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Every Battle Is Won or Lost Before It’s Ever Fought

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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.

 

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  • Maybe BB wanted to lower Miami’s draft pick?

    … Ok, I got nothin. Throwing the game vs Miami was bizarre. And I’m a goddamned Miami fan.

  • Bill Murray

    The general numbers clearly favor Belichick, which puts the burden of proof on the critics.

    except that the general numbers are pretty much useless for any specific case

    • Scott Lemieux

      This is silly. They are not, in and of themselves, determinative, but they’re highly useful.

      It’s flattering to know that Mike McCarthy reads our blog, though. I hope Seattle gets to face you in the postseason instead of Carolina next year!

  • kped

    Looking at the pressure Denver was able to get, I think back to what could have been for Seattle had Avril not gotten concussed. He was wrecking their line and looked like Seattle’s best player, and they had gone up 24-14 on the play he got hurt.

    But after that, they couldn’t get any pressure on Brady and he dinked and dunked his way down the field to take the lead in the 4th.

    Just goes to show that personnel matters. You can scheme all you want, but lose a good (Avril) or great player and it all goes to hell. Yesterday’s scheme would not have worked if not for Miller and Ware. They were just on another level all year, and yesterday was terrifying if you are the QB. That’s a lesson for Chip Kelly next year! Your scheme is only half of the equation, you need great players.

    • Denverite

      Yesterday’s scheme would not have worked if not for Miller and Ware. They were just on another level all year

      Really curious what they do with Ware. He’s owed $10 million with little/no dead money.

      • kped

        Well, they will likely save a truckload of money on the QB spot next season, so maybe they can keep him.

        I mean, you cut Peyton no matter what happens, that saves you 19M (they eat 2M in dead money).

        Do they maybe look to move Demaryius Thomas? He has a $15M cap hit, but I don’t know that he is worth that in a post good Peyton Manning world for them. Cutting him is brutal, adds 25M in dead money and actually eats up an additional $10M in cap space. That’s ugly! But there has to be a hapless GM out there who will take him (call up Indy) and allow Denver to spread out the cap a bit. I mean…can’t you just use that space on a Crabtree and a few other decent WR’s/TE’s?

        • Denverite

          If they re-sign Osweiler, most of the Manning savings goes away. He’s going to get like $12M per for three or four years from someone.

          Plus they’re going need to re-sign Miller.

          • That’s a lot of money for Brock freaking Osweiler.

            • Denverite

              Which is why I bet he’s not a Bronco next year. They know he’s not worth it.

              • The black hole that they would then face at QB would be tough to sell to the fans.

                • Denverite

                  If they win in thirteen days, that buys a lot of good will.

                  I just don’t think the coaching staff likes him very much. He’s not really that mobile, he’s got a slow release, and he holds the ball way too long. I think they think their third stringer (Trevor Semien) has a higher upside.

                  My guess is they bring in a journeyman and try to groom either Semien or someone they draft. They’ll have most of the defense back, and they play an easy schedule (AFC/NFC South, plus New England in Denver). They were 12-4 this year with atrocious QB play for half the year; it’s not hard to imagine a similar result next year with slightly improved QB play.

                • EJ Manuel, Broncos QB!

                • Denverite

                  You joke, but they tried to go after Tyrod Taylor in the offseason, who is basically what EJ Manuel would be if he was any good.

                  I’m thinking like Fitzpatrick or Drew Stanton.

                • kped

                  Why not a RGIII then? I mean…he hasn’t been hit in a year, and I can’t believe at 25 he is a lost cause. He had a decent arm, just don’t think he’s totally shot. And I’d try him over Brock, that’s for damn sure. I think a 1 year flyer on him could be cheap as he tries to rebuild credibility.

                • Denverite

                  Why not a RGIII then? I mean…he hasn’t been hit in a year, and I can’t believe at 25 he is a lost cause. He had a decent arm, just don’t think he’s totally shot. And I’d try him over Brock, that’s for damn sure. I think a 1 year flyer on him could be cheap as he tries to rebuild credibility.

                  I’d take a flyer. Not sure he’s going to be available, though. Washington has him for one more year if memory serves. They might cut him, but I’d guess they can get something from someone.

                • Yeah, really why not. Wouldn’t want to rely on him, that’s for sure.

                • kped

                  Washington picked up his player option…for $16 million. With the money they will need to sign Cousins, there is not a chance in hell they keep RGIII as a third string QB for that money. He is released day 1 they are able to.

                • ColBatGuano

                  So, they’re going to dump both of their QB’s and maybe Thomas? That’s some serious rebuilding of the offense.

    • Scott Lemieux

      The Lane injury was almost equally important.

      • kped

        Lane was a big injury, but he wasn’t creating problems up front. They had no pass rush when Avril went down that I remember. But yeah, Lane was brutal, that arm injury…ouch. And on a great play too.

        This is why I like not having a team (from Toronto). I can choose new teams every year when they interest me. Seattle from Wilson’s first season caught my attention with their team, and I can’t not go for them after Sherman’s yelling after the 49’ers game and the ensuing “won’t everyone think of the children” hysteria that followed. Reminded me of Joe Buck after Randy Moss’ fake moon, made me root for the Vikings.

        • Jason

          Arm and knee. I went from screaming with delight to screaming with squeamishness.

      • erick

        Yeah, one of the ESPN writers said his brother is a huge Pats fan and said that basically the SB came down to which team had the best 4th CB.

        But even with Simon getting torched when Avril was still playing the combo of him and Bennett was getting enough pressure to keep the Pats from scoring drives. They could complete some passes but not enough for length of the field drives.

    • Jason

      I was, and remain, happy that they took the concussed Avril out of the game, compared with Edelman.

    • CrunchyFrog

      Just goes to show that personnel matters. You can scheme all you want, but lose a good (Avril) or great player and it all goes to hell. Yesterday’s scheme would not have worked if not for Miller and Ware.

      Yes. It was absolutely NOT a coincidence that the big damage Gronk did was after both of Denver’s starting safeties went down. You’ll note Denver moved Chris Harris to safety and brought in Keo hoping they could cover Gronk, and they were good but not good enough.

    • efgoldman

      Just goes to show that personnel matters.

      Yep. Broncos had four healthy defensive linemen, two of whom are capable of playing at an all-pro level and did (Miller disappeared for long stretches during the season), Patriots had a patchwork O-line, with a rookie guard on one side, a tackle playing out-of-position on the other, one tackle who can run block some but is a pass-blocking turnstile on his best days, and the other playing on the wrong side and injured, probably no better than 70%, and there you go.
      Also, while you’re quite right that a first-round RB is usually not very valuable, when you have to sign a retired RB off the street with the season almost over, that’s hardly optimal.
      Me, I’d have brought in a second tight end, probably Williams (who’s really a tackle) instead of Amendola/LaFell and rolled Brady to that side. But I’m just an old man off the street, shouting at clouds.

      ETA: Yeah, what Todd just below said, too.

  • Todd

    It’s a curious weakness that has developed with McDaniels (or Belichick if you like): When a defense can get consistent pressure on Brady out of it’s base look (without blitzing much), the Pats do not adjust to give Brady more protection. (See: the first Giants Superbowl, the AFC Champ. game a few years ago vs. the Ravens). It may cost you some explosive plays (or a chance at them), but it would help to keep the QB upright. A couple of times in that second half, in important situations, Brady had been hit so much that he felt pressure which wasn’t there and threw the ball away needlessly early.

    Why not try running right at the hard charging speed pass rushers, instead of almost all the running plays testing the middle of the line? Why not utilize Scott Chandler in 2 TE sets to give some flexibility to pass protection? Even if you saw something on tape that made you want to use it, why keep sending the RB split wide on passing downs, and then trying to hit him deep with even fewer blockers? Heck, why not just run the ball more? 3rd and 7 is better than 3rd and 15.

    It’s possible that none of that would have ended up working any better than the stuff they tried. But a Brady that had only been hit a dozen times instead of twenty-some might have made a better pass or two on any of the seemingly endless number of plays they ran on the Denver side of the field in the last half of the 4th quarter.

    • CrunchyFrog

      A coach who did a great job with passer protection when his O-Line was outclassed by the D-Line was Shanahan, notably in the famous two games in 1994 SF vs Dallas. The O-Line had been having trouble for weeks before the first game, and Dallas had the talent to shred the SF O-Line without bothering to blitz. Shanahan switched out the starting FB for better protection, went to more multiple tight end sets, and favored a number of max-protect plays. In addition they did a lot of running right at the power rushers, with a surprising degree of success. Their first TD drive was a long one and, at the end of it you were surprised to realize it was all done on runs, although there was a Steve Young planned run bootleg and planned QB draw as part of that mix.

      One of the things Shanahan and Young accepted at the outset was that they were going to complete a lot fewer passes. On max-protect plays where no one was open and no running lanes Young just threw the ball away. Their overall scoring was down, but they did score enough and won both games.

      Since I watched that happen I’ve wondered why most OCs don’t use similar tactics in the face of heavy rushes.

      • kped

        Well, there’s a reason Shanahan went on to coach a couple of world champions and most other OC’s flame out when given the chance.

  • Denverite

    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

    I pretty much count the fumbled lateral as a pick. Which is right in line with my general feeling about Manning — they’re OK if he only has one bad turnover, but not if it’s more than that.

    I’m bullish on the Broncos’ chances in the Super Bowl. I think Carolina is going to have some serious issues moving the ball against them. They really don’t match up well against that defense. (Not that anyone does, but a team like Pittsburgh with multiple receivers who can beat tight man coverage has a better chance.)

    • Speaking of going the full Carson, can we finally stop pretending that Carson Palmer is a good NFL QB?

      • kped

        I don’t think he’s a bad QB per se…but definitely not an upper echelon guy. More a Jay Cutler, middle of the pack can get you wins guy. But he played way over his head this year, fooled some people.

        • There’s a reason the Bengals upgraded to Andy Dalton.

          • junker

            Carson Palmer, at least by qbr, was the best quarterback in the league this season. This isn’t to say that he was actually the best but it is certainly wrong to say that he wasn’t a good nfl qb.

            Also the Bengals only took Dalton after Palmer requested a trade and threatened to sit out – not because they were ready to move on.

            • kped

              That is correct. He demanded his trade, Cincy had the #4 and took Dalton because of it. The fans had turned on him huge that year (he had 26 touchdowns with 20 INT’s…not great).

              He was good this year, and honestly, it’s not like they will get anyone better, so you keep going with him, maybe draft a guy in round 2 and see if you can develop him, but their window is still open…maybe. That was a brutal loss.

              • Buckeye623

                In 2011, Cincy took AJ Green with the #4 pick and Dalton with their second-rounder.

                The QB’s they passed on to take Green were Future All-Pros Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder. So Cincy made the best of a pretty weak QB draft in 2011.. Newton went #1 that year.
                Note that the Bengals passed on Osweiler in the second round of the next year, 2012.. for the cup-of-coffee DT Devon Still.

      • njorl

        This should be bookmarked for evidence in case anyone has a disagreement with Erik about football in the future.

    • efgoldman

      I’m bullish on the Broncos’ chances in the Super Bowl.

      You better start drinking now. Panthers are way better on both sides of the ball (excluding the QB) than the Patriots are. Their O-line is healthy, their D is just about as good as Denver’s, if not ::ahem:: “historically good.” They’re way more healthy than either the Steelers or the Patriots, and they’re on a roil. They didn’t just defeat two pretty good teams, they crushed them like Alabama against one of those Little Sisters of the Poor outfits thet schedule for easy wins.
      Once, you can chalk up to having one of those days. Twice? Don’t think so.

      • CrunchyFrog

        All of your points are valid. As a Denver fan I can say that we’ve been pessimistic going into so many games this season – only to win them in the last minute – that perhaps now that we’ve survived the Evil Bradychick machine we are starting to get overconfident.

        I’ll also say I have a wee bit of a worry regarding the psyche of our defense. After the Green Bay game, at which point the team was 7-0, the defense began openly bragging to the press. They promptly got clobbered twice in a row. The bravado came back after edging the Pats and holding Rivers and SD to three points. They promptly lost twice more. What I’ve been reading from the D yesterday and today sounds like the are back to the braggado again. They do much better when everyone is telling them they are going to get their butts kicked. Hopefully when the predictions start getting published that’s exactly what they’ll say.

        • efgoldman

          All of your points are valid.

          And the Patriots being better at QB is based on Brady’s record and experience. Newton hasn’t proved anything yet. But Wade is going to have to account for Newton like he never had to account for Brady, Rivers, or even Rapeistburger. Cam is not going to stand there and wait for Miller and Wade to clobber him if nobody’s open downfield. Plus, Carolina has an actual, for real, excellent running game, which the Broncos will have to respect.

          • ” Newton hasn’t proved anything yet.”

            I hope you enjoyed your desert-island trip during the 2015 season, but you might want to look up Carolina’s record now.

            • efgoldman

              I hope you enjoyed your desert-island trip during the 2015 season, but you might want to look up Carolina’s record now.

              I think Newton *CAN* be an all-timer, but he isn’t yet, not off of one great season. Nobody is, or was. Too many variables. Will he get injured? Will the Panthers lose too many good players, or get caught in cap jail, will his luck run out….
              He’s on the way, but he’s not there yet.

          • Denverite

            Cam is not going to stand there and wait for Miller and Wade to clobber him if nobody’s open downfield.

            Damn. Bum’s kid not only comes up with a kick-ass game plan, but he actually goes out there and implements himself. Pretty good for a 65 year old man.

            • efgoldman

              Pretty good for a 65 year old man.

              Historically great.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I think Carolina is going to have some serious issues moving the ball against them.

      This is true. Only Denver is going to have much more serious issues moving the ball against Carolina. The Broncos had basically one sustained drive each against Pittsburgh and New England, and Carolina’s defense is a major step up in class. The difference between Newton and “Manning” is far greater than the difference between the Denver and Carolina defense. It’s not impossible for Denver to grind out yet another coin-flip win, but Carolina should be significant favorites.

      • ColBatGuano

        Denver had 1/3 of their total offense on their first drive. They had 5 (out of 15) possessions where they gained 0 or fewer yards.

  • AdamPShort

    The kick vs. go for it thing was such a marginal decision that in the context of the game it didn’t even make sense to spend time thinking about it. Just pick one and move on to think about something else.

    It’s one of those things that seems like it must be a big deal but actually isn’t a big deal. The decision didn’t matter that much. It did not have a significant impact on the game, even though the outcome did have a significant impact on the game.

    Poker is full of these decisions. One thing very strong players are good at is recognizing the difference between an important decision and an unimportant decision that has important consequences. I would imagine Belichick is such a player.

    • MikeJake

      I’m biased because I root for a Browns team that often struggles to do anything on offense, but if you’re down 2 scores and ultimately need a touchdown (being down 8 is like 1.5 scores), I favor going for the TD if you’ve got favorable field position, assuming the opposing defense has been containing you all game. Better to have to kick a long FG than to need a hail mary.

      • AdamPShort

        I root for the Browns too! I try not to let this affect my decision-making, however. A sense of overwhelming despair does not improve one’s analytics.

        • efgoldman

          I root for the Browns too!

          Hey, Charly Brown, Why don’t you post under your real name?

        • Buckeye623

          Hue Jackson for coaching hire of the year in 2016. Or maybe I’ve been rooting for a team featuring Joe Thomas for so long that I need something, anything to promote.

          Josh Gordon on the outside hook-and-smoke-a-joint route?

          The first moment of the 2016 NFL league year / FA signing period is 4pm March 15. At 4:01, our long national nightmare named JFF will finally be over.

    • MDrew

      The kick vs. go for it thing was such a marginal decision that in the context of the game it didn’t even make sense to spend time thinking about it. Just pick one and move on to think about something else.

      It’s one of those things that seems like it must be a big deal but actually isn’t a big deal. The decision didn’t matter that much. It did not have a significant impact on the game, even though the outcome did have a significant impact on the game.

      I love comments where the same wrong assertion is made over and over again without argument, and then that’s just all the comment turns out to be.

      • MDrew

        …My best guess is that to arrive at your conclusion that it was a marginal decision to the outcome, you’re proceeding from Scott’s point that either decision passes the reasonability test (I would argue going for it only very narrowly if it does, however), and thinking that the fact that either decision might have been reasonable implies that it’s a marginal decision.

        But that’s a mistake. Decisions can be both critical (i.e. not marginal) and very difficult to reach the right choice on. I might not go all the way to critical on this one, but it was a far more important than marginal decision. Not just declining the FGA at 6:03, but the next one, and possibly even the next one after that, too.

  • AdamPShort

    BTW I see this Sun Tzu quote all the time, but it doesn’t appear in any translation I have access to. Are we sure it’s genuine? The closest thing I can find to it in the Thomas Cleary version isn’t very close.

    • liberalrob

      I think it was the Oliver Stone translation, as quoted by Gordon Gekko.

      • AdamPShort

        that’s funny; i thought it sounded like some bullshit “Sun Tzu Will Help You Run Your Stockbrokerage” type thing.

      • AdamPShort

        So I just went and looked at this in the movie – it’s ambiguous whether Gekko quoting Sun Tzu or if this is his interpretation/summary of the book. I’ll give Oliver Stone the benefit of the doubt on that one.

        • liberalrob

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asher_Edelman

          In 1988, he taught a course called “Corporate Raiding – The Art of War” at Columbia Business School, using as his textbook Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.[3] The character of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street was based in part on Edelman.[4]

          And ever since, it has been taken as given that it was a genuine Sun Tzu quote. Do a Google search for “sun tzu every battle” and look at the results. It’s fascinating.

    • njorl

      “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

      • AdamPShort

        Agreed; that’s the closest thing i can find, but it’s not the same idea.

        • liberalrob

          I think this one gets close:

          http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html

          [I.26.]Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand.

  • joe from Lowell

    My 2 cents:

    Bill ran that game plan in week 17 because of his personnel problems.

    He played Brady because Brady plays when he’s healthy. Period.

    Someone in Foxboro – and I think it’s Brady himself – is very stubborn about that. You see it at the end of games, in the second half in blowouts, all season. “Why don’t they replace Brady?” I think they just don’t do that, barring injury to him.

    • medrawt

      Yeah, back in ’07 it was sort of fun that the Pats never took their foot off the gas, but the “we don’t pull Brady” thing has come to annoy me, just as every once in a while I think Belichick outsmarts himself. I think the Spurs and the Pats – probably the best run organizations of the century so far in their respective sports, if you look at longevity and consistency – have both learned a harsh lesson in the last 12 months about getting too clever and thinking home court/field doesn’t really matter.

      • joe from Lowell

        Plus he’s not as young as he used to be.

      • kped

        you are right about the Spurs there as well, but that goes to show, not even the greats are immune to stupidity. I mean…that series against the Heat where they lost, not having Duncan in at the end of the game was freaking criminal. “They went small” is not an excuse. Bosh was out there, so play Duncan plus 4 other small guys! I couldn’t believe they just crapped that game away, and was so glad they won it all the next year in such a dominating fashion.

    • CrunchyFrog

      Someone in Foxboro – and I think it’s Brady himself – is very stubborn about that. You see it at the end of games, in the second half in blowouts, all season. “Why don’t they replace Brady?” I think they just don’t do that, barring injury to him.

      Favre was the same way, Manning too. One challenge GB had getting backup QBs for Favre was that they knew they’d never play. Good backups who had something left in the tank wouldn’t sign up.

      This is also why so many in the media characterized Manning being pulled from the KC game as a “benching” – because they knew he wanted to stay in. They guy has suffered at least one major injury, is playing like crap apparently as a result of same, and the game is beyond reach – *obviously* you put the backup in the game. But that’s not how Manning saw it.

      • kped

        Can you blame a QB though? Alex Smith was playing great football, the year after nearly taking the 49’ers to the Superbowl (and likely would have had they used a competent punt/kick returner after their guy muffed one already).

        In a game where he was basically perfect, he gets concussed, and his backup plays good enough in 1 or 2 games that Smith never gets off the bench.

        Now, Smith was certainly no Manning, but I don’t know that I can blame NFL players for hiding injuries, or trying to stay on the field. It’s such a fickle sport.

        • CrunchyFrog

          Interesting point. Given that Favre got his opportunity relieving an injured Don Majkowski and Brady an injured Drew Bledsoe I can see why they might have been extra skittish about the possibility of being Wally Pipped.

        • efgoldman

          Alex Smith was playing great football, the year after nearly taking the 49’ers to the Superbowl

          But Smith didn’t and doesn’t have the track record that Brady and Manning have, or Favre had.
          It’s clear that Harbaugh was looking for an excuse to replace Smith with Kaepernick, and in retrospect, Belchik would have replaced Bledsoe with Brady sooner or later.

          • kped

            Yeah, Harbaugh was looking for a reason. I wonder if he would have made the move in season at the first “bad” Smith game, although Smith went down in the 9th game, so there wasn’t much time to make that change.

            If Kelly gets rid of Kaepernick, he’s another guy I’d take a shot on. Again, what do you have to lose if you are Elway? Kaep has shown far more than Brock ever did, even in a bad season. But I suspect Kelly keeps him.

    • njorl

      I can see it. If the guy behind you never plays, the coach will never trust him.

      Brady was a late round draft choice with no chance to get in a game while Bledsoe was healthy. When he got his chance, Bledsoe was history. Belichick made Matt Cassel look good. What if the guy on the bench is better than Matt Cassel? The Pats aren’t going to draft anyone at qb they have to pay much, so if they discover a cheap qb they can win with, they’ll cut a 38 year old Brady in a heartbeat. As crazy as that sounds, Bill Bellichick being sentimental about his best chance to win more games is crazier.

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    The Bronco defense turned Tom Brady into a mediocre QB, and on a day that Manning was slightly less ordinary, it was enough for the win.
    I have almost no knowledge of the in and outs of the Broncos versus roster an/salary cap, but I dont see them as a
    a cntender for SB 51. As long as Brady stays healthy and Belichek does his usual replacement parts magic, New England should be a contender.

    • Denverite

      I have almost no knowledge of the in and outs of the Broncos versus roster an/salary cap, but I dont see them as a
      a cntender for SB 51

      I talk about the QB situation above. Manning will retire or be cut. Whether they re-sign Osweiler is unclear, but I’d lean not at this point. Their line should be better with one starter coming back. Another (Clady) would be coming back, but he’s also likely to be cut.

      On defense, they’ll re-sign Miller. I’d guess Ware retires, especially if they win. If not, he’ll either be cut or have his deal restructured to pay about half of what he’s making now. Travathan, Marshall and Jackson are all free agents. They’ll lose one for sure and perhaps two (Jackson should command a pretty hefty price tag, so he’s probably gone). But they have two pretty good back-up edge rushers in Ray and Barrett. The entire secondary will be back.

      Bottom line is that the defense probably won’t be quite as good, but it’s still going to be the best in the NFL or close to it. The offense should be a bit better with a better line and better QB play (you have to think). The big issue is that they play the AFC South and NFC South next year, which basically means they’re starting at 6-2 or better. They also get New England in Denver. So even taking a step back could mean an 11-5 or 12-4 record with an easy schedule.

      • CrunchyFrog

        Good that Sanders and Talib were signed to 3 year deals. That’s two fewer contracts to deal with this year.

        For Miller they have the franchise tag. No matter how much they like Osweiler they won’t pay the franchise fee for him, which I’m guessing would be in the $16-18M range. If they can sign Miller without the tag they can apply it to Jackson.

        In any event, Elway has had a great command of the free agent market and the team has done a terrific job of developing talent from the draft and undrafted players, so there’s reason to be optimistic. The only FA they wanted to keep but didn’t was Dumervil, and that was due to a snafu on the agent’s side that they’ve learned to avoid in the future. The ones they’ve let go have in general failed to perform at the same level (Moreno, Knighton, Thomas), or have been replaced with a higher quality FA at a reasonable price (Sanders instead of Decker, Talib and Rogers-Cromartie).

        The big question is QB – just don’t know what they are thinking there. I’m sure Kubiak and Elway have chatted with Shanahan about his impression of RG3.

      • efgoldman

        it’s still going to be the best in the NFL or close to it.

        Or, they have slightly more than the lucky component of injuries, instead of slightly less.

        • Denverite

          The Broncos defense wasn’t remarkably healthy this season. Ware missed a third of the season. Ward and Stewart missed big chunks; the main reason they got lit up in Pittsburgh was that by the second quarter, the only safety who was on the roster on opening day was playing with a broken leg, and the other safeties were a dude off the practice squad and another dude who they signed after he tweeted Wade Phillips. Wolfe missed the first quarter of the season with a drug suspension.

          They just mostly had the depth to survive all of the injuries, which is a credit to Elway.

  • BoredJD

    Don’t forget the highly improbable special teams collapse in the game against the Eagles, or the coin flip debacle against the Jets.

    As a Pats fan, I found the ending to this season more disappointing than the lost Super Bowls given what could have been (likely a huge loss to Carolina in the SB, but I think the Pats match up much better with Carolina than the Broncos do) and what is likely ahead (probably only 1-2 more years of prime Brady unless somebody does something to give him an offensive line).

    • CrunchyFrog

      Well, the Eagles game was weird. But that happens sometimes in football – ask Tom Coughlin about strange game endings involving the Eagles.

      As far as the Jets game goes, I suggest Pats fans stop referring to this as the “coin flip debacle”. That had about as much impact on the game result as did the deflated footballs. Belichick wanted to kick, and while he didn’t get his preferred side there was almost no wind or other side advantage. The sole problem was the Jets offense performed a lot better on that drive than they had been doing in the 2nd half.

      There is no, question, though, that this year luck was not on the Patriot’s side, at least after week 11. OT is basically a coin flip, they were 0-2 in both OT games, and the ball didn’t bounce their way on the close plays/calls in any of the 4 losses. When the game margins are narrow – as they usually are for all but the most dominant and most pathetic teams – that can happen. I think the Pats went on such a string of playoff luck starting with the tuck rule/snow job game in 2001 that there came to be expectations that the coin was always going to land on the Pats side and that 3-point super bowl wins would be plentiful.

      I’ll say this, though. After the AFCC loss two years ago I read a lot of Pats pundits writing that the dynasty was over, they’d never win the super bowl again, etc. I’m not reading that this year so maybe those writers have learned.

    • efgoldman

      (probably only 1-2 more years of prime Brady unless somebody does something to give him an offensive line).

      They don’t have a first round choice this year (deflategate) but they goddamned well better have at least a couple of tackles at the top of their draft board. They’re pretty well set at center with Stork and Anderson, and they had two rookie guards (one went on IR) this season, who should improve, but even if Solder comes back and Vollmer is OK, Marcus Cannon CAN NOT be the third tackle. We’re still trying to find out why they gave him a multi-year deal.

      • efgoldman

        Aannnnnnnnnd…
        The Pats have fired the O-line coach.
        I guess he couldn’t magically keep guys from getting injured, and when he waved his hand over them and said HEAL, they didn’t.
        Or maybe it’s because he couldn’t turn Cannon into a genuine NFL pass blocker. But as I said before, Zombie Vince Lombardi couldn’t have made chicken salad out of that O-line the last two months.

  • slothrop

    This is brilliantly written, as usual. I was socialized as a Broncos fan, no matter what (I remember the fans screaming “eat the ball, Tensi”), but I sort of hope the Broncos lose, so I have a reason to give no more shits about football.

  • What sport is this about?
    (Inquiry from a Brit who obviously wandered into the wrong bar)

    • jake

      association football, obviously.

  • CrunchyFrog

    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.

    We’ll probably never find out – and it may not ultimately be knowable – but for some reason the individuals on the Broncos for the most part played their best games of the season (and in some cases, career) yesterday, and that’s a real interesting coincidence. None of the offensive receiver drops that has plagued the team in recent weeks (well, some called one pass to DT a drop). Sanders was as sharp as I’ve seen him. Special teamers Latimer and Keo made numerous plays. Even the punter Colquitt, who had not had a good year, had his second straight good game yesterday, while kicker McManus quietly made all his kicks, again, including every kickoff through the endzone. And I haven’t even mentioned the defense yet.

    So why was this team so well prepared mentally for the game? Again, no idea, but if it keeps up we’ll have to credit the Denver coaches.

    • howard

      let’s face it: sometimes it really is just there for a team, whether it’s the coaching, the players, or the stars.

  • MDrew

    if it were my decision to make I probably would have gone against type and kicked the field goal.

    This is where I am too. I definitely was saying, “Why the hell is he going for it here? (And here?)” in the moment. And I consciously lean toward being for trying for 4th-down conversions in a variety of circumstances, largely because I hate the phrase “Take the points.” (They’re not free! You’re going to miss FGAs!)

    But I just was not seeing it in this instance. The value of getting to where any variety of TD gives you the lead. And the idea that the Broncos were going to be that much more effective on offense up 5 than up 8 seems remote (though still real) to me. The benefit of stringing together a drive for a FG or just for a few 1st downs up 8 is quite large as well – and they weren’t getting it done. (More generally, are we buying into a “Don’t cut the size of the deficit because it might result in the opponent’s desire to score rising and we can’t have that!’ argument here? That doesn;t seem to be how this place usually rolls, but I could be wrong.)

    Meanwhile, again, I definitely try to be go-for-it guy (or at least “be aggressive” guy – more on this later). But there are certain games where, to me, it becomes apparent that FGs just are going to be a bigger part of your scoring than other times. I remember the NE at GB game last year as one of those. Would I rather more of Mason Crosby’s 5 FGAs (4 made) have been TDs? Duh. But I remember thinking that this is one of those games where you just pile up the points any way you can get them. It just seemed like that kind of game. That’s exactly how this game felt to me as well. The Broncos were disrupting routes and bother Brady so much that it just felt like NE’s red zone prospects were (much?) lower than in any typical game. Gronk had a great game in terms of yards, but not a killer one from a scoring perspective. They were containing him in the red zone. Therefore, to me, the value of getting points each time into relatively secure FG range was increased.

    And the specific deficit NE faced to me only increased the value of field goals. Basically, here my point is just Paul’s – amplified by my observation of NE’s red zone troubles. Converting the 2PC is just another one-time-only red zone play, and that’s not going great for you in that half. If they’re down ten (or, better, eleven), it’s two scores. Maybe we’re *still* debating kicking field goals then, but I doubt it. But then how are those field goals not even more valuable if they bring you to within a winning margin assuming a TD, than if they merely get you to a tie score? Especially if the tie requires scoring a TD from the red one in the normal number of tries, followed immediately by having to do it again on just one try – all while you’re having obvious difficulty even doing the first one?

    The counter obviously is that if you’re having so much trouble scoring TDs from the red zone, then you just need to stack up as many tries at it as you can, any way you can. And it’s a good enough argument that it means that Belichick’s calls easily pass a reasonableness test. It seems even like it would be correct to me if the deficit is ten, where you really do need a TD to win realistically. (I’ve never liked the “you need a TD and a FG so just take the FG here” line of down-ten thinking – unless it’s a gross shootout and you;re having no trouble scoring TDs, it just happens to be one drive where you got stopped on 3rd down.) But the deficit was not ten; it was eight. The fact is that the Patriots didn’t actually need to concern themselves with scoring any TDs at all. They needed to concern themselves with scoring at least eight (but preferably nine) points in about 8 minutes, while preventing Denver from scoring. They had the last part pretty much sewn up, it looked to me. And it seems to me that there is a pretty straight-forward way to score nine points in 8 minutes in a football game. Thy name is field goal. If a TD falls in your lap, great. But I don’t know that thinking about touchdowns was even helpful for New England in the last half of the last quarter yesterday.

    Normally – generally – I would sentimentally and analytically agree with a preference for “aggressiveness” (going for more downs in order to increase TD chances over “conservatism” – kicking 3-pt field goals. The specifics of this situation, however, cause me to think that the right view is to toss those terms out. I actually don’t see going for 1st downs and TDs and more aggressive here. I wouldn’t say it’s conservative, but I would say that a clear path to victory lay through kicking field goals each time down – *unless* Belichick was not confident that he could get multiple, quick stops, and advance the ball to FG range three times in half a quarter. In the circumstance, going for TD’s multiple times actually feels like the insurance play to me.

    In a sense, then, maybe I would go so far as to say that Belichick actually took the more conservative course through the last part of that game – and it led to the loss. Have confidence in 1) his defense’s ability to maintain their performance, 2) the offense’s ability to advance the ball as far as they had repeatedly advanced it, (but take the signal that Denver was winning the red-zone game, as well a defense of its caliber should at home with unique home advantages in a game of this magnitude), and 3) your kicker/FGA team”s ability to be consistent and true in ideal kicking conditions, with a blown play to make up for earlier in the game, and to me the choice to make was clear there. And it doesn’t strike me, in that circumstance, that it would have been the more conservative of the available strategies to pursue in that game.

    Tl;dr: I agree with aggressiveness over conservatism in offensive play calling. But it’s a fallacy that kicking field goals is always the conservative choice.

    • MDrew

      …Looking through the other thread, I see a Denver fan (thus probably more dialed into the dynamics of the whole game than I was) pointing out that at the 7:00 mark NE had had much less success getting into the red zone than they did thereafter. I did have the opposite impression, so that does factor into the thinking about what is likely to happen after a FGA at that point.

      But I think my larger interpretive point stands – even is pointed up – by this: this attitude on the part of Belichick, if indeed it was his consideration, actually reflects a conservative assessment of what the offense could be expected to gain for the team at that point. I still think that three field goals and three stops at that point is the most direct (and most aggressive) approach to winning the game. If BB thought he needed to use all the trips into the red zone to maximize TD potential because he was unsure how many trips he’d get, then he was literally conserving red zone trips, trying to insure against being denied further ones (because of offensive line deficiency) by maximizing the point potential of each one. That’s exactly what conservatism in this context is: recognizing that you can’t afford to be (relatively) aggressive (i.e. score points very available for scoring, at a pace that will win you the game, providing sustained defense), because you are not in a strong enough position to be confident you will get those chances. So you conserve and maximize all the chances you get.

      • CrunchyFrog

        Ok, really late to this discussion, probably no one will see it, but having slept on it twice I went back and looked at New England’s offensive drive history from that game to see how it might have influenced the decision.

        Q1
        Start at NE 20 yard line, end at NE 35, 1 1st down, punt
        NE 20, NE 27, 0, punt
        NE 40, NE 34, 0, punt
        DEN 22, DEN 0, 1, TD <– the one TD drive after the lateral fumble – 21 yards on first play, 1 on second
        Q2
        NE 13, NE 13, 0, INT
        NE 24, DEN 28, 4, FG <– got as close as the DEN 22 yard line
        NE 41, NE 46, 0, INT
        NE 12, NE 17, 0, punt
        Q3
        NE 33, DEN 20, 2, FG <– one big pass play to Gronk, had 1st/10 at 20, 3 plays for no gain
        NE 8, NE 4, 0, punt
        NE 4, NE 24, 2, punt
        Q4
        NE 20, DEN 11, 3, downs <– time left 6:03 when 4th down play was run (4th and 1)
        NE 29, DEN 14, 3, downs <– as close as DEN 9 before false start penalty; time left 2:25 @ 4th down (4th and 6)
        NE 50, DEN 0, 1, TD <– last drive, 4th down at 50 got 40 yard pass, 4th down at 10 TD pass

        So, ignoring reputations, looking a the situation as of 6:03 in the 4th, what would you think the odds are of getting back within the 10 yard line again for a TD opportunity if you had one more drive? You'd have to think those odds were pretty low. The one TD they had resulted from 21 yards on the first play after the turnover – have to take into account that a defensive lapse in the first play after turnover is common and not consider that to be typical (and that was a pretty fluky play, too).

        The other thing you see there is that although there were lots of stops early in drives, the NE offense had through the game had some success between the 20s. However, as is often the case with great defenses, moving the ball in the red zone was much, much harder.

        As it turned out they did get that close on the next 2 drives – but don't let that influence the decision that had to be made at 6:03. We now know, but NE didn't then, that Denver's safeties were both out for the rest of the game making the defense a little less effective. Also do take into account that those two drives were anything but cakewalks – the last drive's two completions were in the category of those two famous improbable completions by Eli Manning in the two super bowls, or Rodger's two hail marys this year.

        I'm not saying it's a slam dunk argument for going for it on 4th down in those situations, but I do think it's a very defensible decision.

        And, BTW, in real time, as a Denver fan not able to sit down due to the suspense, I would LOVE to have had Belichick go for the FGA in both situations. 4th-and-1? New England? I'd have taken the 3 points every day – to improve Denver's odds, not New England's.

        • MDrew

          I hear this. It’s definitely defensible. I probably would have been sick to my stomach at that moment if I were a Denver fan, too. I’m just not sure I’d have been right to be (in the sense of being right to be more unhappy to see them going for it than kicking a field goal).

          I guess my basic insight is this. You don’t need to get it back to the ten yard line. You need to get it back to reasonable FG range, twice, after a successful FGA at 6:03. They were moving it okay between the twenties. The twenty yard line is in field goal range. Their defense was getting the job done. They’re down eight, likely five if they want it with 5:00 left. You don’t actually need to focus on scoring touchdowns in that scenario. Obviously you make every low-cost effort to. But I’m not sure you sacrifice a clear numerical path to a win for it. Getting two stops and two FGs in almost six minutes is really doable. Sure, a few first downs by Denver and you’re sunk, but that holds basically barring almost any developments. FGs are a path to victory in that scenario, if you’re feeling good about keeping doing what you’ve been doing.

          BB clearly didn’t feel good about being able to do that. Okay, I can take that on board. But don’t tell me that’s an aggressive posture. That’s a conservative posture.

          • MDrew

            5:00 *+*, that is.

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