As many of you might know that read my columns, there are two things I love to write about: Game management and philosophical quotes.
With that said, the following Mark Twain quote is very applicable to what happened last night at Indianapolis.
"There are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist, who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot".
Now I want to be perfectly clear, I am not calling Bill Belichick's decision a stupid one, but rather an unexpected one or desperate depending on your prospective. It was a choice that goes against conventional game management and was made based on a larger degree of confidence in his offense than his defense.
He did something that many who study game management would not, but it does fall in line to Twain's concept of doing the things that are not expected, especially when playing a great player such as Peyton Manning. It was awkward for anyone who studies the game not to punt when facing fourth-and-2 at his own 28 and holding a six-point lead.
Had it worked, we would all be using that famous cliché about putting the ball in his best player's hands (Tom Brady), and that he was courageous to make the call. But as Bruce Springsteen so aptly says, "Sometimes I can't tell my courage from my desperation."
I have known Belichick well for over 15 years, and he is never careless when it comes to making decisions on the field that can most benefit his team. I have sat in his legendary Saturday night coaches meetings as he told his staff how he was going to play the game, how he was going to call the game and what he would do in every critical moment of the game.
I would often leave the meeting thinking there is no way the game will go like he said, but the next day, sure enough, he was correct. Sunday night, the Patriots failed to gain the critical first down. They failed to play into conventional thinking, but they did what Belichick thought gave his team the best chance to win against a great swordsman like Manning.
I feel the reality of his decision is based on what has happened in the league this season. These days, it is hard to stop a great quarterback from making plays in the passing game. Even if you cover well, they can still make completions and move the ball.
Manning had already led the Colts on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that took 2:04 or less off the clock, and had 11 first downs in just 5 minutes and 50 seconds. You think this might have been behind Belichick's decision to try and play keep-away?
All you have to do is watch one half of Saints or Colts tape this year to learn that Drew Brees and Manning have no problem completing passes to players that are covered. Teams have to resort to some unconventional thinking when playing great offensive teams nowadays. Hoping to stop them at the end of the game is just that: A hope. Ask the Miami Dolphins, who have already been victimized by second-half comebacks from Brees and Manning.
You can look on the surface and say it was stupid for Belichick to go for it, but like all the moves he makes during the game, they are well thought-out before the contest. He made a similar move against the Falcons in Week 3. Holding a six-point lead with 5:19 remaining in the third quarter, he decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 29. He knew in order to win, he had to keep his young secondary off the field against a hot quarterback like Atlanta's Matt Ryan.
The critical aspect for Belichick is that he always plays the game in the style and manner that gives his team the best chance to win -- and it often works. I strongly doubt he would have made this move had he been playing JaMarcus Russell and the Raiders; this was a team and player specific decision.
His ability to break down how every game must be played has allowed him to win three Super Bowl titles. Sunday, however, his "all-in" thought process backfired.
His mindset going into the game without two key defensive linemen (Jarvis Green and Ty Warren) was to not allow Manning to have the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win. He might make the same decision two weeks from now when he faces Brees and the Saints.
NFL Weekly Countdown
» Watch out America, the Tennessee Titans have found an offense that can highlight the skills of running back Chris Johnson (he is amazing to watch), and more importantly the talents of quarterback Vince Young. Young has matured and Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger has done a great job of featuring his two best players.
» Jags running back Maurice Jones-Drew made the second best game management play of the season (the first was Denver wide receiver Brandon Stokley in running along the goal line before scoring in Week 1) by falling down on the 1, so Jacksonville could run down the clock before kicking the winning field goal as time expired.
» Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers made the right plays at the right time and kept the ball away from red-hot Eagles quarterback Donavan McNabb late in the game. He was 5 of 6 for 54 yards on the final drive, converting two key third downs. Rivers is undefeated in the month of December as a starter, so the best is yet to come.
» Russell and the Raiders passing game were laughable. Seriously, can it get any worse? I was working for the Raiders when the "Bed and Breakfast" offense of Tom Walsh (who had been out of football for 12 years running a bed and breakfast, among other things) was installed in 2006, and I thought that was bad, but this might be worse. Today is one of those many days I am happy I am writing this column instead of working for the Raiders.
» Denver's defense, which had played well all season until the second half of the Steelers game (when it gave up 321 yards), allowed the Redskins to have one of their best offensive outings (388 total yards) during the Jim Zorn era. The Broncos were pushed around all game on defense and looked tired as a team.
On the lookout
» The Chiefs sent running back Larry Johnson packing last week, and suddenly found a running game with Jamaal Charles, who is averaging over 5 yards per carry. He gained over 100 yards against the Raiders on Sunday. Was the lack of running game on Johnson's diminished skills, or Kansas City's line? My evaluator's eye is on the former.
» Cardinals rookie running back Beanie Wells seems to have found his niche recently. He is the big back Arizona desperately needed to complement its offense. He scored two touchdowns Sunday, and as we get late in the season, his size and power will become increasingly difficult for opposing defenses to stop.
Off the beaten track
» To defeat the Steelers you must keep Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket, and you must bat balls down at the line of scrimmage. The Bengals batted four balls down and sacked Roethlisberger four times. That is eight negative plays in the passing game. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and his entire staff came up with a great game plan. That was only Roethlisberger's sixth loss to an AFC North team.
» Jake Delhomme has not turned the ball over in the last three weeks and the Panthers' rushing attack has gained 1,000 yards over the last five games. They are 4-5, and might not be out of the playoff race just yet.
» The countdown for the first pick in the draft begins now. The contenders are Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis and Tampa Bay, all of which have one win. Which of these teams can win another game? My guess is the Bucs, who are playing their best ball of the season with Josh Freeman now at quarterback. Cleveland-Detroit next week might not have playoff implications, but it will have huge draft implications.
Three-step dot drops...
Former Patriots assistant coach Charlie Weis' days as the Notre Dame head coach seem numbered and there will be a host of NFL coaches, who want to be the next Knute Rockne. It is official -- the coaching carousel is now open and it might start in South Bend. ... I love watching Chris Johnson run for 3 yards. I love watching him run for 30 yards. But I really love watching him run over bigger people near the goal line like he did Sunday. ... The Eagles and Falcons are both teams that play their best when they have the lead at the half. Their defenses are best when they can take chances and pressure, but when they are behind they lose those opportunities. ... I really hope Eagles running back Brian Westbrook takes the rest of the year off. Two concussions in three weeks is two too many. ... Arizona finally won at home, but it took some come-from-behind miracles to make it happen. The Cards are never out of any game with their passing attack. ... The Cowboys' offensive line struggles on the road, and could doom them in the playoffs. Flozell Adams has hearing problems, which cause him to false start too much and be late off the ball in noisy places. Home field is a must for the 'Boys come playoff time. ... The teams that maintain their fundamentals over the final seven weeks of the season will be the ones that make the playoffs. Luck has nothing to do with it, but execution does. ... The best part of the game last night? Hoping there is another one in January for all of us to enjoy.