If Bill Belichick is looking for a show to watch, may I recommend a great piece from NFL Films in 2011, “A Football Life: Bill Belichick”?
In the behind-the-scenes look at the 2009 Patriots, Belichick tells his team in the preseason, “I’m not afraid to go for it” on fourth down. Later that season, after a failed fourth-and-2 attempt led to a loss to the Colts, Belichick told his team, “I’m not apologizing to anybody for being aggressive and trying to win.”
Patriots fans may be wondering what happened to that version of Belichick. He has gone conservative on fourth down in recent seasons, and has taken it to a new level this year under rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Seven times this season, Belichick has opted for a punt or field goal attempt when the analytics lean heavily toward going for it.
|Opponent||Play||Down and field position||Quarter||Ensuing possession|
|Saints||Bailey 52-yard punt||4th and 2 from NE 33||1||Missed FG|
|Saints||Bailey 64-yard punt||4th and 3 from NE 30||1||Touchdown|
|Buccaneers||Bailey 44-yard punt||4th and 7* from TB 49||2||Field goal|
|Buccaneers||Folk 56-yard missed FG||4th and 3 from TB 37||4||End of game|
|Cowboys||Bailey punt blocked||4th and 1 from NE 35||2||Goal-line fumble|
|Cowboys||Bailey 41-yard punt||4th and 2 from 50||3||Touchdown|
|Cowboys||Bailey 34-yard punt||4th and 3 from NE 46||OT||Game-winning touchdown|
Two came in critical situations that backfired spectacularly: opting for a 56-yard field goal attempt in the rain instead of going for it on fourth and 3 led to a loss to the Bucs; and punting on fourth and 3 from his own 46-yard line Sunday in overtime gave the ball back to the Cowboys, who promptly drove down the field for the winning touchdown.
Belichick also got conservative at the end of the first half against the Cowboys. The Patriots took over on their own 20-yard line with no timeouts and 1:30 left. Instead of attempting to move the ball into field goal range, the Patriots called one handoff and two kneel-downs to take the game into halftime.
“We were going to get the ball in the second half,” Belichick said Monday. “We went back and wanted to get settled in on the second half at halftime.”
Except Belichick knows better than anyone the value in scoring points on consecutive possessions right before and after halftime. He practically invented the tactic over the last two decades.
And Belichick certainly understands the value in being aggressive on fourth down, too. From 2000-09, the Patriots ranked top 10 in fourth-down attempts eight times. Belichick is also friends with Kevin Kelley, who won nine Arkansas high school football championships in 18 years by being “the coach who never punts.”
NFL coaches have gotten wise in recent years to the benefits of being aggressive on fourth down. It changes the play-calling dynamic on second and third down, and it can instill confidence in your players that you’re willing to be bold and put your faith in them.
“It’s like someone said, ‘[Punting] is what you do on fourth down,’ and everyone did it without asking why,” Kelley once said.
On Monday night, the Bills lost to the Titans, 34-31, when Josh Allen was stuffed on fourth and 1 near the goal line. Coach Sean McDermott didn’t consider a game-tying field goal, and most Bills fans were fine with the call despite it not working.
“I’ll take Josh Allen … 10 times out of 10,” McDermott said. “I trust him, and I’ll trust him again if we’re in that situation again.”
Belichick needs to start showing similar faith in Jones and the Patriots offense. NFL teams have never been more aggressive on fourth down. The 2019 season saw a then-record 595 attempts, 2020 had a record 658 attempts, and the 2021 season is on pace for a record 740 attempts (or 697 for a 16-game schedule). The Browns have already gone for it 15 times on fourth down, while the league average is eight. Teams have converted 50 percent of fourth-down attempts this year (128 of 256).
|Year||4th down attempts||4th down attempts/game||4th down success rate||Patriots attempts||NFL rank|
But the fourth-down revolution hasn’t hit Foxborough. The Patriots have gone for it on fourth down just three times, tied for second-fewest. And all three attempts came in the final two minutes of the 28-13 loss to the Saints in Week 3.
That means Belichick has yet to go for it on fourth down during the natural course of a game. The Patriots have had 41 fourth downs, with 23 punts, 15 field goal attempts, and three offensive plays (two conversions).
Context matters, of course. Of the 41 fourth downs, only 10 could be considered fourth and short (less than 4 yards to go). NFL teams are converting fourth and short at a 55 percent clip this year (88 for 160).
Of those 10 Patriots opportunities, three were obvious calls: a 3-yard scramble by Jones at the end of the Saints loss; a 52-yard field goal by Nick Folk with six seconds left in the first half against the Texans; and Folk’s game-winning 21-yard field goal with 17 seconds left against the Texans.
But seven other times, Belichick chose to play it conservatively instead of showing aggression and confidence. In all seven cases, the decision backfired.
Six of the decisions involved punts, and in all six cases, the opposing team drove right back down the field and had a scoring opportunity (the Patriots subsequently allowed three touchdowns, a field goal, a missed field goal, and the Cowboys’ fumble on the goal line). The seventh decision was Folk’s missed field goal against the Bucs, which sealed the Patriots’ loss.
The two decisions against the Bucs were labeled the third- and sixth-worst coaching decisions of the week by Edjsports, an official analytics partner of the NFL. Against the Cowboys, the three decisions to punt resulted in a blocked punt and two touchdowns for Dallas, including the game-winner.
Perhaps Belichick is stuck in an old way of thinking. NFL offenses are so good today that playing for field position doesn’t have the same impact it once did. Plus, the Patriots have a good, but not great, defense that is ninth in points allowed and 17th in yards.
Or perhaps it’s that Belichick doesn’t have much faith in Jones or the offense as a whole. That would be understandable, since Jones is a rookie and the offensive line has been plagued with several injuries the last few weeks.
But Belichick has to stop worrying about everything that can go wrong, and start focusing on things that can go right. The analytics are clear that teams should go for it on most fourth-down situations of 3 yards or fewer. And it couldn’t hurt to show more confidence in Jones and the offense.
Playing for field position clearly isn’t working, so you might as well go down swinging. Just like Belichick did against the Colts in 2009.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.