On final play call, you can't really kick
Kick it or throw it? That was the topic of conversation among Patriots fans yesterday as they stewed over Sunday's 20-17 loss to the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. So high is fan confidence in placekicker Adam Vinatieri that many seemed to feel strongly that the wisest choice on fourth and 3 at the Redskin 38 was to line up for a 55-yard field goal attempt and put the fate of the Patriots on the foot of Vinatieri rather than on the arm of Tom Brady.
In the end, Bill Belichick decided to go in another direction, and Brady's pass to Daniel Graham was just a tad behind the tight end, who was unable to handle the throw. As the ball fell harmlessly to the ground with 37 seconds to play, everyone in New England immediately knew the field goal would have been the wiser choice.
But would it have been?
First off, the percentages are never in your favor on a kick that long, even when launched by a reliable kicker like Vinatieri. Second, he had already missed a 46-yard attempt in the game as well as several more at that range in warmups. In fact, Vinatieri said after the game that he and special teams coach Brad Seely had decided that "low to mid 50s" was the outside range for a kick that day. A 55-yard attempt was on the outer edge, and that made it easier for Belichick to go for one first down before kicking, which had been the Patriots' plan from the moment they got the ball back with 1:39 to play at the Washington 45.
"The strategy was to make one first down, which would ensure us being in field goal range," Belichick said yesterday. "We talked about the field goal range before the game and during the game on that particular day, on that particular field, in the direction that we were going. We felt like the secure area was from the 35-yard line in. In a desperation situation, which is different than that, we always talk about how far could we get it there if we had to have it. Getting there and it being a high-percentage kick are two different things."
Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy agreed with Belichick's decision. Writing on ESPN.com, Levy said, "With the time that was left, I think I would have gone for [the first down]. The chance of picking up the fourth and 3 would have been greater percentagewise than making the field goal. It wasn't about not trusting your kicker. It was about putting your team in the best position to tie the game."
Levy and Belichick were right. In that situation, the odds of Brady converting on fourth and 3 were far better than of Vinatieri delivering a 55-yard field goal, and the proof was in the play that developed. Graham initially was wide open, and had Brady been able to get rid of the ball sooner, Graham would have caught it in stride with room to run. But even when Brady did deliver the pass, Graham was well beyond the first-down marker, and had he been able to handle the throw, the Patriots would have been in easy field goal position. That things didn't work does not mean the other choice was wiser. It just means the other choice never had to be tested.
"The 35-yard line was really our benchmark on that particular series, which was one first down," Belichick explained. "That was our objective. That is what the play calls were intended to do. In the end, we just didn't get it done, but that was the strategy."
There are some, including fullback Larry Centers, who contended later that the wiser choice for Brady would have been to go to a shorter pass. Centers said after the game that he felt he was open and would have gotten the first down. But when Belichick was asked about that, he had a succinct reply.
"I wouldn't have thrown it to him," Belichick said.
In other words, Centers wasn't as open as he thought he was, according to the tape Belichick studied.
"If we had those [four] plays back, maybe we could do them a little bit better," Belichick said. "Maybe we could have called different ones, but the bottom line is we were trying to do just exactly what I said we were trying to do, but unfortunately we didn't get it done. I don't know what else I could add to it.
"In terms of field goals, there are two factors. One is how far can you kick the ball; where does it have to be to have a shot at it to have the distance? Two, inside of what range is there a high-percentage chance that you are going to make it? In that game yesterday, since our determination was that it was the 35-yard line based on the conditions in the game and kicking in warmups and so forth, with the ball on the 45 there really wasn't a scenario where we would have gone for it.
"Now, had it been fourth and 20, that changes the situation. Then maybe you try a 57-yard field goal rather than trying to convert a fourth and 20. That obviously wasn't the situation."
There you have it. Argue all you want about what you would have done. Make your case, but there is Bill Belichick's case, and it's a strong one. Going for it on fourth and 3 with 43 seconds left was not only the higher-percentage play, it was the right play. It didn't work out right, but that doesn't mean the call was wrong or that other options were better. It just means the best one didn't work that time.
Next time, who knows? But the intrigue of professional sports is that there is no next time. So you make your decision and you live with it.
Or, as was the case Sunday, you die with it.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.