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In Bill we trust?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 16, 2009 02:52 PM

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"Obviously, from a coaching standpoint, there’s always a lot of things you could have done better. . . . We’ve got to do a better job, starting with me."
-- Bill Belichick, shortly after noon today.

FOXBOROUGH -- Bill Belichick says something like this after most every loss, of course, but most times we just gloss over it. We usually take it as nothing more than politically correct mumble-babble from the distinguished coach of the Patriots, a man frequently accused of acting as if he is smarter than everyone else and a man who usually is.

But today, in the wake of the Patriots’ implosive 35-34 loss to the Indianapolis Colts last night at Lucas Oil Stadium, the most blindly loyal Belichicklets find themselves in the ultimate conundrum. By agreeing with the coach’s assessment today, they effectively indict him, too. The Patriots played an absolute whale of a game last night against the unbeaten Colts, and the simple truth is that their coach cut the legs out from under them by defying the kind of football fundamentals taught in Pigskin 101.

"I tell the team -- and I think they believe - that I do everything I can every game to win the game," Belichick said this morning at Gillette Stadium. "I hope everybody understands that."

Oh, we all do. But we must all wonder now if Belichick is a man who has no respect at all for the game or the opposition, or if he is a man who has too much. On the one hand, Belichick went for it on a fourth and 2 from his own 28-yard line last night, almost as if failing to acknowledge the existence of an opposing defense. On the other, a man once heralded as one of the great defensive masterminds in NFL history seems to have lost all confidence in his ability to stop Peyton Manning from going 70 yards in two minutes with no timeouts.

A paradox? You bet it is . . . which is just the way Belichick likes it. He likes to keep you guessing, which was NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth’s assessment when the Patriots offense lined up for that fourth and 2 last night, much to the surprise of most everyone locked in to "Football Night in America." The problem is that Belichick’s recent coaching history is dotted with as many such failures than successes, particularly in big games.

In Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots faced fourth and 13 from the New York Giants’ 31-yard line with 6:49 remaining in the third quarter. The Pats led 7-3. Despite the fact that the game was being played indoors, Belichick passed on a 48- or 49-yard field-goal attempt by kicker Stephen Gostkowski that might have given the Pats a 10-3 edge, ultimately turning the ball over on downs when Tom Brady threw an incompletion on a pass intended for Jabar Gaffney.

Had the Pats missed the kick, the Giants would have gained possession on the 38- or 39-yard line. As it was, New York took over possession on the 31. For those seven or eight yards, Belichick entirely passed on the opportunity to score three points, a decision that should have come under far more scrutiny than it did for being downright arrogant. After all, those three points proved to be the margin of defeat.

Really, isn’t that what we’re talking about here? This is football. There are two teams on the field. But Belichick has become so downright obsessed and cocky with his offense that the Patriots can’t seem to win big games anymore, mostly because they play as if they're trying to win a shootout. Faced with the prospect of possibly making an opponent go virtually the length of the field without any timeouts -- or of giving them the ball at his own 29-yard line with two minutes to go -- Belichick chose the latter last night. It was as if the prospect of getting stopped never even occurred to him.

As a result, today’s national assessments of Belichick’s coaching decision contained rather frequent use of the word hubris, a term easiest to define in this way: it’s when mortals begin to act with the recklessness of the gods, as if there is absolutely no consequence for their actions.

Seriously, ask yourselves this today: what if Pete Carroll had made the same decision Belichick made last night? Eric Mangini? Wade Phillips? Some people might be going so far as to call for the removal of those coaches, which no one is suggesting here. But were it not for Belichick’s pedigree and résumé, we would seriously be wondering today if the man had lost his marbles and was competent to stand trial.

If you don’t want to believe the members of the local media, then believe Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi, who openly criticized Belichick’s decision-making.

"Everybody’s entitled to their opinion out there,’’ Belichick said. "I respect that.’’

As for how the Patriots respond to all this, there is no way to know for sure. The damage done to their season last night was considerable. With a win, the Pats would have been in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye and would have had a far better chance of hosting the Colts if the two meet in the playoffs. Now, all of that is in great doubt. For all of the questions the Patriots had entering this season, they might have woken up today as Super Bowl favorites.

Instead, they remain a team with flaws and questions.

And their coach is now one of them.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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