Patriots’ loss, Belichick’s education

A repeat celebration seemed a million miles away after last night's questionable decision by Bill Belichick.

This one is going to be hard to get over.

With his team nursing a six-point lead over the Indianapolis Colts and the two-minute mark approaching, Patriots coach Bill Belichick elected to go for it on a fourth and two situation deep in his own territory.

When Kevin Faulk was deemed to have bobbled the pass from Tom Brady and landed short of the first down, the Colts took over on downs and waltzed into the end zone four plays later on a Peyton Manning bullet to Reggie Wayne.

Former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri clinched the victory with an extra point that made the score 35-34.

Responses to Belichick’s decision have ranged from outright denunciation, from longtime Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy, who compared the choice to Grady Little’s ill-fated leaving a tiring Pedro Martinez on the mound against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, to New York Times blogger Brian Burke, who argued that Belichick’s action made statistical sense

Globe blogger Mike Reiss had some interesting reaction from the defensive perspective.  Dwight Freeney and others said they felt disrespected by the Patriots’ going for it, while former Pats stalwart Tedy Bruschi talked about Belichick’s lack of faith in the defense.

To me, this is one of two critical points.  As much statistical sense as the choice may have made, it’s hard to see it as justified given how far the Colts would have had to travel and the relative success the Pats’ D had had against him up to that point. 

That lack of confidence will be hard to forget, especially given Belichick’s much-touted label as a defensive genius. 

Similarly, it’s easy to forget in the debate about whether Faulk indeed did have the ball in his possession that Belichick elected to pass, rather than trusting his running game to get two short yards.

This is a double vote of no-confidence.

This is now the third time in the past four years that a Mannning-led team-twice by Peyton, and once by younger brother Eli in a Super Bowl victory-has rallied from behind to snatch a last-second victory from the Patriots.

You have to wonder whether the memories of the previous defeats were in Belichick’s head when he made what may ultimately prove to be a franchise-altering choice.

Some commentators have also noted that uncharacteristically poor clock management left the Patriots without timeouts after Faulk was stopped short of first down yardage.

Whatever one thinks of last night’s choice, it’s hard to deny Belichick’s impact on the game during the past decade and during the more than 35 years he has been involved at the professional level. 

The late David Halberstam wrote an admiring biography about Belichick called The Education of a Coach.

The book opens much where the Patriots found themselves last night-on the short end of a tightly fought critical game that came down to a few vital plays.  In Education of a Coach, the work begins with the Patriots holding off a last-ditch rally by the Philadelphia Eagles to win their third Super Bowl in four years, each by the margin of a field goal.

Halberstam describes Belichick’s studying film under the tutelage of his father Steve, who coached at Navy for years, from a very young age. 

One sees all the character traits-the relentless focus, the unyielding work ethic, the willingness to experiment-that have served the Patriots so well since Belichick assumed the helm in 2000.  Some of the darker sides, like the alleged cheating and extramarital affair, do not appear in the book.

His decision to blanket Dallas Clark last night was reminiscent of his choice to make sure that Marshall Faulk, Kevin’s older brother, did not beat the Patriots in the 2001 Super Bowl against the heavily favored Rams.  Halberstam describes this victory in some detail.

That decisions paid dividends, launching a still relatively unknown quarterback drafted in the sixth round named Tom Brady toward superstardom and the Patriots toward one of the sport’s more impressive dynasties.

Last night’s call to go for it may not be unrivaled, as Shaughnessy maintains, but it is difficult to see the team, as resilient as it is, simply rebounding and moving on as Belichick insisted they would do.


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