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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL : The calls that gall : Controversial decisions by Jones-Drew, Belichick illustrate just how fine the line is between brilliant and foolish in NFL

November 17, 2009|SAM FARMER

INDIANAPOLIS — One is called crafty. The other crazy.

One astute. The other arrogant.

Maurice Jones-Drew made an unexpected decision that worked. Bill Belichick tried one that failed.

Jones-Drew, the Jacksonville running back, tore off a nine-yard run and took a knee at the one Sunday instead of crossing the goal line -- even though his team was trailing the New York Jets by a point inside of two minutes. The Jaguars were able to burn the final ticks off the clock and win, 24-22, on a 21-yard field goal.

In the night game at Indianapolis, New England was protecting a six-point lead and facing fourth and two at its own 28 with 2 minutes 8 seconds to play.

Instead of punting the ball back to the Colts and making them start a drive in their own territory, Belichick made the coaching decision to go for it on fourth down. The Patriots were stopped a yard short, and gave the ball back to Peyton Manning, who promptly directed the winning touchdown drive.

The thing is, with a fumble here or a few inches there, we might be talking today about Jones-Drew's blunder and Belichick's brains.

That's the thing about sports and making these heat-of-the-moment calls -- the brilliance of your decision is judged solely by the outcome and not the decision itself.

It's not as if Belichick somehow left his coaching ability in his other hoodie. His bust of a call Sunday night won't one day cost him his bust in Canton. He just figured the risk of putting the ball back into Manning's hands anywhere on the field outweighed the difficulty of getting two yards.

Still, even one of his favorite former players had serious issues with the decision. Working for ESPN.com, retired Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi wrote: "As a former defender on that team, I would've cared less about the result of that fourth-down attempt. The decision to go for it would be enough to make my blood boil for weeks. Bill Belichick sent a message to his defense. He felt that his chances were better to go for it on his own 28-yard line than to punt it away and make Peyton Manning have to drive the majority of the field to win the game.

"I would look at this decision as a lack of confidence in our ability as a defensive unit to come up with a big play to win the game."

The statistics were in New England's favor. ESPN says that since 2001, on fourth and two or less, the Patriots had converted 76.4% of their fourth-down plays. And Sunday night, Tom Brady & Co. had rolled up almost 500 yards of offense.

"You punt it to them, and they showed on the drive before that they can go down pretty quickly and score," Brady said. "They also had some timeouts left. So we make that play and we thought we'd win the game. Run three snaps and punt it to them deep with 30 seconds.

"Coach was just being aggressive, and I love that about him. He gave us a chance to make the play and we just didn't do it."

Regardless, had the play gained just a bit more, it would have been remembered as a Belichick masterstroke, the way people think of the intentional safety the Patriots took several years ago on their way to a comeback win at Denver.

Jacksonville Coach Jack Del Rio said the book on what teams "should" do according to down, distance, score, time remaining -- all the various factors -- is simply outdated.

"Books have been updated," he said. "I really don't have an answer to when it's changed and how it's changed. It has changed. There are things that you sort of learn that the so-called book percentages don't always apply.

"For us, we just want to do the best things we can for our football team to help us win games. That's really all we're after."

And that's what Del Rio had in mind when he instructed Jones-Drew to stop short of the end zone if he had a chance to score. The former UCLA star and this season's NFL touchdown leader executed the plan beautifully, getting the first down and then showing remarkable restraint for a guy so accustomed to fighting his way across the goal line.

"I got down there, took a deep breath and took a knee," he told reporters with a smile.

The Jets had no timeouts, so Jaguars quarterback David Garrard twice took a knee, setting up Josh Scobee's short field goal as time expired.

"You've got to do what you know is right, and that was the percentage play," Del Rio said. "It's really not even close. Do the math."

Sometimes, though, decision makers can't rely on the math, the percentages, the odds. It's about going with your gut.

And living with the consequences.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Three calls that worked

* Dec. 31, 1967, "The Ice Bowl," NFL championship.

Trailing the Dallas Cowboys, 17-14, with third and goal on the one-yard line and 16 seconds left, Packers quarterback Bart Starr calls Green Bay's final timeout and talks to coach Vince Lombardi. Instead of the expected pass, Starr runs a quarterback sneak and scores a touchdown for a 21-17 win and their third straight NFL title.

* Nov. 3, 2003, New England vs. Denver.

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