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When the Patriots’ offense took the field on fourth down in the fourth quarter, my initial reaction was one of shock and confusion. However, as time has passed and emotions have calmed down, I cannot help but think that this was the absolutely right call to make. Not only was it the right call to make, but it’s a call that no other NFL coach makes. This is why instead of criticizing the decision to go for it on fourth and two, we should be praising Bill Belichick for making the right call because the easy way out is to just punt the ball and hope your defense can stop one of the best quarterbacks to ever live. Let’s be honest, there’s a 50 percent chance that the play resulted in a first down and the referee just missed the call. We will never know.
If you look at the numbers, the better chance to win was to go for it. The NFL conversion rate on fourth and two is 60 percent. Add Tom Brady, Kevin Faulk, Randy Moss and Wes Welker to that equation, and the chance that offense gains two yards jumps to at least 75%. Obviously, I am just throwing out numbers, but the point is that the chances are very good that one of the best offenses in the NFL will gain two yards on a given play. This site explains it better than I can. Belichick made a decision to put the ball in his best player’s hands to win the game and the Colts defense made a great play to give their offense a chance to win the game.
It’s not like Bill Belichick doesn’t trust his defense either. No head coach in the league prepares his team to win games more than he does. If you put the ball in Peyton Manning’s hands with 65 yards, you are leaving your team’s fate to not only one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, but one of the best two-minute quarterbacks in NFL history. Manning was nearly perfect in the fourth quarter (9-11, 119 yards, two touchdowns and one interception) and there was no question that our defense was gassed in the fourth quarter. Not only were they gassed, but they were missing Ty Warren and Tully Banta-Cain, so the Patriots were getting virtually no pass rush late in the game.
Recent memory brings me back to 2003, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a three-touchdown lead with four minutes to go and Peyton was able to lead his offense to tie the game in regulation. On Sunday, Peyton Manning had just orchestrated a 79-yard drive in one minute and 49 seconds and you are going to give him the ball just 23 seconds later? Or, you could just put the ball in your own version of Peyton Manning’s hands and tell him to gain two yards and the game is over. Not a difficult decision to make if you ask me.
The one problem I have is with the play called on third down. Belichick mentioned in his Monday press conference that they knew they were going to go for it on fourth down from the moment Brady completed a pass to Welker for eight yards. If this is the case, I would have liked to see the Patriots run the ball on third and two with either Kevin Faulk or a quarterback sneak. This way, even if they didn’t gain the necessary yardage on the first attempt, there’s a good chance they gain at least a yard, which would give them a friendlier fourth and one situation. For comparison, NFL teams succeed on fourth and one situations 75 percent of the time as opposed to 60 percent for fourth and two.
Hindsight is 20/20, but Bill Belichick made the call that no other NFL coach makes even though it was the right call to make. People will point to the fact that you don’t take the risk when you are on your own 28-yard line, but the Colts needed to score a touchdown, not a field goal, and giving Peyton Manning an extra 35 yards doesn’t make a difference to me. It comes down to whether you have more faith in the defense stopping Manning from gaining 35 yards or the offense converting on fourth and two. I’ll take the latter.
It takes a great coach to make an unconventional call to give his team the best chance to win and, despite Sunday’s outcome, that is why Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL.