- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Every now and then, some statistics professor publishes a paper that says, “Football coaches should go for it more on fourth down. In the long run, they’ll come out ahead.” It’s a great way to get a doctorate, you have to admit, much more fun than projecting the rate of global warming out to… the year we all evaporate.

Anyway, Sunday night, Bill Belichick went for it on fourth down. And before the week is out he might evaporate. (Yes, he’s taking that much heat.)

Even if you didn’t see the latest epic between the Belichick’s New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, you’ve no doubt heard what happened. With 2:08 left and the Patriots nursing a 34-28 lead, Bill the Thrill had his offense try to pick up the first down on fourth-and-2 at the New England 28. To his eternal dismay, a completion came up inches short, and Indy punched it in four plays later to steal the win.

Inasmuch as the loss put a severe crimp in the Pats’ postseason plans - in particular their ability to secure a first-round bye - the decision is being dissected more thoroughly than a laboratory frog. After all, the conventional wisdom - and Conventional Wisdom, as we all know, graduated summa cum laude - is quite clear on this subject. In such situations, there are really only two options for any sensible coach: punt (and make the opponent drive the length of the field to beat you) or… punt (and make the opponent drive the length of the field to beat you).

If you do anything else - and it doesn’t work - you’re sticking your chin out farther than Bill Cowher.

Belichick being a mysterious sort, we can only speculate about the cause of his unusual behavior. Was his headset on too tight? Was he that confident Tom Brady and Co. could gain the necessary yardage? Or did he just want to avoid watching another Peyton Manning two-minute drill - like the one that doomed the Patriots in the AFC title game three years ago?

(If I had to guess, I’d say it was a combination of the last two. And maybe a smidgeon of: “Boy, it’s getting hot in here in this sweatshirt.”)

Vince Dooley, the legendary Georgia coach, pulled a stunt like this once - only he lived to tell about it. His Bulldogs, on the road at Alabama, were ahead by a field goal late in the third quarter, but the Tide were in full rally mode. So Dooley went for it on fourth-and-2 at his 47 - and saw his ball carrier get buried for a 3-yard loss.

Fortunately for him, his defense held and the Dawgs prevailed. Afterward, though, he beat himself up pretty good. “I’m dumb,” he said. “By all rights, we should have lost that game. … This was the greatest example of a team overcoming bad coaching. Between Alabama and me, we really put Georgia in a lot of trouble.”

Temple’s Ron Dickerson had a similar impulse in the ‘90s against Pittsburgh - only he wasn’t so lucky. Trying to hang on to the ball and a five-point lead in the last three minutes, he ran a fake-punt play in his own territory that didn’t fake out anybody. The disbelieving Panthers clasped hands, thanked the Grid Gods for this manna from heaven, then scored a quick touchdown to abscond with the victory.

Dickerson’s tearful mea culpa: “I lost this game today. I wouldn’t blame the university if they fired me tonight. This team deserves better, and they deserve a smarter coach than me.”

This sort of thing comes up in college ball a lot more often than in the pros. Heck, it came up in last month’s Maryland-Clemson game, when the Terps, in front 24-21 with six minutes to go, gambled on fourth-and-inches at their 29. (Chris Turner’s quarterback sneak got smothered, but the Tigers missed the subsequent field goal try.)

In the NFL, though, coaches aren’t as likely to deviate from The Book. Perhaps it’s because they enjoy less job security. Then again, the college game tends to be more experimental. This Wildcat offense, for instance, that’s all the rage in pro ball was being run at Kansas State over a decade ago (with Michael Bishop, the ‘98 Heisman Trophy runner-up, at quarterback).

What passes for daring in the NFL is a coach going for two points and the win instead of kicking the PAT and heading to overtime. Of course, when the Bucs’ Jon Gruden did that against the Redskins in 2005, it was from the 1-yard line, not the 2, after a penalty against the Washington defense.

Unlike Dooley and Dickerson, Belichick offered no apologies for his, uh, iconoclasm. He didn’t cast aspersions on his intelligence or fitness for his job. He merely said, “We thought we could win the game on that play.”

Good thing he’s Bill Belichick and not, say, Jim Zorn. If the Z-Man had done something that screwy, folks would have offered it as Exhibit A for why he’s “not ready to be a head coach.” But Belichick will survive the tempest - as he has other tempests - and go back to winning ballgames.

But probably not the Super Bowl, at least not this season. You don’t go for it on fourth-and-2 from your 29 unless you have serious reservations about your defense, the kind of reservations that suggest: This is not a championship unit.

Still, you can’t help but admire Bill’s bravado - even if you wonder whether it might be time to trade in his hoodie for a straitjacket.

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