The Call of the Day

November 16, 2009 - 8:11 pm

Call it intuition. Label it a gut feeling. Follow your instincts. And just in case, be prepared to suffer the consequences and assume responsibility if your decision does not go according to plan. It was no surprise when last week's football talk was dominated by nothing but Tom Brady-Peyton Manning comparisons, the difference from playing indoors as opposed to outdoors, who had the edge, who was the better team, and, most importantly, who would win the intense battle between arguably the two best teams of the decade: the Patriots and the Colts. For 57 minutes and 52 seconds, it had appeared the Patriots had answered that question and were on their way to locking up their seventh victory of the season, handing the Colts their first loss at the same time. Yet, Bill Belichick, the Jedi mastermind of the Patriots, opted to take the gamble of the season and go for the first down on fourth-and-2 from his team's own 28. It was a risk he was willing to take and it was also what cost him the game. Boomer Esiason deemed the decision "reckless." Brady backed Belichick, insisting that he will "never second-guess" his coach. Rodney Harrison was quick to assert that it was "the worst coaching decision" he ever saw his former coach make. Tedy Bruschi admitted the call would make his "blood boil for weeks." The Colts defense saw the move as a sign of disrespect while Patriots defensive back Brandon Meriweather was "ecstatic" that Belichick was confident enough to trust his defense to prevent Manning from scoring with only 20-plus yards to spare. Would Belichick himself make the call again? "You only get one chance," Belichick told reporters outside of Gillette less than 24 hours after making a decision that would cause e-mail boxes to overload and blogs to overflow around the country. Though many may question his fourth-down strategy, especially those who are reluctant to execute trick plays and make risky decisions, it is not the first time Belichick defied traditional standards and gambled while behind enemy lines. Earlier this season, on Sept. 27 against the Falcons, Belichick challenged Atlanta's defense by going for a fourth-and-1 on New England's 24 in the third quarter with his team up 16-10. This time, instead of relying on Brady to complete a pass for the first, the Patriots handed the ball to Sammy Morris, who rushed ahead to the 26-yard line to move the chains forward. Later in that drive, the Patriots converted another fourth down from the Falcons' 37, leading to a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. While the Patriots would end up winning the game, 26-10, Belichick ran the risk of shifting the momentum to the Falcons' side if the initial conversion had not been successful. In the 2004 AFC championship game against the Colts, Belichick made the decision to go for it on fourth-and-short from Patriots territory on the first drive of the game. The decision stood in defiance of football conventional wisdom. But the Patriots converted and marched down the field for a touchdown. Later, the decision to go for it was credited as having played a significant role in the Patriots reaching the Super Bowl. Belichick's gutsy call -- based on his embrace of the studies of economists -- was deemed by the New York Times as an indication of his genius. Maybe it's the overwhelming level of trust Belichick has in his offense's ability or perhaps it is the lack of confidence in his defense's capability. Either way, Belichick has made some head-scratching fourth-down decisions that have not gone in his favor before. In the third quarter of Super Bowl XLII, with his team up 7-3, Belichick opted to go for a fourth-and-13 from the Giants' 32 instead of allowing Stephen Gostkowski to attempt a 49-yard field goal. Putting the ball in Brady's hands, Belichick watched as Brady made an incomplete pass to turn the ball over on downs to the Giants, who eventually hoisted the Lombardi trophy after a 17-14 decision. Still, while there certainly will be plenty of opinions circulating in the next few days by fans, analysts, experts, players and anyone else who wishes to add their two bits, there are also the cold, hard numbers and statistics that rely on quantitative data to either support or reject the decision. According to the Lawrence-Journal blog, there is a 56 percent level of success when teams go for the first down on fourth-and-2. However, when it comes to choosing whether to pass or run, teams who make the call to pass experience a success rate of 44.1 percent as opposed to a 68.3 percent success rate when rushing. In addition, as Advanced NFL Stats points out, a successful fourth-and-2 conversion wins the game for the Patriots, leading those who like to play with numbers to side with Belichick. Add the fact that Brady and Randy Moss are better than your average quarterback-wide receiver tandem and it would seem the logical call would be to give the ball to your best guys on the field. With all the frenzy and speculation that is sure to surround Bill Belichick this week, it will not come as a surprise if he chooses to make another daring decision in the team's next game. Though we will never fully understand what goes on in his brilliant mind, one thing is for sure: He must be glad he won't get the same treatment as Grady Little.