Bill Belichick is a genius and so is Jack Del Rio
Written by Curt Popejoy on 11/16/2009
I will admit right up front that I have not dedicated any time today or yesterday to what I am sure is a gullet of articles discussing these two calls from Sunday's NFL slate. So, what you are going to get from me is exactly how I felt about it at the time, without any included further information added in to sway me. What I have done today is get numerous Twitter updates to my Blackberry about these two plays and having seen both of them, I am confused. Look back at my tweet from Sunday night and you'll see how quickly I formed my opinion on the subject and in reflection two days later nothing has changed.
First, let's break down the plays. In the Jacksonville Jaguars/New York Jets game, Maurice Jones-Drew takes a handoff from the Jets 10 with just under 2 minutes to play and the Jags are down 1. He's got a clear run at the end zone, boom 6 points in the books. But instead as instructed by his head coach Jack Del Rio, he takes a dive and goes down at the 1. Why would a coach instruct his back to take a dive and pass on a sure 6? Because Del Rio wanted to milk the clock, run it down low enough that the Jets couldn't drive down and score, after Jags kicker Josh Scobee kicked a short field goal to put them up 2. The reasoning behind this is, He'd rather give rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez just a few ticks to get his team into field goal range than give him a minute and a half to get them a touchdown. Oh, and it's also centered on the premise that Del Rio has supreme confidence in Scobee to hit that short field goal after passing on an automatic touchdown. Ok, so we get the gist of this play. Let's move on.
We cut to the Sunday night game, an epic matchup between Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The bulk of the game belonged to the Patriots. They'd picked on the Colts corners all night with success. But like clockwork Manning had them marching back and 2:08 to play were facing a 4th and 2 at their own 28. At this point Belichick had two options. Punt the ball away and give it back to Manning with right at 2 minutes to play, or go for it, and if they get the 2, can simply run out the clock and they were leading by a score of 34-28. What happens is, Tom Brady throws to Kevin Faulk who catches the pass but isn't awarded forward progress because he was juggling the ball, the Patriots turn it over on downs, the Colts get it at the 28 and 4 plays later Manning hits Reggie Wayne with his second touchdown catch of the game, and the Colts win 35-34. Manning and company made it look easy.
So, looking at both situations on the surface tell me what the only significant difference is between the two? Want a hint? It's the fact that Josh Scobee executed by making the field goal, whereas Kevin Faulk did not, by not catching the ball cleanly. And what we get is one coach who's a genius(Del Rio) and another who's an idiot(Belichick). I decided to dig a little at the fourth down conversion numbers and if my numbers are right, than the Pats convert 4th downs at about a 46% clip this season. Which if I understand correctly is about 23% worse than they have done against the Colts historically. So they look at this as a proposition they'd had success with about 7 times out of 10. By contrast Josh Scobee has made 41 of 42 field goals inside of 30 yards for his career. That's a whopping 98%. Great odds for the Jags. So if were are looking at just the numbers Belichick had about a 28% worse chance of converting than Scobee did of hitting that field goal.
Enough to say Belichick made a bad call? No way. Let's think about this. Del Rio went to great lengths to salt away his win, and took a risk in doing so. He had MJD take the knee to work down more clock, and then counted on his sure footed kicker to salt the game away. And why did he do all that? Because he didn't want Mark Sanchez, the rookie QB to march down the field in the final moments and beat them. The same Mark Sanchez who finished the game with a whopping 212 yards, 53% completion rate, and had already tossed two ints.
By contrast if the Patriots get that first down they can then run out the clock and win the game. Nothing the Colts could do about it. And why did they want to do that? Because the alternative was to punt the ball away and give it back to Peyton Manning with around 2 minutes to play. Keep in mind Manning had already led his team to two touchdown drives of nearly 80 yards, both taking fewer than 7 plays and the longest at 2:04. Who here had the greater risk in making the alternative choice? Seems like an easy answer.
When you look at both plays in that context, for me it makes much more sense that the Patriots didn't want to give the ball back to Peyton Manning, than the Jaguars didn't want to give it back to Mark Sanchez. Was Sanchez really going to burn them in the two minute drill? Could the Patriots have stopped Manning no matter how many yards he had to go? The answer to both of those has to be a resounding no. But with how things turned out, Belichick became an easy target. Not because what he did had such a greater risk factor because honestly it really didn't. But because his player did not execute. And you cannot vilify a head coach for that while praising another. I guarantee everyone who's applauding Jack Del Rio's coaching decision would be killing him publicly if Scobee shanks the field goal or it is block. And on the other side, if Faulk catches that ball clean, and the Patriots knock off the Colts all these media types are throwing praises at Belichick for such a nervy play and we hear a lot of "that's how Bill coaches" and other mundane sports cliche's.
I am thankful that I am not one of those folks who can only praise a coaching move when it works, and hammer it when it doesn't. Both play calls were great and both of these coaches took calculated risks knowing it would be their heads on the block if the players couldn't hold up their end of the deal. To be honest when you look at what the potential outcomes of the alternative, Jack Del Rio took a much greater chance, because wanting to keep Mark Sanchez from beating you in the two minute drill seems much more far fetched than being concerned that Peyton Manning will. I applaud both coaches for having the nerve to make those calls, and I'm sorry for Belichick that his players couldn't come through for him.
Last Edited: 11/16/2009