Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Significant Implication of Belichick's 4th Down Call (sport)

Over the years, Bill Belichick has gone for many 4th downs with the game on the line, so it isn't that big a surprise that there hasn't been a ton of media coverage about his call to go for it on 4th and 1 with 6 minutes to go in the game. It wasn't a clear cut decision by any means, and there were certainly plenty of arguments both in support of and against his decision. In fact, I'm pretty sure that both Andy Reid and Mike McCarthy would have kicked the field goal in that same situation, given their play-calling history. But I do think the decision itself has a pretty significant implication that's hasn't been broadly discussed.

Down 8 points with 6 minutes to go in the game, the Patriots had 4th and 1 at the Denver 16 yard line. I'm sure there are plenty of people who, probably in hindsight, thought that it was a terrible decision to go for it, so let's look at the reasons to kick the field goal. First of all, even with a touchdown, the Patriots would still need a 2 point conversion just to tie the game. A field goal would remove the need for a 2 point conversion if the Patriots scored a subsequent touchdown after stopping Denver. Secondly, the Patriots defense had been doing a very good job stopping Denver, having only given up one field goal in the second half up to that point. While it was unlikely the Patriots would be able to march down the field two more times (as actually happened) for two more field goals to win the game, it was certainly not unlikely for them to get the ball back with the chance to win it with a touchdown.

So why didn't they kick the field goal? Well, the Denver defense had been smothering them all game, and their receiving corps was looking a little banged up. Let's assume that they stop Denver after kicking the field goal. Where would they start the next drive? Best guess for average field position would probably be around their own 30 yard line. Given how hard it had been to score against the Denver defense up to that point, was it really more likely that they could orchestrate a 70 yard touchdown drive versus making a 4th and 1 while already in the red zone? In terms of playing to one's strengths, New England was one of the 5 best teams in the league at red zone conversion rate this season. And even if they missed the two point conversion, one of their other strengths was Gostkowski's leg as he was 4-5 from 50+ during the season, including a long of 57.

I also want to point out that I found it hilarious that Phil Simms, one of the absolute worst and most conservative NFL analysts on TV, agreed with the decision to go for it. I firmly believe that had it been a different coach and not Belichick making the decision, Simms would have mentioned how he would have chosen to kick the field goal instead.

So what is this "significant implication" that I'm getting at? Well, I truly believe that Belichick's decision to go for it was based on not believing they could march down the field again and score a touchdown if they kicked the field goal there. Yes, they were clearly not at full health and Denver's defense was spectacular, but this would mark the FIRST time in the Belichick/Brady era that he doubted his OFFENSE. Think about all those other 4th downs they've attempted over the years. It was usually because he was confident in his offense converting for a first down, or because he was not confident enough in his defense that he could afford to give the ball to the other team. I think this speaks volumes regarding the end of the Patriots dynasty, even with Brady still on contract through the 2017 season.