Belichick's blunder hardly alone in NFL lore



It is unlikely any of the Steelers who will play in Kansas City today have heard of Dave Smith, a former wide receiver who played three of his five National Football League seasons with the Steelers, beginning in 1970. There are few reminders of him in the team's historical annals and even fewer traces of his statistical achievements, though he did lead the team in touchdown catches (5) in 1971.

But, before there was Leon Lett of the Dallas Cowboys showboating and prematurely celebrating a fumble return for touchdown in the Super Bowl XXVII, or Steelers rookie Plaxico Burress spiking the ball after a 19-yard catch in a 2000 game against Jacksonville when he was not touched down and the ball was still live, or even Philadelphia rookie DeSean Jackson throwing the ball down in celebration a yard shy of the end zone last season, there was Smith and the embarrassing gaffe he committed in an Oct. 18, 1971, game on a Monday night in Kansas City.

Taking a pass from Terry Bradshaw, Smith was on his way to a 50-yard

touchdown against the Chiefs when he raised the ball over his head and triumphantly began to pump his left arm as he neared the end zone. However, before he could cross the goal line, Smith lost control of the ball -- he did not spike it, as some have suggested -- and, instead of a touchdown, the ball rolled through the end zone for a touchback.

To be sure, it was one of the most ignominious moments in Steelers history, a play that has forever dogged Smith's career and almost always is included in a list of embarrassing or boneheaded stunts committed over the years by NFL players.

Such gaffes, though, are not limited solely to players, as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a man who owns three Super Bowl rings from this decade alone, demonstrated last week. In a surprising and much-debated decision that cost the Patriots a victory against the Indianapolis Colts, Belichick elected not to punt on fourth-and-2 from his own 28 while holding a 34-28 lead with 2:08 remaining.

Instead, Tom Brady's dump pass to Kevin Faulk was stopped short of a first down, and the Colts, who had one timeout remaining, needed only four plays to score the winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining. Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said on national television it was the worst decision he has ever seen Belichick make.

"He made a decision that he felt was appropriate for his team, and gave his team the best chance of winning, and for that, I applaud him," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, a man who has not been afraid to gamble on fourth down in his three years on the job. "There are only 32 of these jobs and there are decisions to make that are not always going to be popular. I always appreciate men that are bold enough to do it, even when it's potentially unpopular. Obviously, Bill has the stomach to make those decisions."

And, most assuredly, he has the resume to do so, too. Nonetheless, his decision will probably be remembered as one of the most questionable game-management choices in league history, right up there with other such memorable play-call gaffes as those orchestrated by Sam Wyche, Barry Switzer and, of course, the most infamous of all, John McVay and the Miracle at the Meadowlands.

"If I made that decision and it wouldn't have worked, I'd be hanging from the Empire State Building," said first-year New York Jets coach Rex Ryan.

"I respect Coach Belichick as much as I respect any coach in the league," said Chiefs coach Todd Haley, another first-year coach who, at 1 p.m. today in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, will be facing the team that employed his father, Dick, as player personnel director for nearly 20 years. "I'm sure he had a reason for what he was doing and we all have to make those decisions pretty quick and ultimately we are responsible. When it goes good, obviously we made the right decision; and when it goes bad, we are not smart coaches."

Inside Belichick's argument

Disdaining a punt and trying to convert on fourth down is certainly nothing new for Belichick.

He did it in the third quarter against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3, only that time he converted a fourth-and-1 from the Patriots' 24. Like the game against the Colts, the Patriots were holding a six-point lead against the Falcons at the time.

But this was different.

"Was I surprised?" said Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. "All of us were, to some degree. Where he was on the field, at the 28, you are [surprised] from that standpoint, a little bit."

The argument that Belichick was worried his defense would be unable to stop Peyton Manning sounds good because Manning had produced 21 points in the fourth quarter to come back from a 31-14 deficit.

However, the Patriots had stopped Manning just two series prior to Belichick's decision, intercepting his pass to set up a field goal that gave them a 34-21 lead.

"If I was in that situation and Peyton Manning was on the other side and had that success [in the fourth quarter], that would factor into it," Whisenhunt said. "But the other key factor is how your offense is doing. I don't think he made that decision if he didn't feel good about his offense. It wasn't about the defense."

Still, in that situation, does Belichick send the wrong message to his defensive players? Is he telling them he doesn't think they can stop Manning with the game on the line?

"If you don't think you can stop them from 70 yards, you're definitely not going to stop them from 29," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. "Our guys on defense would have been extremely ticked off [in that situation]. We would've really been upset."

Then he added, "I think we would relish that opportunity, not so much to save the coach, but to be the heroes, to be the guys out there when it mattered either way. The cool thing about that is, the pressure is no longer on us. You know if they score, it's 'Stupid coach.' You know if you stop them, it's 'Great job by the defense.'"

Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley said he wouldn't have been offended in that instance if he played defense for the Patriots.

"Not at all," he said. "Then again, if you punt the ball, you're saying you don't trust your offense. It can work both ways. Me, personally, I liked the call. I thought it was a good, gutsy call. And they had the first down, but the guy bobbled the ball."

Numbers not with him

Another favorite argument is that Belichick was merely relying on his best player -- Brady -- in a crucial situation. However, fourth-down conversions have not been automatic even for Brady, who has converted just 5 of 11 this season, a success rate (45.5 percent) that ranks only ninth in the AFC.

Even the Steelers (4 of 6, 66.7 percent) have a better conversion rate than the Patriots, ranking tied for third in the NFL behind the New York Jets (10 of 13, 76.9 percent) and the Dallas Cowboys (3 of 4, 75 percent).

Belichick made the decision seem even worse when he said after the game that he thought the Patriots needed only one yard, not two, for the first down.

"I really don't ever question Coach Belichick," said Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel, who played the previous four seasons in New England. "He's a marvelous coach. We might not be talking about this, we might be talking about what a genius he is and how he did it again, if they get an extra inch. Unfortunately they didn't and they lost the game. At the same time, I would never question Coach Belichick's decision making."

Nor, for that matter, would Clark.

"In the New England locker room, when Bill Belichick is your coach and he's done all those amazing things and he says you're going for it, you say, 'OK, coach,' and you sit your tail down."

Or, in Belichick's instance, put it between your legs.


Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com . First Published November 22, 2009 5:00 AM


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