On the narrow question of his decision to go for it 4th and 1 with 6:03 left, I am here to defend Bill Belichick. This is not to say that Paul is wrong, either; if it were my decision to make I probably would have gone against type and kicked the field goal. But I think this is one of those tactical decisions where the optimal decision is unknowable and either decision is reasonable. The general numbers clearly favor Belichick, which puts the burden of proof on the critics. There’s a solid argument that, given how dominant Denver’s defense was and how feeble the Bronco offense looked, this is a case where the specific circumstances dictate going against the book. Given how things played out, this certainly looks like the right approach. But you have to be careful: you can’t assume everything plays out the same way. It’s true the Broncos were pretty much drawing dead using the [run into the line-run into the line–Manning heaves a duck close enough to a receiver not to be called for intentional grounding and keels over in agony] playcalling sequence Kubiak was going to keep using as long as he was up 8. But — as I’m sure Belichick was aware of — Kubiak would probably have become less conservative had New England reduced their deficit to 5, and Manning is more likely to spot an open receiver he can get the ball to throwing on 1st or 2nd down. If you favor kicking the field goal, you can respond that Manning is also more likely to turn the ball over if Denver actually tried to advance the ball, which is also true (one reason — SPOILER ALERT! — that I would loooooove Carolina -4 is that I have a really hard time seeing Manning getting through another game without a pick, and I think there’s a nontrivial chance he goes the full Carson.) And…well, the thing is there’s no way of weighing these probabilities. There was no ex ante “right decision” here. Belichick’s decision was reasonable; kicking the field goal would have been reasonable.
You could also criticize Belichick and McDaniels for failing to adequately adjust to the Denver defense, but I think this is more a question of Denver’s gameplan and personnel being really good. Wade Phillips came up with a brilliant game plan reminiscent of, er, Bill Belichick: forget What You Would Like to Do and Your System and focus on the personnel matchups of a given game. He thought he could generate a pass rush with 3 or 4, was right, and left Brady having to make split-second decisions to throw to either his well-covered good-to-great players or replacement-level players in single coverage. The beauty of Belichick’s approach is that if it works it’s just not easy to respond to schematically. Unless some magic formula for turning James White and Brandon LaFell and Marcus Cannon into good players was available, I’m not really sure what Belichick and McDaniels could have done. And this should remind us that the Sun Tzu dictum/cliche in the title isn’t actually true. Phillips looks like a genius because Ware played like a Hall of Famer, Miller played like someone for whom “Hall of Famer” seems insultingly inadequate, Harris had a spectacular game playing with one arm, etc. And Brady and Gronkowski are good enough that they damn near beat an exceptional defense executing a perfect game plan at the highest level anyway. Still, it’s hard for a coordinator to adapt their style so radically — cf. the works of Rex Ryan passim — and give Phillips his due credit.
But there’s a truth the title cliche too, which bring us to where Belichick really screwed up the game. Starting with Week 12, Belichick coached as if he didn’t really give a damn about the #1 seed, and it burned him badly. The generic home field advantage is a three point swing, and I suspect that in this particular matchup the swing would be bigger than usual. Denver’s pass rush was going to be formidable under any circumstances, but I don’t think Brady gets knocked down 20 times if the game is at Foxboro and he’s not frequently forced to use a silent count. Even if it’s just three — that’s not an advantage you throw away lightly. And he pretty much did.
In my game preview, I mentioned what turned out to be a season-changing blunder: Belichick sending an undrafted rookie playing in his 3rd NFL game out to return a 4th-quarter punt in terrible weather conditions, which ended up handing Denver 20 points of win probability in exchange for very little potential benefit. I don’t think Belichick’s error was failing to understand that the downside/upside ratio of this choice is roughly “Ralph Nader 2000.” I am certain that he understands this — indeed, on the next Denver punt with the score closer he rushed 11. I think his error was in not caring about a horrible percentage play because he was already focused on the long game. “We probably have this game in the bag, we probably don’t need it to get the #1 seed anyway, and my special teams coach likes Harper so what the hell let’s see if we have something here.” Belichick’s ability to think both tactically and strategically is one reason he’s great, but he was miscalculating there. Getting the #1 seed isn’t trivial, and it was too early for New England to assume anything.
And then, even worse, was the unfathomable game plan Belichick and McDaniels came up with for Week 17. I understand that the desirability of getting the #1 seed had to be balanced by minimizing injury. But this game plan seemed calculated to do as little of both as possible. If the idea was to keep Brady’s out of harm’s way above all else, then just starting Garoppolo and having him run the team’s real offense was a better option. If not that, then have Brady come out throwing and try to get a big enough lead that you can yank him and go to a conservative running attack. But leaving Brady out there as a target for Ndamukong Suh and then have him do almost nothing for the first half but hand off to bad running backs? Can someone explain the logic here? (I think I’m beginning to understand why the #1 prospect for every NFL coaching vacancy somehow never even gets a phone call, although Belichick has to take the most responsibility here.) This was just half-assed, too-clever-by-three-quarters nonsense, and it probably cost them a Super Bowl appearance. Belichick is obviously one of the best coaches in the history of North American professional sports, but this wasn’t his best couple of months.
Yesterday, as he usually is, Belichick was fine on the sidelines, although you can quibble with some choices. The clear blunders he made to screw up the game happened before kickoff.