Commentary

Tide turning on perception of Patriots?

Belichick's fourth-and-2 call the latest in a troubling trend on big stage

Updated: November 19, 2009, 4:28 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

For the first time, New Englanders are witnessing a prolonged view of the other side of genius. The psychology of Bill Belichick costing his team a chance to win seems more important than the ill-fated Decision itself. It has become less a football call that didn't work and more a referendum on the current state of the Patriots in the football continuum.

Belichick blinked. He panicked. He feared a Peyton Manning winning drive more than he trusted a victory-preserving Patriots defensive stand. The memory of Manning beating him in the AFC title game a couple of years ago trumped the great goal-line stand -- the Willie McGinest Play -- of a few years earlier. Belichick did not believe in the safe, the traditional, the percentages, and opted for the desperate. The question isn't that he chose the riskiest play in football at the most crucial time, but why.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Brian Spurlock/US Presswire Did Bill Belichick show Peyton Manning too much respect on Sunday night?

On its face, none of this would be cause for extended consternation. Tom Brady's end zone interception and Laurence Maroney's goal-line fumble should be of equal if not greater concern for a team that views the Super Bowl as its destination, except for what the defeat and the decision-making that led to it seem to signify.

The larger picture -- that Sunday's 35-34 loss to the Colts continues an organizationwide hangover effect from losing to the Colts in the 2006 AFC title game, the Spygate controversy and then falling to the Giants in the Super Bowl with a chance to be the only team to go 19-0 -- seems to be what is causing considerable consternation in New England. It may make fans crazy, but history does not lie: Devastating losses can be felt throughout the entire franchise for years if not decades, and without those two losses as part of the canvas, perhaps the sting of a November loss -- no matter how improbable -- wouldn't have been as painful.

A proper analogy can be found with the relationship between two other titans, the Red Sox and Yankees. Until earlier this month, the Yankees had not recovered from losing a 3-0 series lead to the Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series. The reverberations could be felt throughout not one organization but two. The Yankees were not the same team after Johnny Damon, Curt Schilling & Co. changed history. The psychological advantage -- that somehow, some way, the Yankees would always find a way to devastate yet another opponent, especially the Red Sox -- had evaporated.

Please excuse a relevant anecdote. The year before, in 2003, the Red Sox were a better team than the Yankees. Before the infamous seventh game -- yes, the Grady Little game -- Yankees third-base coach Willie Randolph and I talked at Yankee Stadium by the batting cage about how that year just might be the year the Red Sox would win.

Randolph bent -- telling me that this Red Sox team was one to be feared, the first one, really, since 1978 -- but he wouldn't break. "But you know what," he said as he tapped fungoes to Alfonso Soriano. "Whenever the chips were down, when we absolutely had to have it, we have always beaten them."

Five hours later, Aaron Boone proved Randolph right.

A year after that, the Yankees found themselves where the Patriots are now: still formidable, still dangerous, still a title contender. And should the Colts and Patriots meet again, the Colts cannot forget that they were totally dominated by the Patriots -- who somehow were just a little less intimidating, a little more mortal, a little more human. The Patriots, once the great closers who always won the closest games, can now be beaten.

Before the conclusion of the 2006 AFC title game, when the Patriots led 21-3, the inevitable had begun to settle in: The Colts were not tough enough or good enough to beat the Patriots. Manning put up the big numbers, but Brady won the rings. Tony Dungy was nice and respected, but somehow not the strategic, foxhole equal of the man on the other sideline. Worse was that this game was being played on the inside, cool carpet, in a friendly home environment, yet the Colts were still being manhandled. It was all becoming a little boring and disappointing that a team of the Colts' caliber could crumble at the biggest moment.

By the end of that game, the old frustrations began to dissolve: Ty Law's three interceptions of Manning back in the 2003 playoff game in Foxborough, Marvin Harrison's key fumble, McGinest willing the Patriots to that goal-line stand at Indianapolis. Now it is the Patriots -- despite winning the battle of the undefeated in the 2007 regular season -- who seem unable to withstand the Colts for 60 minutes.

And it is their coach who suddenly seems unable to coolly quell the storm. Belichick is experiencing a similar reversal. He is still great at what he does, and the legacy is unchanged, but the future is suddenly not as certain. Like his team, he has not recovered from coaching the worst game of his career in that 17-14 Super Bowl loss to the Giants. The Patriots have now blown leads of 18 and 17 points to the once-predictable Colts and instead of having won two of the past three Super Bowls, including posting an undefeated season, the Patriots suddenly are wondering about their inability to close.

The Sox-Yankees metaphor holds for Belichick. During the first half of his career with the Yankees, it was Joe Torre whose decisions were so sound -- finding his two relievers he trusted, using his closer for two innings in big regular-season games and for the entirety of the playoffs -- that they essentially became a template for winning baseball.

During his final six years, however, the same decisions, once daring and bold, seemed either too reckless or too cautious -- suddenly instead of trust, Torre was accused of exhausting his relievers -- simply because the end result had changed. During their 2004 playoff game, Belichick went for it on fourth down in his own end on the first drive of the game, knowing just how crucial the moment was. It's what can happen if you stay on stage long enough.

Let it also be said that a Colts resurgence is how it should be between these teams, that respect and even a little fear of the opponent is what truly makes a rivalry. Belichick did not suddenly gain this awareness of Manning's abilities.

The Patriots may not want to admit that they have yet to recover from losing that 19th game of the season a couple of years back, but they haven't. The next season was erased on Opening Day, when Brady was lost for the season. They did not make the playoffs despite Matt Cassel's breakout year. And this season, a first big test eluded them, mostly because two key turnovers made it so. Like the Yankees, those consecutive losses will hover over the franchise until they are erased by a championship.

Yet something else, something important should be remembered: The Indianapolis Colts are not the Washington Generals, and the argument could be made that they were simply too good a team, Manning too good a player, first Dungy and now Jim Caldwell too good coaches to be consistently humiliated by Belichick, the Patriots or any other team in the league. Maybe all that is happening is the inevitable market correction.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and the forthcoming "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.

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