Commentary

Bill Belichick enters another elite club

Originally Published: November 16, 2009
By David Fleming | Page 2

Here's something none of us ever thought we'd see: Bill Belichick being compared to Barry Switzer.

But that's exactly what's happening Monday after Belichick's rather odd, and uncharacteristically panicky, decision to go for it on fourth down deep in his own territory cost the Patriots a win in Indy Sunday night.

Norm Chow, the offensive coordinator for UCLA, once told me: "Anybody can just say, 'Hey, let's go for it!' But real coaches get a feel for the game, their own team and the situation and they just know, instinctively, when it's the right time to take a risk."

Look, Bill Belichick is, maybe, the best coach ever in the NFL. In fact, currently, I'm not even sure there's a close second. But last night in Indy those all-important instincts that Chow was talking about? Yeah, they abandoned Belichick, big-time, instead revealing something none of us had ever seen before: his human side. Caught up in the moment, intimidated (yes, I said it) by Peyton Manning, Belichick got tunnel vision and decided, above all, he wanted to control his own destiny and keep the ball away from the Colts.

Bill made a boo-boo. A big one. And when you expect absolute perfection from everyone around you at all times, well, the moment you mess up you're gonna get crushed for it. And that's what's happening today. Rodney Harrison, in fact, immediately called it the worst coaching decision he had ever seen Belichick make. Which tells me one thing: Rodney must have forgotten about Bill's tenure in Cleveland when he was the original version of Eric Mangini. (True story: I interviewed Belichick once under the stands at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium when most of his answers were drowned out by chants of "BILL MUST GO! BILL MUST GO!" Imagine that.)

"We push players beyond their limits and expectations every day," Jeff Fisher told me a few seasons ago. "Sometimes, as coaches we just have to remember to do that with our decisions too."

As Fisher likes to say, it's not about minimizing risk -- it's about managing it.

Here are a few other coaches who learned the hard way, that's a whole lot easier said than done:

Cowboys vs. Eagles -- Dec. 10, 1995

Tied 17-17 with two minutes left, the Cowboys failed to convert on fourth-and-a-foot from their own 29-yard line. But the two-minute warning arrived before the play began, so Dallas got a reprieve. Not wanting to punt into the Veterans Stadium wind, Barry Switzer still decided to go for it, using the exact same play The Eagles stuffed Emmitt Smith again and took over on downs, leading to a game-winning field goal from Gary Anderson. The Eagles made the playoffs by a game, but the Cowboys still won the NFC East and the Super Bowl that season.

Fleming: I was at this game and as I watched the Cowboys run the exact same play after actually getting a reprieve on the first fourth-down try, this is the thought that went through my head: "Does Barry Switzer think there's a fifth down in the NFL?" Switzer went on to prove that Jerry Jones had assembled a team so good it could win the Super Bowl without a coach.

Giants vs. Eagles -- Nov. 19, 1978

The Giants led the Eagles 17-12 with less than a minute left, needing only to take a knee to run out the clock. But instead New York inexplicably ran a play, and the handoff was botched between Joe Pisarcik and Larry Csonka. Herm Edwards picked up the bouncing ball and returned it 26 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

Fleming: This idiotic call reminds me of something current Lions coach Jim Schwartz told me a long time ago about the concept of risk in the NFL: "Sometimes," he said, "it takes a lot more guts to be boring."

Baylor vs. UNLV -- Sept. 11, 1999

With a 24-21 lead versus UNLV, Baylor had the ball at the Rebels' 8-yard line with 20 seconds left. But rather than taking a knee to run out the clock, Baylor head coach Kevin Steele called for a run. And of course, the Bears fumbled the ball and it was returned 99 yards for the game-winning TD.

Fleming: Ah, Vegas. Another current NFL coach once told me: "Risk in football is like playing blackjack -- you might be OK if you hit on 17 a few times. But over time you're gonna get killed."

Lions vs. Bears -- Nov. 24, 2002

In 2002, Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg thought it would be a good idea to kick off even though he won the coin flip at the beginning of overtime. His explanation was that he wanted to play with the wind at his back, but the Bears scored on the first possession. Game over.

Fleming: What a doofus, right? But the thing is, Mornhinweg has since proved that he's a smart, sharp, one-chess-move-ahead kind of coach, which means this call is very similar to what happened to Belichick Sunday night. A good coach got caught up in the moment, got lost, panicked a bit and then overthought what should have been a very simple solution: You always take the ball first in OT, you always punt on fourth down on your own 28 -- especially when you're up only six.

Special thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for their contribution to this list.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship." And his work will be featured in The Best American Sports Writing 2009 anthology. The Flem File appears every Wednesday during the NFL season with updates on Mondays and Fridays.

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