September 23, 2012: Baltimore’s kicker flubs a game-winning kick against the Patriots. Wikipedia reports that the field goal was controversial. The blind ref happens to call that particular kick good, and that’s a story for another day. A touch of additional high stakes pressure has been loaded onto the Baltimore coach’s mind.
January 10, 2015: Baltimore nurses a 14-point lead in the third quarter. Suddenly, Baltimore’s coach John Harbaugh runs onto the field to scream at the refs. He has the option of calling a timeout, but Harbaugh chooses to hand the Patriots an additional 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct simply so that he can complain about some new Patriots gimmick that he doesn’t understand. The right pressure tactic at the right time against exactly the right coach yields valuable bonus yardage, and no, Harbaugh still hasn’t quite figured out Bill Belichick’s “ineligible receiver” gadget on the field. With Baltimore foaming at the mouth, New England uncorks a 55-yard tricky Julian Edelman pass to tie the game. Baltimore brings an excellent team in 2014, my own numbers assigned them a strong power rating of 11.5 victories out of 16 games, but another good Baltimore season has rolled into the same old ditch. New England advances to what becomes a dead easy AFC Championship Game.
This week a fresh NFL documentary on last year's Super Bowl winning team is scheduled for its first showing. I owe a floppy hat tip to ESPN’s Kevin Siefert for reporting on the documentary’s trailer . With one minute left in the Super Bowl, Bill Belichick and staff stared at the Seattle Seahawks sideline, looking for something. They spotted their tell.
“’I thought about the timeout,’ Belichick said in the trailer, ‘and when I looked over there, I don't know, something just didn't look right. [Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia] said, 'Do you want the timeout?' … I said, 'No, just play goal line.’”.
BB and staff didn’t need to say another word. Seattle had every right to expect BB to call a timeout to give Brady a few extra seconds after the touchdown, and so they had no idea why Bill Belichick once again stood on the sideline with a poker face and did nothing. Belichick and staff could tell that Seattle’s coaching staff had become rather agitated with the pressure, in which case Seattle would certainly not have the extra brainpower to call a creative play. And so, Belichick expected Seattle to dig up one of their old goal-line chestnuts, say, a slant to try to victimize Malcolm Butler, complete with a certain telltale formation and with players’ eyes telegraphing the play. In fact that’s what happened. Malcolm Butler saw the slant coming and got to the right spot first.
In 2007 we learned that the Patriots, along with the Jets and a few other NFL teams, videotaped their opponents’ sidelines, sometimes illegally, sometimes legally. Perhaps now we know why. The coaches aren’t playing chess, they’re playing poker with the clock ticking, and at least some coaches play it well.