In December 1995, the Cowboys and the Eagles got together in Philadelphia. Late in the fourth quarter, game tied at 17, Dallas faced fourth down and one from its own 29.
Coach Barry Switzer opted to go for it, relying on his Madden-style crutch play, “load left.”
As explained at the time by Timothy W. Smith of the New York Times, “load left” didn’t work on third down. And it didn’t work on fourth down.
So the Eagles got the ball, and three plays later the Eagles scored the game-winning points via a field goal.
“It surprised us,” Eagles coach Ray Rhodes said after the game. “But when you’ve been
on top as long as they’ve been on top, you take your chances. But I don’t think you’ll see that again.”
Colts coach Jim Caldwell could have uttered those same words nearly 14 years later, after the so-inexplicable-that-the-word-”inexplicable”-doesn’t-do-it-justice decision by Patriots coach Bill Belichick to call for a short pass on fourth and two from his own 28. (Here it is, for those of you who haven’t seen it.)
Nearly fourteen years ago, Switzer was labeled an idiot for opting not to punt. His decision arguably was even more idiotic than Belichick’s because the Pats were simply trying to get a first down in order to ice the game. Switzer’s teams still needed to gain another 40 yards or so in order to break the tie.
But there’s a fuzzy line between stupidity and confidence. And Rhodes’ words resonate in that regard.
“When you’ve been on top as long as they’ve been on top, you take your chances.”
You take your chances, like wasting two timeouts because there’s no way you might need them for the purposes of challenging a questionable spot on fourth down or killing the clock if the Colts somehow should end up taking the lead.
Here’s how Bill Belichick explained the situation after the game, following a jog to the locker room that included a camera man being knocked to the ground by Belichick’s right-hand man.
In other words, “when you’ve been on top as long as we’ve been on top, sometimes you take your chances.”
But sometimes “taking your chances” is way too reckless, especially when facing an opponent that can then take advantage of the situation.
Here’s how two veterans of the Pats-Colts rivalry, Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy, addressed the situation during the NBC postgame show. Harrison was remarkably candid regarding his lack of confidence in Belichick’s demonstration of confidence.
The extent to which this one resonates beyond the 2009 season depends on its ultimate outcome. By holding off the Bucs, the Dolphins crept a game closer to the top of the AFC East. Though Belichick and company are justifiably confident that they’ll hold off Bill Parcells and company for the division crown, the fact that the Pats are now three games plus a tiebreaker behind the Colts with seven to play means that the road to Miami won’t be going through Foxborough, barring a successful visit by the Chargers to Indy in the divisional round.
Maybe Belichick will now redouble his efforts to erase the effects of that one horrible decision by turning things around, beating the Colts or whoever else the Pats face in the postseason, and winning the Super Bowl.
That’s precisely what Barry Switzer and the Cowboys did in 1995, after one of the dumbest coaching moves of all time.
Still, if Pats find themselves in an overtime game during the playoffs, we hope that Belichick doesn’t try to compensate for last night’s decision by opting to take the wind.