winning the game if the 4th down play fails:
(.60 *1) + (.40*(1-.53)) = 78.8% chance of winning.
There you go. Burke then estimates the chance of winning if Belichick punts -- that is the chance of a team going 66 yards for a touchdown in the final two minutes. He says, historically, teams get that about 30 percent of the time. So a punt gives the Patriots a 70 percent chance of winning.
And there you go -- 78.8 percent chance of winning vs. a 70 percent chance if you punt. It really is clear cut. I don't know if Belichick plays with such percentages in his mind, but instinctively he knew his team's best chance to win was to go for it.
Now, you probably are saying the numbers do not sound all that authentic. The Peyton Manning Colts would have a much better than 53 percent chance of scoring from the 30 (and, as it played out, the Colts scored so easily and left so little time on the clock it seemed just about automatic). But, you have to figure the Colts also had a much better than 30 percent chance of scoring had the Patriots punted -- no doubt this was weighing on Belichick's mind. And for that matter, you have to figure that Brady has a better chance than 60 percent chance of converting on fourth down and two.
Really, no matter how you play with the numbers, it will come out about the same. Try it. There is almost no way -- without suppressing the numbers -- to make the percentages even out. The Patriots' best PERCENTAGE chance was to go for it on fourth down. Of course, football is not really a percentage game for most of us, is it? No, it's a game about emotion and passion and momentum.
When the game ended and Belichick's gamble failed, people lined up to bash him -- and normally I'd be all for this. Former Patriots player Rodney Harrison called it the worst coaching move Belichick ever made. Former Patriots player Tedy Bruschi wrote that Belichick dissed his defense by not believing they could stop the Colts over 70 yards. Tony Dungy said, "You have to punt there. You just have to punt there." And so on and so on.
But -- and believe me, I'm not trying to defend Belichick's last-minute coaching here (more on this in a minute) -- I think in many ways all these knocks sort of miss the point. This is who Bill Belichick is, who he has always been. He is about winning the game without passion or prejudice. He doesn't give a damn if there were some hurt feelings on his defense. As we used to say in the old days: Tough noogies. He had no faith in his defense stopping Manning. And he coaches to win.*
*And come to think of it: Wasn't he showing MORE faith in his defense by thinking they could stop Peyton Manning's Colts from the 30-yard line?
Belichick also doesn't give a damn that other coaches would have punted without question. What the hell do other coaches know? He has won three Super Bowls as a head coach, and he led a team to a 16-0 season, and he has the two longest winning streaks in NFL history (the Colts just tied for second-longest) and he knows his team better than anyone else, and he doesn't care about that. He thought he had a good play, he has an unmatched sense of the rhythms of football. And he coaches to win.
To me, the better knock on Belichick is the way the Patriots wasted (utterly wasted) two timeouts in that final, fateful drive. They squandered the first timeout coming out of a change of possession -- I suppose that was Brady's timeout, but it was awful. They wasted the second timeout just before the fourth down in order to be sure they had the right play and everyone was on the right page, which seems like a pretty intelligent thing to do.
But it wasn't. When they blew their last timeout, they lost any chance they had to challenge the fourth down play. And as it turned out, the play could have been challenged. Brady completed a short pass to Kevin Faulk, who was just past the first-down line. But he bobbled the ball ever so slightly, and the referee marked him short. I still don't know if that was a good mark. And I really don't think a challenge there would have overturned the call ... but it might have. As a coach, you have to give yourself some leverage in that situation. Belichick, of all people, should know that.
More to the point: The Patriots, with two timeouts, can still win the game even AFTER failing on fourth down, even IF the Colts score a touchdown. After all, that is Tom Brady. Give him 45 seconds and the ball, and he has a pretty good chance of getting the Patriots into field-goal range. The Colts were so panicked about giving Brady the ball back with any time left they spent much of their energy making sure they left little or no time on the clock -- at one point it seemed like they had let too much time roll. As it turned out, they executed the plan brilliantly -- scoring with 13 seconds left -- but the Patriots, with two timeouts (hell, even with one timeout), would have had so much more power. Frankly, I thought that when Joseph Addai rumbled 13 yards down to the 1 with about a minute left, the Patriots' best chance to win was to let him score the touchdown.
So I think Belichick coached lousy the last two minutes. But I also think the go-for-it call was vintage Bill Belichick. Sure, you could argue that, as it turned out, the call changed the whole dynamic of the Patriots. The defense now knows exactly what their coach thinks about them. The offense knows too. The loss puts the Patriots in danger of not getting a playoff bye -- you do realize that if not for an utter fluke play against Denver, the Cincinnati Bengals would be 8-1 right now -- and it creates some doubt in a head coach who has always seemed one step ahead of everybody else.
But, I would wager that Belichick does not give the slightest damn about any of that. He coached to win Sunday's game. That's all that mattered to him. That's what the guy's about. If he's mad today, he's mad for one reason only. He's mad because they lost.
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Quick Update: I was reading my colleague Peter King's take on the Belichick call, and I think this is telling. He had this sentence in there:
Let's place the odds of Brady getting two yards at 60, 65 percent. The odds of Manning going 72 yards to score a touchdown in less than two minutes ... that's maybe 35 percent.
So, Peter was giving the Patriots about a 60-65 percent chance of winning the game if they went for it, and about 65 percent chance of winning if they punted. So that's about even, right? Of course, it's not even because the Colts did not have a 100 percent chance of winning if the Patriots failed on fourth down -- not even close to 100 percent chance. As we have discussed, there was a reasonable chance that the Patriots could keep them out of the end zone. And there was also a chance that the Colts would score too quickly and the Patriots would have time to score themselves.
So even though Peter compared the Belichick move to Grady Little's Pedro Martinez follies -- "I hated the call ... it smacked of I'm-smarter-than-they-are hubris" -- his own math suggests the Patriots' best chance to win the game was to go for it.