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Bill Belichick isn’t even considering going for it on meaningful fourth downs. At least, that’s what he has said when he’s faced questions about the controversial punts he’s chosen over a more aggressive decision to go for a fourth-down conversion this season.
Most recently, the Patriots coach decided to punt at the 46-yard line in overtime against the Cowboys. He gave the ball to quarterback Dak Prescott, whose offense had attempted a field goal or scored a touchdown on all four of its previous drives. Did Belichick consider it there?
“Not really,” Belichick said on WEEI’s “The Greg Hill Show.” “I mean with [Greg] Zuerlein, his field-goal range, they can play on a pretty short field there. So then you’re talking about one first down could probably beat you there.”
That’s what could’ve gone wrong. What could’ve gone right: The Patriots could have charged down the field and put a game-winning touchdown on the board. The analytics were split on the decision, with some services saying Belichick did right by punting and others suggesting he made a mistake.
Earlier this season, Belichick asked his kicker Nick Folk to hit a career-long field goal against the Buccaneers in Week 4 to take the lead with a minute left in the game. It had been pouring rain all night. What about going for it there? Did Belichick consider it?
“Not really,” Belichick said during a postgame press conference.
That’s it. No other explanation.
So far in 2021, Belichick has gone for it on fourth down just three times, all of which came in the final series of the team’s Week 3 loss to the New Orleans Saints when the game was already out of reach. Those fourth-down attempts hardly mattered in the scope of the season. Three of the Patriots’ four losses have finished with a differential of one score. The Patriots have, of course, gone for it zero times on fourth down in those tight games.
And even with those largely meaningless attempts in Week 3, the Patriots are still tied for second-fewest fourth-down attempts this season. They’re on pace for Belichick’s lowest total (8.5) in his career, as noted by NESN’s Zack Cox
New England is clearly skipping out on opportunities to get aggressive, a shocking revelation for the coach who had been defined by his bold decision-making, whether it was moving on from key personnel — or going for it on fourth downs in shocking circumstances.
Yes, of course, I’m thinking of that famous fourth-and-2 on the 28-yard line against Peyton Manning. Belichick went for it, with Tom Brady completing a 1.9-yard pass to Kevin Faulk. Turnover on downs. Manning and the Colts won. Belichick’s decision faced immense scrutiny.
Weekly Browns (and Cowboys!) tweet pic.twitter.com/lxWnan7Ese
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) October 18, 2021
The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin charted a few places where the Patriots might have been gone for it on fourth down this year. New England had seven examples of fourth down and fewer than 4 yards to go. They punted on six of those situations and kicked a field goal (Folk’s miss against the Buccaneers). Hindsight is 20-20, but the opposing team scored following all but two of those scenarios. After Folk’s missed field goal, the Buccaneers kneeled to victory. The other drive was when Ja’Whaun Bentley forced a Prescott fumble at the 1-yard line.
Belichick has grown more aggressive through the years, but at this point, he’s in the middle of the pack in 2021 when compared to his coaching peers around the NFL.
2017: 1.09 (12)
2018: 1.29 (18)
2019: 1.39 (17)
2020: 1.51 (17)
He's gotten a little more aggressive the last couple years as the league as a whole has gotten more aggressive, but he's no longer a league leader.
— Aaron Schatz 🏈 (@FO_ASchatz) October 17, 2021
It seems as if Belichick is afraid of putting Jones into the spotlight, which seems strange because Jones has developed into one of the team’s best players on offense. Does he make mistakes? Absolutely. Look at the fourth-quarter pick-six that, essentially, was the beginning of the end for the Patriots in Week 6. But Jones rallied with a 75-yard touchdown on the offense’s next play.
“I believe in our entire group,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said when asked about fourth-down attempts. “If they tell us to go for it, then I have faith and confidence in our preparation and what we do each week to prepare and get ready to go. And when those opportunities present themselves, it’s our responsibility to be ready and also execute properly.”
McDaniels added: “I never am going to argue with the decisions that are made in those situations.”
The Patriots need to give Jones more chances. They need to trust him with those opportunities rather than protect him from errors. New England could’ve kept Jones on the bench and let Cam Newton serve as the starter for the season. But they trusted Jones to steer the ship and serve as a game manager. The problem has been that the defense is good — but not great, with last-minute slippage in these three losses to the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys.
Maybe it’s time for the Patriots to see if Jones can help out his defense — rather than the other way around. Maybe it’s time for the Patriots to ask their 15th overall pick to do more.