Commentary

Bottom line is, Bill Belichick was right

Originally Published: November 17, 2009
By Gregg Easterbrook | Page 2

Tuesday Morning Quarterback has been stumping for years on the notion that head coaches should go for it more often on fourth down, even if the ball is in their own territory. On Sunday night in Indianapolis, Bill Belichick, with his team leading 34-28 just before the two-minute warning, went for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28. As I'm guessing you heard, the try failed. Had it worked, Belichick might have floated off the field and directly into the Hall of Fame in Canton. OK, he would have had to float through an exit -- the stadium's sliding roof was closed. Though the try failed, Belichick did exactly the right thing. Who expected to read those words in Tuesday Morning Quarterback?

Indianapolis had only one timeout, so a first down would have all but won the game. On the night, the Patriots had averaged 6.6 yards per play, so the chance of gaining 2 yards was auspicious. As Tim Graham of ESPN.com has noted, since Tom Brady became New England's starting quarterback, the Patriots have converted 76 percent of their fourth-and-short attempts. A 3-in-4 chance to win is a pretty inviting opportunity. (Here, Graham uses incredibly scientifically advanced reasoning to calculate that going for it improved the Patriots' "win probability.") More importantly, had New England punted, Indianapolis' fast-paced offense would have had the ball in decent field position, with two minutes to win the game. Belichick had just seen Indianapolis, on its previous possession, go 79 yards for a touchdown in 1:40, without using a timeout. Belichick had seen the Colts' adjustments to the Patriots' defensive tactics, and he knew the adjustments were working. The situation might have reminded Belichick of the Colts and Pats' 2007 playoff meeting, in which the Colts came back and won by moving the ball pretty much at will in the fourth quarter.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBill Belichick in a rare good mood.

Which seems like a better gamble -- 2 yards to win the game, or two minutes to shut down Peyton Manning when the Colts are hot? In 2007, AccuScore did thousands of computer simulations of the punt-or-go-for-it question for TMQ. One finding was that between your own 21-yard line and your own 35, you should go for it on fourth-and-2 or less. In test after test, doing this improved a team's chance of victory -- though, of course, there is no guarantee. No coach can control what happens on the field. Had New England punted, Indianapolis might have run the kick back for a touchdown, for instance. All the coach can do is make a decision that improves the team's odds. Belichick made such a decision.

Belichick also knew the Flying Elvii defense was exhausted, sucking air from defending against the Colts' no-huddle attack. Playing defense is more tiring than playing offense, and the Pats were tired. On the previous Indianapolis series, the Colts' offensive line had been shoving the New England front seven around. Even second-year middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, who ought to be bursting with energy, looked exhausted and was jogging during plays rather than sprinting.

Belichick correctly calculated that if he punted, the hot Indianapolis offense was likely to beat his tired defense -- while if he went for the first down, New England was likely to win. The decision just didn't work out. Lots of reasonable-seeming decisions don't work out -- it seemed reasonable at the time for United Artists to back "Heaven's Gate." (For those who have forgotten, this mega-flop put the studio out of business, though the United Artists name recently was revived.) And bear in mind, though the fourth-down try failed, Belichick might still profit down the road. By being hyper-aggressive, he challenged his young Patriots offense to show it can finish games. TMQ contends that a team can be better off going for the first down and failing -- which challenges the team -- than shrugging and punting.

See more on Patriots vs. Colts below; for now, let the recriminations begin! "Belichick's Blunder" read the main headline on NFL.com on Monday. Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, now an ESPN analyst, denounced Bill Belichick for "failing to show faith in his defense." So it's wrong to show faith in your offense? "Belichick's Arrogant Decision" was the headline of Michael Wilbon's column in The Washington Post, which essentially scolded Belichick for trying to win outright rather than playing to avoid losing. Part of being treated by the media as great -- whether in sports, politics or culture -- is taking pains to shift blame to others. Belichick didn't shift the blame -- what's the matter with him? A core reason coaches order short-yardage punts is that if a fourth-down try fails, they will be criticized -- whereas, if the ball is punted and then the defense surrenders a score, players get the criticism.

TMQ Cheat Sheet
Gregg Easterbrook on …

Stats of the week
Cheerleader of the week
Sweet and sour plays of the week
Hidden play of the week
Football's concussion problem
"Friday Night Lights" update
The NFL imitating high school
Reader comments
Obscure college scores of week
Single worst day of the season

Indianapolis was left to dance and celebrate. In other celebration news, when City of Tampa took a 23-22 lead at Miami with 1:19 to play, the Bucs celebrated wildly. Tampa was hit with a celebration penalty (a rule TMQ hates), and had to kick off from its 15-yard line. Pro, college, high school -- I've seen numerous games this year in which celebration penalties, for nothing more than jumping up and down, harmed the scoring team. What is wrong with jumping up and down? NFL, NCAA, NFHS: Unwind a bit. Sports is a form of entertainment, so get rid of the silly anti-celebration rule. Taunting the opponent should always draw a flag. Jumping up and down in happiness should be encouraged!

But the penalty wasn't the real problem, since Tampa's kick coverage team pinned Miami anyway. The problem was that after the touchdown, novice Bucs head coach Raheem Morris celebrated wildly on the sideline. He hugged assistants and walked up and down the sideline jubilantly shaking hands. The coach thought the game was over, when there was still a minute to go and all Miami needed was a field goal! You know the rest. Never tempt the football gods.

In other football news, yes, the Bengals are for real. TMQ continues to think the reason is the addition of linebacker Dhani Jones, a graduate of my kids' high school. The defending champion Steelers are now 4-0 when Troy Polamalu plays a full game, 2-3 when he does not. The defending champions aren't going to win many games in which their coaches call 46 passes (counting sacks and scrambles) and 16 rushes. Cincinnati's kickoff return touchdown, the game's big play, was by Bernard Scott -- one of two players drafted last spring out of obscure Abilene Christian. Both are having an impact right away in the NFL (Johnny Knox of Chicago is the other).

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
AP Photo/Jim Prisching"Oh my. Oh my goodness gracious in the morning."

In sociological news, TMQ's Unified Field Theory of Creep holds that not just Christmas but everything is creeping. For instance, the annual Dallas Cowboys collapse in December. On Sunday at Green Bay, in mid-November, the Cowboys collapsed -- is there now Cowboys Creep? Trailing 17-0 in the final minute, Cowboys coach Wade Phillips left his offensive starters on the field, desperately trying to avoid a shutout. There are no BCS polls and no style points in the NFL -- with a true playoff format, all that matters is W's and L's. But Phillips fears for his job. Knowing there will be an extremely unpleasant year-end performance review session with Jerry Jones, he wanted to keep "we got shut out at Green Bay" out of his file.

On Monday night, trailing 16-0 on the game's final snap, Cleveland attempted a ridiculous Stanford Band play (which should now be called a Trinity of Texas play), for no apparent purpose other than to keep "we got shut out on 'Monday Night Football'" from being on the agenda at Eric Mangini's year-end performance review. In an extreme display of poor sportsmanship, Mangini called all his timeouts in the final moments, when Baltimore led by 16 and was not trying to score but just trying to exhaust the clock. The motive was protecting Mangini's résumé, and the result of the ridiculous final play was a concussion for the Browns' Josh Cribbs. Exposing players to injury on a meaningless final down, just to improve your own employment prospects, is a serious coaching offense -- the football world should be mad at Mangini, not Belichick.

Clifford
AP Photo/Ron EdmondsMore realistic than a scene from the upcoming movie "Avatar."

In TMQ news, about the time this column is posted, I will be moderating the Washington release of the latest United Nations Development Programme's annual Human Development Report. This year's report focuses on the need to overcome barriers to movement. People move freely in successful societies; the whole world needs the ability to move freely. This is my third time helping with the debut of the Human Development Report, and I'd urge you to read this year's edition. Improving the developing world -- increasing freedom, spreading prosperity -- is the great global challenge facing the next generation.

In cultural news, is the mega-hyped forthcoming movie "Avatar" a cartoon? Television advertising has begun -- the material is so obviously phony, it makes "Clifford the Big Red Dog" seem like realism. There are video games whose content looks less bogus than "Avatar" -- the ads basically shout the words "faked using a computer." "Avatar" appears to be the work of animators -- manga disguised as a movie. All the hype, all the money -- what if this flick becomes the new "Heaven's Gate"?

Stats of the Week No. 1: Indianapolis has won 18 of its past 19 games, and five of its past six versus New England.

Stats of the Week No. 2: On Sunday, two Dolphins players threw passes, three rushed the ball and seven caught passes. On the season, four Miami players have thrown passes, 10 have carried the ball and 11 have caught passes.

Stats of the Week No. 3: The Eagles are 0-2 in California, 5-2 in all other states.

Stats of the Week No. 4: In his past 10 starts, Jay Cutler has thrown 19 interceptions.

Stats of the Week No. 5: Since taking the field for Super Bowl XLI against Indianapolis, Chicago is 20-22.

Stats of the Week No. 6: Tennessee followed a 0-7 streak with a 3-0 streak; Denver followed a 6-0 streak with an 0-3 streak.

Stats of the Week No. 7: On Seattle's first possession against Arizona, the Seahawks rushed for more yards than in their entire previous game against Arizona (24 yards versus 14).

Stats of the Week No. 8: (Bonus college stat) Against Boise State, Idaho gained 514 yards on offense -- and lost by 38 points.

Stats of the Week No. 9:JaMarcus Russell, a quarterback taken first overall in the draft, has two touchdown passes, five lost fumbles and nine interceptions. Michael Vick, a quarterback taken first overall in the draft, has a total of 6 yards passing and a 39.6 passer rating. If every attempt by a quarterback falls to the ground incomplete, his rating is 39.6.

Stats of the Week No. 10: The four teams in the AFC North combined to score one offensive touchdown this week.

[+] EnlargeDenver cheerleader
Denver BroncosMary Johnston of the Broncos: "Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven do entreat her eyes."

Cheerleader of the Week: Mary Johnston of the Broncos, who according to her team bio is a real-estate broker who reads Shakespeare. She hopes to visit Angkor Wat -- a very exotic destination in central Cambodia, reached by gutted "roads" that are more like off-road obstacle courses -- and also to visit "all seven continents," which, of course, would include Antarctica. As a real-estate broker, maybe she helped sell Mike Shanahan's former Denver home, a $17 million property of 20,199 square feet listed as "single family."

Sweet Play of the Week No. 1: With New Orleans leading St. Louis 21-17, the Saints had first-and-10 on Les Mouflons' 27-yard line early in the fourth quarter. New Orleans showed a tight formation, as if to power-run. Twice earlier, New Orleans showed a tight formation and then called a double screen (fake the screen to one side, throw a screen to the opposite side). Here, New Orleans showed a double screen -- but both screens were fakes; the play was to Robert Meachem, who streaked into the end zone for the touchdown that provided the winning points. Check the tape -- the Rams looked so sure the play was a double screen that all of them stopped rushing Drew Brees and dropped back to defend the screens. As Brees waited for Meachem to get down the field, all five offensive linemen were blocking no one. They were just standing there, with no one to block because no one was rushing. I have watched way too much football, and I've never seen a down on which no one rushed the passer.

Also sweet: Marques Colston came across the field to make a perfect point-of-attack block (legally -- he hit the defender high, in the side) to spring Reggie Bush for the Saints' first touchdown. Teams whose wide receivers throw blocks tend to win games. Note to Terrell Owens: It is legal for wide receivers to throw blocks.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Tom GannamIt's fun to be an offensive lineman when no one from the defense even tries to rush.

Sweet Play of the Week No. 2: With Jersey/B leading 22-21 with 1:48 remaining -- talk, talk, talk, those Jets sure can talk -- the Jaguars had second-and-6 on the Jersey/B 10-yard line. The Jets were out of timeouts. Jacksonville seemed poised to run down the clock, then kick the winning field goal with too little time left for Jersey/B to reply. Rex Ryan ordered his defense to step back and allow Jacksonville to score a touchdown; deliberately allowing a touchdown would have given the Jets time to score to win or force overtime. Maurice Jones-Drew burst up the middle, ran to the 1-yard line -- then dropped to his knees. The Jets wanted to give up a free touchdown -- and the Jags refused to take it. The result of the play was a Jacksonville first-and-goal on the 1-yard line with a minute remaining. Jax knelt twice -- trying to avoid a touchdown! -- then kicked the winning field goal as time expired. Jones-Drew has been widely praised for a heady play, but what if the field goal attempt missed? Yours truly would have gone for the touchdown on first-and-goal.

Sweet Play of the Week No. 3: Trailing 23-22, Miami faced second-and-10 on the City of Tampa 34-yard line with 23 seconds remaining, down to its final timeout. As novice head coach Raheem Morris celebrated on the sideline, the Bucs' defense prepared for a pass -- and the call was a draw to Ricky Williams, who ran for 27 yards and set up the winning field goal. The call was extra-sweet because Tampa had a dime package on the field, meaning Miami's blockers were taking on lots of skinny gentlemen.

Sour Play of the Week No. 1: With Chicago and San Francisco scoreless, Chicago faced third-and-goal on the San Francisco 1-yard line. Rush here and a touchdown is likely; rush again on fourth-and-goal and a touchdown is nearly assured. Instead, the call was a pass -- the gruntled Jay Cutler retreated all the way to the 11-yard line before launching a wild heave-ho into traffic. The result? An interception, and Chicago went on to lose by four points. If your quarterback has thrown 54 interceptions in 46 career appearances, as Cutler has, why are you passing at the 1-yard line?

Note: Cutler is a diabetic and does volunteer work for Dedicated to Diabetes, a public service organization that raises awareness of the condition. The Eli Lilly pharmaceutical firm, which makes insulin, said before the 2009 season that for every touchdown pass Cutler threw, it would donate $1,000 to a fund for diabetic children. If only there was a donation for every Cutler interception!

Sour Play of the Week No. 2: Trailing undefeated New Orleans 28-23 with 19 seconds remaining, the Rams had third-and-6 on the Saints' 37, out of timeouts. In this situation, St. Louis could take two shots at the end zone, or throw one sideline pass, hoping to get closer and stop the clock; or throw once down the middle for a first down, then race up to the line to spike the ball. If nothing's open, quarterback Marc Bulger must throw the ball away to stop the clock. Nothing was open. Bulger threw a short flare pass to running back Stephen Jackson, who didn't even get the first down. Now a spike would give New Orleans the ball! St. Louis could do nothing but heave-ho a game-ending incompletion.

Sour Play of the Week No. 3: San Diego leading 21-6, Philadelphia had third-and-inches on the Bolts' 7 late in the third quarter. The Eagles went play-fake, incompletion, field goal. To that point, Eagles' coaches had called 35 passes, 10 rushes; Philadelphia had netted 24 yards rushing. Considering that Philadelphia wasn't even trying to run the ball, who's going to fall for the play-fake?

Sweet 'N' Sour Play: Green Bay leading 10-0, the Packers faced third-and-goal on the Dallas 2. The Cowboys blitzed seven, which was sour -- even if you get a sack, Green Bay is still in field goal range. Green Bay split out Spencer Havner, an undrafted college linebacker who has bounced around NFL practice squads for three years until being converted to tight end this season. Havner ran a simple "stop" and caught the touchdown pass. On a big down, TMQ loves the tactic of throwing to a guy you've never heard of. Havner now has seven career receptions -- four for touchdowns. His Wikipedia entry was updated to reflect the touchdown against Dallas about an hour after it was made. Did Havner himself do this from an iPhone in the locker room?

[+] EnlargeWashington cheerleader
AP Photo/Nick Wass"Fake that kick! Fake that kick!"

Sweet 'N' Sour Team: Hosting Denver, Washington ran some of the sourest snaps you'll ever see. On a fourth-and-1 try, the Redskins called a slow-developing stretch run, with no misdirection, into the teeth of an eight-man box, resulting in a loss of yardage. Brandon Marshall caught a 40-yard touchdown pass when cornerback Carlos Rogers, making the high school mistake of "looking into the backfield," let Marshall run right past him without even attempting coverage. After that, Marshall caught a 75-yard touchdown when the Skins' other corner, DeAngelo Hall, making the high school mistake of "looking into the backfield," let Marshall run right past him without even attempting coverage. Then, Washington called a fake field goal attempt on fourth-and-20, meaning the odds of success were slim. Washington shifted from the field goal set into a fake formation, realized the wrong players were on the field, and called timeout. After showing Denver that the field goal would be a fake, the Redskins tried the fake again anyway. You can't get much more sour than plays like this.

Yet Washington won! The Redskins held Denver to 36 total yards of offense in the second half; obviously it helped that Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton left the game injured, but even so, second-half defense was excellent. (Very solid rookie hybrid linebacker-defensive end Brian Orakpo is making Buffalo regret using a draft choice two picks ahead of Orakpo on rookie hybrid linebacker-defensive end Aaron Maybin, who is already being whispered about as a bust.) The fake worked for a 35-yard touchdown. First Washington lined up in field goal formation; then shifted to have the kicker split wide and the punter, Hunter Smith, as a shotgun quarterback; then sent a man in motion right; at the snap, Smith rolled right, all the action selling something right; fullback Mike Sellers, always the target of the play, slipped into the left flat and ran an up; no one covered him, touchdown pass. (Smith was a quarterback in high school.) Sweet! Extra-sour for Denver was that the Broncos' coverage team not only fell for the fake after seeing Washington line up to fake, then call timeout; as the second fake began, Denver seemed to assume what would happen would be a pooch punt. But why punt from the opposition 35, when the ball is likely to roll into the end zone for a net of only 15 yards?

[+] EnlargeNCAA Tournament bracket
AP Photo/Sen. Obama's officeCompleted yours yet? They've been playing for a few days!

Unified Field Theory of Creep: Daniel Jenkins of Dayton, Ohio, writes, "Today is November 12, and in downtown Dayton, our 30-foot civic Christmas tree is being put up as I type this." Ted Rasmusson of Ankeny, Iowa, reports, "A friend of mine went to a [department store on November 9] to take advantage of an 'Early Bird Christmas Sale.' The cashier handed her a receipt with a disclaimer: 'No returns after 30 days.' The store promoting a Christmas sale six weeks before Christmas had a strict 30-day return policy." And Darren Straniero of Gaithersburg, Md., notes, "I logged onto ESPN last week to read your column and what did I see staring back at me? ESPN's Joe Lunardi showing off his March Madness brackets, published on this 11th day of November. College basketball hadn't even started [in earnest] yet!"

Hidden Play of the Week: Hidden plays are ones that never make highlight reels, but stop or sustain drives. San Diego leading 21-9 and facing third-and-2 on the Philadelphia 25 late in the third quarter, the Bolts were thrown for a loss by Philadelphia, and the field goal unit started onto the field. But Ramzee Robinson of Philadelphia was called for lining up offside; first down Chargers. The next snap was a San Diego touchdown that provided the winning points.

[+] EnlargeKepler telescope
AP Photo/NASAThe Kepler telescope, to search for Earth-like worlds. It has to check out only about 100 billion.

ESPN Is Going to Need Way More Channels: Recently a researcher estimated the Milky Way could contain 100 billion Earth-like worlds. So far about 400 "extrasolar" planets -- beyond our solar system -- have been located. Most are gas giants like Jupiter, or so close to their stars they have surface temperatures that would melt many metals. But planets are hard to spot compared to stars, and only recently have engineers begun to build instruments specialized for finding planets. Early in 2009, NASA launched a probe specially designed to search nearby space for extrasolar planets that are similar to Earth, both in size and in relationship to their stars. It is likely the probe will discover the first distant Earth-like planet -- perhaps the first of 100 billion more!

[+] EnlargeTennessee cheerleaders
John Sommers II/Getty ImagesFinally the Titans' cheerleaders have something to cheer for.

Stop Me Before I Blitz Again! Tennessee and Buffalo tied at 7, the Flaming Thumbtacks faced third-and-10 on the Buffalo 15. The Bills blitzed six, a zone-blitz leaving defensive end Aaron Schobel covering speed receiver Nate Washington. Maybe you can guess how that worked out. Not only did this blitz result in a touchdown for the Titans, but even if the Bills had gotten a sack, Tennessee still would have been in field goal range. So what the defense needed here was an incompletion; instead, it gambled for a meaningless sack. Bills note: Prior to kickoff, Rich Gannon of CBS asked Dick "Cheerio, Chaps" Jauron what Buffalo worked on during the bye. Cheerio Chaps replied he spent two weeks studying film and concluded there was nothing wrong with Buffalo's strategy, "We just need to improve our execution." Coaches love to blame "execution," because this is the same as saying, "The coaches are doing everything right; the players need to perform better." There's nothing wrong with our strategy! After spending two weeks supposedly improving execution, Buffalo threw two interceptions returned for touchdowns.

20th Century Fox"Now listen up, Sonny. If you can really see the future, why didn't you sign a better deal for your residuals?"

I, Reboot: The new disaster flick "2012" assumes that in just three years, humanity will be able to build gigantic self-propelled arks able to sustain thousands of people for a month during the destruction of the surface of the Earth, and strong enough to survive (I am not making this up) a collision with Mount Everest. Hollywood movies, especially sci-fi, often assume a too-rapid rate of technological advance. This past spring's "Terminator" flick, set in the year 2018, depicts sentient computers, cyborgs, 50-foot-tall mega-robots and antigravity devices. Even if futurist Ray Kurzweil is right and a " technological singularity" approaches, things just won't advance that much in a mere nine years. "The Sixth Day," released in 2000, also set in 2018, depicted the instant cloning of fully formed adults, complete with memories. "Blade Runner," released in 1982, was set in 2019, and depicted super-advanced cyborgs indistinguishable from people, plus faster-than-light starcruisers. (Faster-than-light interstellar fleets were referred to, though not seen on screen.) "I, Robot," out in 2004, was set in 2035 and had armies of super-strong intelligent robots powered by super-batteries, and some of the robots could see the future!

MGMIn 1968, filmmakers thought that by 2001, hundreds of people would live on the moon.

Exaggerating technology speed isn't new. The movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," released in 1968, was set in 2001, and had town-sized settlements on the moon, Pan Am commercial flights to orbit -- anybody remember Pan Am? -- plus a gigantic manned spaceship bound for Jupiter. Today, eight years after the movie's setting, manned flight to much-closer Mars, though perhaps technically possible, continues to look wildly impractical. Books overestimate future technological change, too. "Nineteen Eighty-Four," published in 1949, was set in 1984 and had an all-powerful Big Brother controlling the whole world -- you never learn whether he is a person or a machine -- plus national borders and identities vanished. In the book, England is known as Airstrip One, British political identity having ceased to exist, and people are only dimly aware things were once otherwise.

Certainly there have been big technical changes in decade-length spans, such as cell phones, or the advance from test rockets exploding on the launch pad in 1959 to a moon landing in 1969. There have also been cases of rapid political change, such as Germany's descending from fledgling democracy in the early 1920s to Nazi darkness in about a decade, then Eastern Europe's rebounding from communist totalitarianism to freedom in about a decade. But generally, fiction overstates the likely rate of technical and social change. In turn, this reminds of the aphorism that people overestimate what can be accomplished in the short term and underestimate what can be accomplished in the long term.

Christmas Creep (Special Edition): Jennifer Hamilton of Laramie, Wyo., writes, "On November 15, I turned on ABC Family and found the network was running a "Countdown to the 25 Days of Christmas." A countdown for a countdown!"

Stop the Cop-Outs and Deal with the Concussion Problem: Just 20 days after sustaining a severe concussion, Brian Westbrook of Philadelphia tried to play again Sunday -- and promptly sustained another concussion. This came as no surprise. Concussions are like broken ankles, another becomes much more likely if you don't take enough time off to heal from the first. Tuesday Morning Quarterback repeats his question of last week: Why are NFL players who recently had concussions even allowed to play?

The league's position is that individual clubs set their own medical policies, but that is a transparent cop-out. Most teams will sit a player with a concussion so bad he can't remember what he had for lunch. But as soon as the player recovers enough to recall the playbook, he may be cleared to resume competition -- and may be pressured to do so. Yes, there is an assumption of risk to performing in the NFL, and players know the sport is dangerous. But going on the field with an elbow that hurts is very different from competing with an injured brain. Players recovering from concussions shouldn't be allowed back on the field until after extended rest. It should not be the player's decision to make -- that is management evading its responsibility, as well as a form of pressure on athletes who are expected to be macho about knowing no fear. The NFL should prohibit concussed players from returning until they have had a mandatory recovery period, or been cleared by neurologists unaffiliated with the league, or both.

This is especially important because NFL behavior sets the tone for college and high school players -- and there are 500 of them for each one in the NFL. When high school or college players see NFL athletes rushing back onto the field soon after concussions, or pretending to the trainer to be fine in order to be sent back in, that's the behavior they emulate. If the NFL instead sent a message that all concussions should be treated seriously and conservatively, college and high school players would imitate that.

The NFL's attitude about concussions is callous and backward -- as if the league doesn't care about the long-term health of its players, so long as the hitting is sufficiently violent. There's a revolting Roman-coliseum aspect to the NFL attitude -- the masses are entertained by seeing warriors harmed. If the NFL really cares, why won't it impose concussion recovery standards? Standards need to be uniform across the league, or else a team that wanted to safeguard players' long-term health would be at a competitive disadvantage to teams that did not. Don't tell me all medical situations are unique. Nobody should play football 20 days after a severe concussion.

The league should mandate helmets with concussion-reducing designs -- the Riddell Speed (successor to the Revo), the Schutt Ion and the Xenith. None are panaceas, but all are likely to lessen concussion incidence or severity. If the NFL set an example by allowing only helmets engineered against concussions, the NCAA and eventually high schools would follow.

[+] Enlargemouthguard
sudnimpact.comThe double-sided mouthguard -- a simple, inexpensive way to combat concussions.

The league should mandate double-sided mouthguards -- which are much more affordable for high schools than advanced helmets. Boxing has long required double-sided mouthguards, exactly because they reduce concussions. Such mouthguards, practical in boxing, make it difficult for football players to call signals to each other. Reader Barry Horowitz of Singapore points out this story about a comfortable, football-adopted double-side mouthguard designed by Patriots team dentist Gerald Maher. This study by Maher and others documents that double-side mouthguards reduce concussion incidence. NFL, NCAA -- what are you waiting for? Don't keep denying that concussions are an issue; require better mouthguards. Would some company please put the Maher mouthguard into production so it can be purchased by anyone, rather than custom-made by a dentist? Patriots players are protected by double-sided mouthguards. All football players should be protected by double-sided mouthguards.

The culture of football needs to change, too, to stop making jokes about "getting your bell rung" and stop glorifying the hit that leaves a player woozy.

Football announcers are uncomfortable with questioning any underlying presumption of the sport, such as the notion that jarring hits should be praised. This means the sports media must change its view of concussions, just as the NFL and NCAA must. Football cannot be risk-free, but contact using the head should never be extolled. Announcers should be honest about the down side of football. Maybe if the harm from concussions was openly discussed, football rules and medical standards could be reformed to reduce the odds of neurological damage. That would help sustain football as a sport for the long term.

Here is recent New York Times coverage of concussion dangers and congressional hearings on the NFL's running attempts to evade responsibility. Here is Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker article on the long-term risks to football players who experience multiple concussions on several occasions.

More on Patriots at Colts: I'd give Belichick a hard time not for his fourth-down call but for the third-down call on New England's previous possession. The Flying Elvii led 31-21 and faced third-and-8 on the Indianapolis 18 with 4:22 remaining. The Patriots threw incomplete, stopping the clock, then kicked a field goal. Had New England simply run up the middle for no gain, the clock would have kept advancing. The Colts either would have burned a precious timeout, or have gotten the ball back, down 34-21, with about 3:30 remaining rather than 4:07. The situation would have seemed a lot less promising; the Indianapolis players and crowd might not have been so jacked up.

I'd criticize New England for calling a pass on third-and-2, the snap before the decisive down. As noted by reader Todd Asmuth of Madison, Wis., Belichick should have been looking ahead, using "two-down thinking" -- if you're going for it on fourth down, you run on third down, to keep the clock ticking and better the chance that either you make it on third down or fourth down is a fourth-and-1, not fourth-and-2. I'd also give Belichick a hard time for going empty backfield on the fourth-and-2. Yes, the Patriots operate efficiently from the five-wide and were lining up against an injury-depleted Indianapolis secondary, which included two rookies. But the Patriots took a timeout to think about it, and the best they could come up with was a five-wide rinky-dink short out to Kevin Faulk. Two of New England's previous three pass attempts had been junky-looking quick outs to the same side, and neither worked; in fact, both were jumped by an Indianapolis defense expecting quick outs. Plus there were two receivers in the same spot -- the throw almost looked like it was to Randy Moss, standing behind Faulk. This kind of bollix is very un-Patriots-like. The whole play was sloppy.

Maybe with New England's performance declining late and Indianapolis' performance improving, Belichick was more worried than his stone visage showed. Pats tackle Sebastian Vollmer was terrific in the first three quarters, but terrible in the fourth. The Colts' secondary was terrible in the first half, then stopped seven consecutive Brady passes (either incompletions or minimal gains) at the end. Maybe two late officiating judgments which went against New England (the final spot, and a dubious pass interference penalty on Indianapolis' penultimate drive) mean the Colts are finally paid back for the officiating that favored New England in the AFC Championship Game years ago. But if you didn't like that game, then you don't like football -- the fourth quarter was among the best fourth quarters ever played. Remember, New England came within 16 seconds of victory. Division III's Pierre Garcon -- his uniform nameplate says "GARÇON" -- turning an NFL cornerback inside-out on a sluggo move for a touchdown was alone worth the price of admission.

[+] EnlargeTodd Haley
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesTodd, get your clipboard out of your pants! Even an orange zebra thinks it's weird.

Unified Field Theory of Creep No. 2: Eric Halpenny of Redding, Calif., notes the ESPN.com "All-Decade" team, announced in July, "was selected with 10 percent of the decade left to play. Seems strangely similar to selecting players to the Pro Bowl with games left to play in the regular season." Donna Creyford of Citrus Heights, Calif., notes CBS Sportsline also named an "All-Decade" college football team prior to this season.

Battle of the Buck-Buck-Brawckkkkkkk: At one point in the second quarter, 1-7 Kansas City punted on fourth-and-1; 2-6 Oakland snapped the ball three times, then punted back on fourth-and-1. The Chiefs also went for it twice on fourth-and-1; the Raiders punted on fourth-and-2 in Kansas City territory. Knowing only these facts, can you determine who won the game?

Kansas City Chiefs
AP Photo/Ben Margot"We did it! We beat a 2-6 team that has only two touchdown passes on the season!"

"Friday Night Lights" Update: The fourth season of "Friday Night Lights" has kicked off on DirecTV, and will migrate to NBC this winter. So far it's quite good. SuperCoach Eric Taylor has landed at a troubled school, where we are meeting interesting new characters. Also the first plot "arc," an eligibility scandal, rings true to high school football. Before this column moves on to the new show, let's summarize what happened in the first three seasons.

SuperCoach Eric Taylor In three years at Dillon High, won one Texas 5A championship and lost another on a field goal on the final play; was fired. In Texas high school football, only two state title appearances in three years is a firing offense!

SuperWife Tami Taylor Went from tight-dress bombshell, to pregnancy and childbirth, to tight-dress bombshell again in about seven months by the show's internal chronology. Was promoted from guidance counselor to principal of Dillon High despite never mentioning any experience teaching in administration.

Jason Street A star quarterback paralyzed in the show's pilot, found success as sports agent in New York City. By the show's internal chronology, became a successful sports agent at age 21.

Lyla Garrity The cheer captain, this fetching perpetual senior was reserved in Season 1, an in-your-face evangelical Christian in Season 2 and a sex-crazed vixen in Season 3. Now she's at Vanderbilt: It is unclear which personality she took to college.

Tyra Collette
NBC UniversalTyra on "Friday Night Lights" -- in her third senior year, she finally hit the books.

Tim Riggins A football star with a heartthrob baby-face, ingested fantastic quantities of alcohol which never affected his conditioning; quit the Dillon team twice in midseason; robbed a drug dealer; robbed a power plant; never attended class or did homework, yet was declared eligible by the NCAA and won a scholarship to the fictional San Antonio State. Note: In the scene in which Riggins robs a power plant, he and his brother load three spools of utility transmission cable into their pickup truck. Spools of utility-gauge wire weigh a ton or more, and are moved by forklift, yet Riggins and his brother hoisted the spools into the pickup truck themselves, then drove off. Two-axle pickup trucks carry 1,000 to 1,500 pounds; the truck would have collapsed.

Tyra Collette Dillon High's hot babe, she never studied, and ran away with a rodeo star for much of a school year; entering fall of her (third) senior year, was depicted as a C-minus student; yet was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin, the prestige campus of the Texas system.

Landry Clarke A perpetual junior, straight-A geeky guy who became a Dillon Panther as a junior despite never having played football before (in Texas sports culture, only a gifted athlete could begin playing 5A football as a junior); successfully romanced Tyra, the most fought-after girl in town; beat a man to death with a wrench; tossed the body into a river; was vindicated when the dead man turned out to be a serial rapist; started a garage band and fell in love with a lesbian.

Smash Williams A star running back, was caught using steroids; led a boycott of his own team; tore his ACL and gave up his dream of college (he and everyone in the Dillon High guidance office appeared completely unaware that colleges give regular financial aid regardless of athletics); made a full recovery from his injury in about eight months by the show's internal chronology; got a football scholarship to Texas A&M following a live-contact tryout that would have put the Aggies on NCAA probation. (NCAA member schools can scout and interview prospects; tryouts are forbidden.)

[+] EnlargeBuddy Garrity
NBC UniversalBuddy Garrity -- divorced, swindled, and so Texas!

Buddy Garrity Owner of a car dealership, cheated on his wife and ended up in a messy divorce; sold his house to pay alimony; lost $70,000 in an investment swindle; was arrested for starting a fight at a topless dance establishment; an obnoxious rich guy muscled him out of his treasured position as head of the booster club. Of the FNL characters, Buddy's life seems most true to small-town Texas.

The Dillon Panthers themselves Won the 5A state title in 2006 with a record of 11-2, and made the 5A state title game in 2008 with a record of 9-1, though a team must appear in 15 games to reach the Texas 5A championship.

Dillon, Texas, itself Was hit by a tornado, flooded and evacuated following a toxic chemical spill.

The NFL Imitates High School: Miami Dolphins High School on Sunday rolled out the triple-gun backfield beloved by prep coaches. Coach Tony DeMeo of Division II University of Charleston markets a triple-gun playbook and "installation guide" to high schools; now Dolphins High School is on the bandwagon. (A triple gun has a slotback on each side of the quarterback, plus a fullback.) Tennessee Titans High School rolled out another prep standby, the three-running-back L backfield. Both teams won. On Friday after school, the Dolphins and Titans will hold pep rallies in the gym.

Untouched Touchdown Run of the Week: Jonathan Stewart of Carolina ran 45 yards untouched behind two pulling offensive linemen to ice the Falcons-at-Panthers contest. It's pretty fun to run 45 yards for a game-icing touchdown if everyone in front of you has already been knocked to the ground.

'Tis Better to Have Rushed and Lost Than Never to Have Rushed At All: Game tied at 17 in the fourth quarter, Seattle reached first-and-goal on the Arizona 1. The Seahawks went incompletion, rush, incompletion, field goal; ultimately, they lost 31-20. Seattle rushed for 164 yards on the day. Had the Green Men Group simply run, run, run, run after first-and-goal at the 1, a touchdown and different endgame were likely. Trailing 17-0, Dallas reached first-and-goal on the Green Bay 1 with 6 minutes remaining. True, it probably made no difference what the Cowboys did at this point. For the record, they went five-wide, shotgun spread -- interception.

'Tis Best to Have Rushed and Won: Trailing Seattle 17-10, Arizona went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Seahawks' 10. First the Cardinals shifted, then put a man in motion suggesting an off-tackle dive; then Chris Wells went outside behind a pulling guard 10 yards for an untouched touchdown. Increasingly TMQ is convinced that short-yardage plays must involve some misdirection: The defense is cranked to go straight ahead, so feint first. The game's icing score was an 18-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald. He ran an up and Kurt Warner deliberately underthrew the ball; Fitzgerald knew the pass would be deliberately short and turned to catch it, and the cornerback had no idea the pass was coming. This action has worked since Joe Namath to Don Maynard, so why don't more NFL teams deliberately underthrow along the sideline?

[+] EnlargeBrad Childress
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesWhat's with the headset -- is this a football coach or a backup singer for Shania Twain?

Wasting $2.3 Billion in Federal Money Hardly Seems Worth Mentioning Anymore: Commercial lender CIT Group has filed for bankruptcy after receiving $2.3 billion in taxpayer funds, an ominous indicator since the only justification for showering public money on poorly managed financial firms such as this was to prevent their bankruptcy. The bankruptcy filing means the public's $2.3 billion is gone. But into whose pockets? Tuesday Morning Quarterback fears it will soon turn out much of the bailout money supposedly "loaned" to financial firms has instead mysteriously disappeared. After all, the whole premise of the TARP programs was to give extremely large amounts of public money to companies with demonstrated track records of mismanaging money, then assume there was no chance whatsoever the companies' executives would be more concerned with their own paychecks than with the taxpayer.

Scandal update: This past spring, TMQ supposed the worst part of the federal bailout of AIG was that the company's debts were paid 100 percent -- rather than negotiating cents-on-the-dollar discounts, which creditors almost always accept when a debtor faces bankruptcy. "Instead of negotiating a reduction of debt, AIG simply immediately handed over full value. After all, the money was coming from taxpayers' pockets, and when has anyone cared how much taxpayer money is wasted?" On Monday, a federal audit report made exactly the same point. The report basically says the federal government (in this case, in a bipartisan Republican-Democrat bungle) threw $27 billion in taxpayer funds out the window by not even attempting to negotiate AIG debt reductions. That's serious billions, about the same as the Medicare physicians' payment cut Congress is contemplating. But the money did not vanish into the air -- rather, it went into the pockets of executives and shareholders at firms such as Goldman Sachs. The decisions to funnel $27 billion in gifts to Wall Street firms and big banks were made by officials who previously had worked for Wall Street firms and big banks, and hope to do so again.

Reader Comments: Many readers, including Sriram Krishnan of Arlington, Va., noted that Wake Forest took the lead by three points in overtime against Georgia Tech, then Tech faced fourth-and-1 on the Wake 6. Rather than do the conservative thing and kick a field goal, advancing to another overtime, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson went for it; the team converted and then scored a game-winning touchdown. No sports site was headlined, "Johnson's blunder."

I have been railing against public officials traveling with bodyguards not for legitimate security reason, but simply to make themselves feel important, while having mere voters shooed out of their paths. Kevin Spinti of Bensenville, Ill., praises Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, who not only doesn't waste public money on bodyguards, but got punched out when he acted alone to break up a fight. Peter Melley of San Francisco reports he recently saw Mayor Gavin Newsom drinking coffee at a San Francisco Starbucks, with no security, just by himself. That's the good news.

The bad: TMQ praised Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty a while back for driving himself around the city without chauffeur or security detail. That's what Fenty claimed to be doing, at least, in a spring 2009 news conference, and born yesterday, I believed him. Steve Chaggaris notes that actually, Fenty has been having police close entire roads when he goes bike riding; worse, the D.C. police has spent $364,748 on travel expenses for Fenty's security detail over the past three years. That's just travel expenses -- the bodyguards' pay and benefits are extra, all money wasted to make the mayor feel powerful, rather than invested in reducing the city's violent crime. Why does a mayor need to travel with taxpayer-funded security when he goes to Denver to attend the Democratic National Convention? Which not only is a partisan political event, but an event surrounded by security to begin with. Don't think, "I don't live in D.C., so it's not my taxes being wasted." The District of Columbia is heavily subsidized by the federal government -- your children are being saddled with debt so the mayor of D.C. can have bodyguards part his path. American politics seems to have reached the point at which it is assumed to be normal for public officials to waste tax money on their own egos. And we wonder why there is a $12 trillion national debt.

I said NASA should not be wasting taxpayer money on a Motel Six on the moon -- by saying this I surely do not mean to insult Motel Six -- when asteroid defense and space solar power are projects that might return tangible benefits to taxpayers. An aerospace engineer wrote back saying space solar power structures are prohibitively expensive. Sean Taylor of Milledgeville, Ga., notes that Japanese researchers are working on ways to cut the cost. Maybe they'll succeed, maybe they won't, but NASA should be working on this question, rather than being dedicated to space waste.

TMQ has been saying the spread is not some unstoppable revolution, just the current fad. Peter Haley of Birmingham, Ala., presents this leading indicator that the spread fad may already have peaked.

Obscure College Score of the Week: Franklin of Indiana 42, Hanover 28. Hanover's Daniel Passafiume caught a hard-to-believe 25 passes in a losing effort, though his longest reception was 17 yards. Located in Hanover, Ind., Hanover College boasts one of the prettiest campuses in higher academia and declares, "Professors live with their families in neighborhoods around campus," as if this were something extraordinary.

[+] EnlargeCornell College
Cornell CollegeShould Cornell College sue Cornell University? Both of them use classrooms!

Reader Roger Sperberg of Montclair, N.J., notes Indiana's Franklin College sued Ohio's Franklin University. The lawsuit claimed Franklin University was trying to confuse people into thinking it is an affiliate of Franklin College -- both schools have blue logos featuring a clock-tower image, and Franklin College's blue-tower logo came first. Now, I like Franklin College as much as the next guy, but if you were trying to confuse students about your affiliation, wouldn't you want to confuse them into thinking you were affiliated with Carleton or Stanford? Should Cornell College sue Cornell University? Both prominently show clock towers on their Web sites. What college doesn't have a clock tower?

Schools continue to call themselves "the _______ of the ______," as in, "Davidson is the Princeton of the South" or "Pomona is the Williams of the West" or (to cite a phrase oft-heard at my beloved alma mater), "Colorado College is the Harvard of the mountain states." I can state without fear of contradiction that Colorado College is the Colorado College of the mountain states. Anyway, TMQ thinks someone should found a college whose formal name is The Harvard of the West, and another whose formal name is, The Yale of the South.

Bonus Obscure College Score of the Week: Albion 60, Alma 10. Located in Albion, Mich., Albion College actively boasts that its students stay up all night.

Non-Obscure College News: Sportstalk radio continues to call for the head of Charlie Weis of Notre Dame, whose team is "only" 6-4 after close losses to power schools. Must be that when Weis got to South Bend, immediately he forgot how to coach. Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham, his predecessors, saw their coaching careers hit the rocks, too, upon arrival at South Bend, followed by boosters' demands that it become 1966 again and Notre Dame roll over opponents.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Darron CummingsOn the field in the moment after the Navy at Notre Dame game -- there'a more to collegiate athletics than the victory column.

TMQ thinks Notre Dame alums should be proud of the football program's recent struggles -- because the reason for the struggles is that Notre Dame still requires football players to attend class. Over the past couple of decades, increasingly most top 20 football schools have discarded any pretense of education. With a 94 percent football graduation rate, Notre Dame is competing against programs with a 68 percent football graduation rate (Florida), a 55 percent graduation rate (Alabama) and a 50 percent graduation rate (Texas); other football power schools have similarly miserable grad rates. Low graduation rates at big football schools mean players cut class to concentrate on sports, being pros in all but pay. "Don't go to Notre Dame, they make you study there, come to our college and party, party, party" has become a recruiting pitch that undercuts the Fighting Irish. It is extremely cynical of other football powers not to educate their players; Notre Dame is among the few football powers (others are Boston College, Nebraska and Stanford) to refuse to give in to such cynicism. Want the Irish to win more games? If the school stopped making football players do term papers, results would improve. That would hardly be in the best interest of the players -- or of Notre Dame.

Two weeks ago, when Navy defeated Norte Dame in the closing seconds at South Bend, both teams and 80,795 people stood quietly and respectfully in the twilight as "Blue and Gold," the Navy alma mater song, was played -- only a genuine institution of learning like Notre Dame could produce such a moment. Wasn't it worth more than a victory? Wasn't it far more impressive than the mindless fist-shaking exhibited by some big-deal football programs after 40-point wins against cupcakes?

[+] EnlargeSan Diego cheerleader
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesThe cheerleaders have Legedu Naanee a lot more covered than the Eagles did.

Single Worst Day of the Season -- So Far: Extremely highly paid Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel made no attempt to cover Legedu Naanee on the 20-yard touchdown pass that put San Diego ahead 28-9. Samuel was "looking into the backfield" trying to guess the play, a high school mistake, and simply let Naanee run past him. At the endgame, the Bolts led 28-23 and faced third-and-2 with 2:45 remaining. Samuel fell down as Naanee made the catch -- and then simply laid there on his tummy-tum-tum, making no attempt to get up, watching his man run to the Philadelphia 15 and put the Bolts in position for the game-icing field goal. Asante Samuel, you have played the single worst game of the season -- so far.

Next Week: Buddy Garrity is caught in a recruiting scandal involving cash payments to parents of promising middle school league players.