By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — I get it, I know, I know, I know. When the home team loses, everyone wants to second-guess anything and everything that contributed to the loss. It’s the easiest, laziest thing you can do.
That being said … it’s time to second-guess a decision made by Bill Belichick during Sunday’s loss to the Broncos.
More accurately, it’s time to second-guess a non-decision made by Bill Belichick, as the head coach didn’t so much as feel around for his red flag after officials ruled James White to have been down a full yard shy of the yard to gain on a third-down run early in the fourth quarter, with the Broncos leading New England by 15 points.
In live speed, it looked as though White used his hand to keep his body off the turf as he fell forward and crossed the New England 18-yard line. On replay … it still looked like White crossed the line to gain.
But Belichick didn’t flinch, instead sending out the punt unit to kick it away.
See the play for yourself. First, in live speed:
Now, in slow-mo:
Match up that shot of White hitting the ground:
With the broadcast view that shows where White was when he hit the ground:
IMPORTANT NOTE: You’ve heard a million times in your life that the yellow line isn’t official, and that certainly applies in this case. You can see there that the first down marker is perhaps another six inches or so past the yellow line. Nevertheless, it still looks like White picked up the necessary yardage.
Let’s weight it out
THE PROS OF CHALLENGING
If Belichick challenged the play and won, it would be first-and-10 for New England with just under 13 minutes to play. Winning the challenge, though, would have guaranteed nothing, as the Patriots would have had the ball at their own 18-yard line, on a day when their offense was out of sorts.
Still, with precious few possessions remaining and the game slipping away, keeping possession of the football would seemingly outweigh any other factor when points were badly needed.
THE CONS OF CHALLENGING
Obviously, outside of the brutal missed spot on the touchdown sneak by Newton, it’s never a sure thing when a head coach dislodges that red flag from his sideline gear. It’s an inexact science, and even the sure things can lead to surprises.
So if the officials ruled that White’s wrist hit the ground and thus the spot was correct, or if the officials ruled that White did gain more yardage than initially ruled but still came up short of the sticks, then the Patriots would be down a timeout. Bill Belichick doesn’t like to throw those things away in the second half, you know.
And even if the challenge was successful, the lackluster Patriots offense could have continued to lack luster and punt the ball anyway. (That’s more of a realistic consideration, as if a coach actually thought that during a game then a team would have much larger problems than a fourth-quarter potential challenge.)
In that sense, punting the ball and relying on the defense to perhaps get the team better field position while still keeping possession of three timeouts can be seen as an appealing choice.
THE PROS OF RUNNING A QB SNEAK
The alternate to any of this would be to run the 6-foot-5, 200-something pound behemoth QB up the gut for the yard, which proved successful on multiple other instances in the game. That would have been risky, sure. But so is punting in the fourth quarter while trailing by 15.
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED
Belichick sent out the punt unit, and Jake Bailey booted a 53-yarder. On third-and-9, Kyle Dugger tackled Tim Patrick a yard shy of the sticks, giving the Broncos a fourth-and-1 at their own 39-yard line. The Broncos advanced to the line as if they were going for it on fourth down … which prompted the Patriots to burn a timeout on defense.
That precious timeout that had been saved was for naught, burned to make sure the defense didn’t surrender a fourth-and-1 play.
Coming out of that timeout, Drew Lock simply bluffed a snap and took the delay of game penalty. The Broncos punted, and the Patriots gained possession at their own 35-yard line, after a kick catch interference penalty on Denver.
So, instead of first-and-10 at the New England 18-yard line with, say, 12:45 left in the game and all three timeouts remaining, the Patriots had first-and-10 at their own 35-yard line with 10:14 remaining.
WAS IT A BIG DEAL?
In that sense, not the biggest, no. But it’s still an interesting scenario that played out during an important time of the game.
WHAT DID BILL SAY?
Belichick was asked after the game if he gave any thought to throwing the challenge flag.
“Uh, no,” Belichick said. “Not really.”
When asked a follow-up about whether he got a good look at the replay, Belichick snipped, “I just answered the question, Doug.”
Perhaps the tone had to do with the 18-12 loss his team just suffered. Perhaps it was a message that the potential benefit of winning that challenge didn’t outweigh the risk. That answer will remain a mystery.
WHAT DID WHITE SAY?
Athletes tend to always think they made the play, so consider the source. At the same time, White is very honest, so again … consider the source.
Here’s what White said: “I thought I did [get the first down]. I mean I guess they thought I was down or whatever on that third down. I thought I had it. But I mean, refs made the call. That’s what they thought they saw.”
If this were a tweet, there’d be a Morgan Freeman “He’s Right You Know” GIF pointing at that quote.
Hey, look at that! Incredible what you can do online these days.
Realistically … Belichick should have challenged. The rightness or wrongness of decisions can’t be made in retrospect, so the fact that the defense did (barely) force a punt shouldn’t be an overwhelming factor. Likewise, the fact that Drew Lock treated the football like a hot potato en route to throwing two dummmmb interceptions in the fourth quarter can’t really be applied to the thought process in the moment.
At that point in the game, Denver had seven possessions, and six of them ended with points. Trusting the defense to get that ball back was far from a sure thing. Keeping a drive alive was paramount at that point in the game, and with both the initial look and the replay looking like White gained the necessary yardage (and with the timeout being wasted anyway), a challenge was the right call.
WOULD THE PATRIOTS STILL HAVE LOST THOUGH?
DID YOU JUST ANSWER A QUESTION WITH A QUESTION?
ARE YOU DONE NOW?
Yeah, pretty much.
DO YOU LIKE ASKING YOURSELF QUESTIONS?
Kind of, yeah.