Saturday, November 17, 2007

Did Bill Belichick Use the "Maddux Gambit" Against Tony Dungy?

This weekend, we will see the third post-season matchup between Tom Brady's New England Patriots and Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts. As my fellow New Englanders know, the Patriots have won the previous two games. At least some of the credit for these two wins was given to Belichick for "outcoaching" Tony Dungy in both meetings. But when the Pats and Colts played in Foxboro during the regular season this year, it looked like Dungy was doing the "outcoaching".

Even though the Patriots were having success running the ball up the middle, Belichick chose to try some tricky plays, such as a reverse that was stopped for a big loss, and a delayed draw that had Brady and Faulk tripping over each other in the backfield. The Patriots lost 27-20.

At the time, I was baffled by Belichick's play-calling -- a bit like when Grady Little left Pedro Martinez on the mound to start the 8th inning in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. It seemed like Belichick was more worried about trying different plays than about winning the game. And then I wondered if Belichick was actually willing to lose during the regular season if it created an advantage that the Patriots could use if they met the Colts again in the playoffs.

Of course, this is ridiculous. The example above of the Maddux Gambit was when Greg Maddux was winning 8-0. Why would Belichick be so crazy as to use the Maddux Gambit in a game that decided home-field advantage in the playoffs?

When you think about it, there are several reasons that Belichick might play the game this way.
1) He wanted to "save" his best plays. This is the primary argument for the "Maddux Gambit" at work. Belichick gave up an advantage during the regular-season game so that he would still have an advantage in this area if the teams met again. In the first three quarters of the game against Indy, Corey Dillon rushed up the middle six times for gains of 4, 4, 7, 9, 9, and 10 yards. In short, they had found a play that worked consistently against the Colts defense (if I remember correctly, most of these plays involved trap blocking by the Tight End or Guard). But when the 4th quarter started, Brady went to the air and the trick plays came out, even though the Pats were only down by 4 points.

The Pats ran Dillon up the middle enough to learn that it was effective, but not enough to win the game. If Bill had kept calling this play in the 4th quarter, they could have driven for a game-winning score, but they also create more film for Dungy and the Colts staff to study. If you assume instead that Bill's primary goal wasn't to win the game, but to use the game as a practice session where he found the Colts' weaknesses, then it makes sense to stop calling this play before the Colts see it enough to figure out how to defeat it.

2) He used the game as a scrimmage. The best way to see how a team will respond to a play (or defensive scheme) is to use it in actual game against them. It's possible that some of the trick plays weren't intended to win the game, but simply to test the Indianapolis defense in case he needed to use these plays at a later time.

3) He didn't want to spoil the Colts undefeated record. Last season, the media spent much of the season talking about the Colts matching the feat of the 1973 Dolphins and playing a "perfect season". Peyton Manning has never even played in a Super Bowl, but the media was assuming the Colts were good enough to not only win the Super Bowl, but also finish 16-0. As it turns out, the Colts not only lost a couple of regular-season games, they didn't even make it to the AFC Championship Game. An undefeated record can distract a team more than it helps them, and Belichick knows that.

4) He didn't want home-field advantage. The Patriots were 7-1 on the road this year, and only 5-3 at home. The Patriots players have been quoted as saying there are fewer distractions on the road; you go straight from your hotel to the game.

5) He wanted to create a psychological advantage. Beating a team builds confidence. But losing by only a touchdown when your QB throws 4 picks and your coaches are making unorthodox play calls. I wouldn't be surprised if Bill sits down with his team this week and admits that he got "cute" with the play-calling in Week 9, and assures them that he learned a lot from his experimentation and now he has a complete plan to pick apart the Colts and go to Super Bowl XLI.
I'm not saying Belichick threw the November game. But it's not the craziest idea that winning a single game in Week 9 wasn't his only goal that day.

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