Of all the oddities during Super Bowl XLII, the one that might stick, and the one that might hurt the reputation of Patriots coach Bill Belichick the most, was his decision to go for it instead of sending kicker Stephen Gostkowski out for a 49-yard field goal. That doesn't look good when you lose a game by three points. We asked Stefan Fatsis, resident kicker expert and the author of the upcoming A Few Seconds Of Panic, take a look at Belichick's thought process, and why it was fatally flawed.
It wasn't a kicker-centric Super Bowl, the way I'd hoped it would be, the way I hope every Super Bowl will be. (My favorites: V, XXV, XXXVI and XXXVIII.) But I've crafted a kicker-related theory that I consider as solid as Tom Dempsey's right shoe.
The downfall of the Patriots was about performance, of course, the way all sporting contests are—in this case that of the Giants' defensive line and of young Elijah, who will ascend to heaven in a chariot of fire adorned with a lowercase ny and driven by four guys from Yonkers. But for all of New England's season-long protestations of humility and respect, it was hubris that did them in—Bill Belichick's hubris. It showed up at the game's end, when he couldn't muster the class or grace to stay on the field while Eli took a knee.
But, more critical to the final score, it showed up when he refused to kick.
The writers, dead-tree and not, mentioned it, as they should have. But they didn't deconstruct its significance. With 6:49 left in the third quarter, Belichick kept Brady on the field on fourth and 13 from the Giants' 31 instead of having placekicker Stephen Gostkowski try a 49-yard field goal. Here's what should have been running through Captain Sominex's head: We're ahead 7-3. There are less than 22 minutes to play in a Super Bowl in which points have been scarce. If that little shit can kick the ball between the uprights, we're ahead 10-3. Leading by four means that the Jets or Giants or whomever the hell we're playing need to score once to take the lead. Leading by seven means they need to score twice. Scoring twice is harder than scoring once.
Yes, New England was better than any team this season at converting on fourth down. The league average was just under 50 percent; the Patriots did it 15 of 21 times, or 71 percent. Give the curmudgeon credit: Belichick understands that, as Gregg Easterbrook has worn out keyboards explaining, NFL teams should go for it on fourth down more than they do. But that means fourth and 4 from their own 40 or even fourth and 7 from the opposing 30—and only when a field goal wouldn't be decisive. Fourth and 13? I asked Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders for some stats. They'd be meaningless, he replied. Teams only go for it on fourth and 10 or more when losing near the end of a game. The Patriots were winning in the third quarter.
In a postgame news conference that made The Sorrow and the Pity look like American Pie, here was Belichick's typically dismissive response when some ignoramus dared posit that he could have tried a field goal: "Yeah, but it was a 50-yard field goal." So bleeping what? Before a game, a coach asks his kicker for his outer range for the day. I'm willing to bet my Copas that, under a dome, in the Arizona altitude, in the Super Bowl, Stephen Gostkowski didn't reply, "Forty-eight—and not an inch more, coach."
True, the kid has kicked just one field goal of 50-plus yards in his two years in the NFL, and it was last season. It's also true that Gostkowski's longest FG this year was from 45. But that doesn't mean he can't kick a football 49 yards. Every NFL kicker can. The Giants' weaker-legged Lawrence Tynes's 47-yard game-winner in polar Green Bay was probably good from 57.
Rather, Gostkowski's lack of 50-plus stats reflects two things: One, the Patriots didn't attempt many field goals this season (24) because they scored a lot of touchdowns (75) instead. Two, he probably wound up kicking shorter field goals because Belichick's aggressiveness on fourth down moved the ball closer.
Did Gostkowski injure himself shanking that second-quarter kickoff out of bounds? I have no idea, but I doubt it; he later booted one to the Giants' 3-yard line. Anyway, if the kicker or a lack of confidence in the kicker really was the problem, Belichick could have punted, making the Giants—who had managed a single field goal to that point—travel anywhere from 11 to 30 yards farther in order to score.
No, I think Belichick arrogantly assumed that the highest-scoring offense in NFL history would revert to form against a defense it had abused five weeks earlier. In that, he refused to cop to what 100 million people were witnessing: his team getting beat. Instead of taking the three points—or the 60 or so percent likelihood that Gostkowski would deliver the three points—Belichick let his quarterback airmail one into the end zone. The Giants didn't score on the subsequent drive. But they did wind up winning by three.
Look, I'm a kicker. I love kickers. For Pete Gogolak's
sake, I did a modern Plimpton as a kicker and I will talk about kicking whenever possible. But Belichick's no-kick wasn't just an insult to my kind. It's was a mind-bogglingly ill-considered football decision. For it alone, the Patriots deserved to lose. Mess with the kicker, mess with history.
Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and a longtime sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal and sports commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered." His new book, A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-year-old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, about his summer as a training-camp kicker for the Denver Broncos, comes out in July.