It’s always easier to do what you’re supposed to. But that doesn’t always make it right. In fact, when faced with a choice between falling in line and taking a calculated risk, far too many people in this world are content to settle on the former. They’d rather hide behind the safety of conventional wisdom. To fly straight and cover their own ass, rather than stand up for something they believe in.
That rings especially true for people who sport a job title like “NFL Head Coach,” and work in an environment where every decision they make is broken down under an 80-inch HD microscope by some of the fiercest, loudest and most agenda-driven piranhas on Earth. It’s scary out there. So, when in doubt, most coaches simply roll with conventional wisdom. It’s always the safest route. It’s like installing a giant net underneath their deadly NFL tight rope act.
And last night, at the start of overtime between the Patriots and Broncos, conventional wisdom said to take the ball. Why? Because that’s what coaches do. Without giving it even another second of thought, the entire football world watched the coin toss land on tails and instantly fast-forwarded along to the Patriots opening drive: First-and-10 on the 20-yard line. A touchdown away from victory.
But then, just as quickly, there was indecision in the captains’ eye. As the official asked New England’s side what they wanted to do, Logan Mankins, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater and Rob Ninkovich looked confused. They heard Bill Belichick making the call, but they almost didn’t believe it.
“We all looked at each other like he was crazy — then we all asked again and again and again,” Mankins told Comcast SportsNet’s Postgame Live. “And we just wanted to make sure we were doing exactly what he wanted.”
Had New England elected to receive after winning the toss, and ended up losing that game, few people, if anyone, would have criticized Belichick for ignoring the wind. He took the ball. What was he supposed to do? You always take the ball! On the other hand, had the Broncos scored a touchdown on the opening drive of OT, Belichick would have been hogtied with an apple in his mouth and feasted on by the media for the next seven days.
He’s arrogant! He’s stubborn! He’s gone too far! HE’S LOST IT.
Today, he’s a genius. The geniusest! He believed that the Pats were better off with the wind. He believed that there wouldn’t be a return on the kickoff, that the Broncos wouldn’t have an easy time getting into field goal position, and that even if they did, the Pats would have a solid chance to match -- maybe win it. In the end, Belichick calculated that the initial risk of giving Peyton Manning the ball, needing only a touchdown for victory, was worth the end gain of an entire overtime period with the ultimate difference maker (the wind) entirely in New England’s favor.
Sure, maybe it’s not a big deal for him to take that kind of risk in 2013. With all he’s accomplished, Belichick probably has greater job security than any coach in professional sports. Gregg Popovich is the only one who can rival him for that title. Because of that, Belichick has the luxury of acting on instinct without fearing the ax.
Then again, you can argue that so much of what he’s accomplished is a direct result of him acting on those same instincts. That he built this level of trust and security by taking those chances. By going against the grain. By sticking with Brady after Bledsoe was cleared. By not taking in a knee with less than two minutes left in New Orleans. By cutting Lawyer Milloy and eventually bringing in Rodney Harrison. By taking the safety in Denver. By taking a chance on Corey Dillon and Randy Moss.
Of course, it hasn’t always worked out. Fourth-and-2. Albert Haynesworth. Chad Ochocinco. Aaron Hernandez extension. There are plenty of times when Belichick has rolled the dice and had it come up snake eyes.
But don’t confuse the proverbial dice roll with hastiness or a lack of common sense. Stuff happens. Not every risk can pay off, if it did, it wouldn’t be a risk. Either way, Belichick’s isn’t just acting out for the sake of acting out. He doesn’t blindly operate in the face of conventional wisdom. Instead, he just constantly challenges it. He’s always looking for ways to make it better. He’s not reckless. If he has to, Belichick’s more than willing to walk to the slow, windy path up the mountain, but if the opportunity presents itself, you better believe that he’ll be ready to roll up his sleeves and tackle a more treacherous but efficient beeline climb to the top. That’s the only way to get ahead.
That’s what he did last night. And it worked. As soon the Pats stopped Denver on that opening drive, the decision was a success. And in the end, even if you can’t say: “They won that game because they had the wind in overtime,” there’s no question that it contributed to the bottom line.
They were in a better position because Belichick stood his ground and took the wind. And now, all things considered, New England is in a great position to make a run at a first round bye, maybe even the top seed in the conference.
On Sunday morning, there were seven teams in the AFC with a .500 or better record: Denver, Kansas City, New England, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Miami and New York. On Sunday afternoon and night, five of those seven teams lost. And with the Bengals on the bye, the Pats were the only team to win. As a result, New England now has a three-game lead in the AFC East, with five games left to play. They’re up a game on Indianapolis and Cincinnati for the No. 2 seed, and a game behind the Broncos and Chiefs for the No. 1 overall seed.
Now, at 8-3, they’ve got five games to benefits of last night’s win and turn them into something bigger and better. We’ll have to wait and see where they go from here.
But again, last night, Bill Belichick showed the qualities that have and still do separate him from the majority of the NFL coaching pack. They are the qualities that, in general, separate leaders from followers, innovators from also-rans.
They include a willingness and confidence to challenge what’s supposed to be, to bypass the safety net of conventional wisdom, and instead, dissect every situation on its own merit, in a vacuum, and roll with the decision that HE believes is right, with out any care for what the outside world is thinking.
Because more often than not, the truth is that they’re not thinking at all.
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