Ahead of the Curve

It may not have been the most exciting play of NFL 2009 (that'd be Favre's TD pass to Greg Lewis to beat the 49ers), but it was certainly the most talked about: Patriot coach Bill Belichick's bold decision to go on 4th & 2 in their Week 10 game against the Colts.

It was the most talked about coaching decision since Ara Parseghian settled for a 10-10 tie against Duffy Daugherty's Spartans in their 1966 battle of college unbeatens.  Ara was roundly criticized, but who wouldn't kiss their sister for a national championship?

For all the flak Belichick took from fans and media (including a former Patriot who gives pedestrian analysis on ESPN), the NFL coaching club was having none of it.

It seems Bill's brazen behavior has started a trend of audacious play-calling among NFL coaches.  When you've won three Super Bowls, your peers take notice of headlines you make.

It's not as if gridiron gurus have never pulled a rabbit outta' the hat before.  But surprises have usually taken the form of trick plays or new offensive (wildcat) / defensive schemes.

Or is it the Del Rio Effect?  The kneel-down order Jaguars' coach Jack Del Rio gave RB Maurice Jones-Drew versus the Jets in Week 10 was as startling a play call as any in 2009.  But by Monday morning, few remembered and all chatter was about Belichick.

The ice that had frozen coaching styles into a predictable state for decades has been shattered. You might say Bill has become the Great Emancipator of NFL coaches who have now been freed-up to make field decisions as they please, not as they're expected.

It's a new attitude that says: Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!

Pittsburgh Steelers' coach Mike Tomlin flaunted all football conventions in Week 15 by calling for an on-side kick against Green Bay when leading in the 4th quarter.

Week 16 saw Colts' coach Jim Caldwell shock the football community by pulling his starters in the 3rd quarter of their game against the Jets, passing on a possible perfect season.

And then there's Saints' coach Sean Payton.  His team down 10-6 to the Colts in Super Bowl 44, he surprises everyone and calls for an on-side kick to open the second half.

It was a rash, over-anxious call.  The Saints already had momentum, their defense had stymied the Colts for a quarter and there was an entire half left to play in a close game.

And it shouldn't have worked.  On-side kicks are a free-for-all.  As prepared as the Saints were, the Colts' Hank Baskett (81) was still in the best position to make the recovery.

Payton applied Belichick-bravado and it paid off.  But it's a double-edged sword: it can stick a dagger into the heart of your opponent or put a deadly weapon right into his hands.

Steven Keys


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