Thursday, November 19, 2009

More On 4th and 2

It just won't end. In ESPN's NFL Power Rankings this Tuesday, John Clayton made the comment that the road to the Super Bowl goes through Indy, thanks to Bill Belichick's decision. And in a piece today on ESPN Boston, Howard Bryant tries to tell us that Belichick panicked, went against logic, the percentages and all that is holy in football. Strangely enough (or maybe not so strangely), Greg Easterbrook, also known as TMQ (Tuesday Morning Quaterback), agreed with the views expressed here and in the comments that Belichick made the right call.

What's crazy is this notion of Belichick costing his team a chance at victory with this call. For those interested, the numbers, the pure percentages, are out there that this was in fact an appropriate decision. I haven't seen the critics come up with any numbers, only old-timey football logic. And it's not as though we should treat Belichick as a God or ignore any and all criticism. My problem is the nature of the criticism and this notion that electing a fourth down conversion is the coach costing his team while punting the ball away was giving his team the chance to win.

The thing is, there's strategy and then there's a complete lack of strategy. I'll refer you to the recently fired Dick Jauron of the Buffalo Bills and two particular incidents that come to mind of poor coaching indicative of lack of strategy. First I'll refer you to earlier this season and a game between the Bills and the Jets. The Bills actually won the game, 16-13 in overtime, but it was no thanks to Jauron's coaching. With 3:55, a 27 yard punt return by Fred Jackson gave the Bills the ball at the Jets 49. Plenty of time to run down the clock and get into position for a game winning field goal, right? The Bills ran three plays, two runs and pass, to get down to the Jets 29 at the 2 minute warning. After a second and two run failed to gain a first down, the Bills ran the lock down to 1:19, understandable in the case they didn't convert the upcoming third and 1. What didn't make a lot of sense was the timeout that was burned as the clock ran down leading up to that third and one play and what made even less sense was the one and only play that was run after the Bills converted the third and one. After the first down they lost two yards on a first down run and let the clock run down to 4 seconds before taking their final timeout. In slightly under 4 minutes the Bills managed to run only 4 plays and purposely let the clock run down rather than attempting to gain more yardage for an easier field goal attempt. As I fully expected at the time, Rian Lindell's 46 yard attempt was no good and the game went to overtime. The Bills ended up winning, so this never became big news, but as I watched the game unfold I knew I was watching an example of horrible coaching. There's a big difference between placing faith in your Hall of Fame quarterback to convert a fourth and two and settling for a 46 yard field goal in the Meadowlands rather than trust your offense to run a couple of plays.

Scenario number two with Jauron dates back to last season's finale, a wind-strewn affair between the Bills and the Patriots. Right before halftime, with the Patriots holding a 3-0 lead, and the offenses of both teams essentially stymied by heavy wins, the Bills drove deep into Patriots territory right before halftime. Burning timeouts as they went, the Bills took their final timeout with 28 seconds left, facing a 2nd and 8 at the Patriots 15 yard line. The play selection? A pass to the flat for 3 yards, stopping the clock with 22 seconds left, and then, on 3rd and 5, a run up the middle for 3 yards. As the play ended, there was confusion amongst the Bills as members of the field goal unit ran onto the field and members of the Bills offense stood around looking confused. Now, the wind was tricky that day, and the Pats had just missed a short field goal, so electing against a field goal try was a reasonable choice to make. But the confusion on the field and the selection of a run up the middle is evidence of coaching incompetence.

I point these out because bad coaching is bad coaching regardless of end results. The Bills wound up losing that game to the Patriots 13-0, so, like the game against the Jets they wound up winning, the bad coaching was never a big story. The easy out of any armchair quarterback is to point out geniuses and idiots based solely on outcome. As I mentioned last time, one wonders if Belichick would have been called a genius if they had lost the famous safety game to the Broncos back in 2003, particularly if, say, the Patriots hadn't scored a winning touchdown, but kicked a tying field goal and eventually lost in over time. The reason coaches are paid the big bucks is because they're supposed to put their players in the best position possible to win a game. Now obviously, there's no such thing as a brilliant strategist as every coach has a laundry list of poor play calls they wish they could have back. And some issues, like clock management, just have definitive rights and wrongs. But other decisions, like those about punts and field goals, going for it on fourth down, and two-point conversions, exist in this gray area where percentages meet assessments of talent meet gut calls about your team at a certain point in time.

My real problem with the critics isn't that they're stupid for criticizing Belichick, but that they're stupid for how they're going about it.


Blogger McMc said...

I keep hearing stuff about the percentages not being in Belichick's favor but no one seems to be showing me those percentages.

I have a hard time believing that a 2 yard gain on any play is against the odds especially for the Pats. People are probably looking at league wide 4th down calls that include 4th and long miracle attempts and that's beyond idiotic in itself.

You make a good point that Belichick is human and it's not like we can't criticize anything he does. TMQ brings up the solid point that if you want to go for it on 4th, you should've just run it on 3rd down to make the Colts waste a timeout and possibly shorten the distance.

Oh, and I continue to love this "Belichick disrespected the defense" crap. Remember, the Patriots didn't let the Colts score immediately after the turnover so Belichick was fully trusting his defense to make a stop. I've yet to hear any Pats player speak out against the play so I think that kind of hearsay and conjecture needs to stop immediately.

1:10 PM  

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