Initially, I was surprised Bill Belichick elected to punt last Sunday on a 4th-and-8 from Baltimore's 34-yard-line. Belichick's Patriots were up by six, and Belichick of all coaches should understand a six-point lead in today's NFL is far from safe. The decision was far from a no-brainer, as Keith sketched out last week.
But those calculations use generic odds; Belichick had his staff's play calling and Tom Brady's arm on his side. As well as his defense had played in the first half, it was still the 29th-ranked squad by efficiency entering the game. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense, although mediocre overall, showed an ability to pick up large plots of yardage in just a few plays. The difference between handing the Ravens the ball at their 34 or around their 10 (Baltimore fair caught the eventual punt at the 13) seemed worth risking for the Patriots in order to maintain possession.
Of course, the Ravens proceeded to drive 87 yards as Joe Flacco dissected New England with a 13-play no-huddle masterpiece of a drive. Baltimore took a 14-13 lead and wouldn't relinquish it.
Belichick is a risk-taker, indeed -- even if he softens up between now and his retirement (assuming whatever form he takes on this earth is subject to human aging), his famous decision to go for it on a 4th-and-2 in his own territory against Indianapolis in 2009 cemented that legacy. If Belichick wouldn't try in that situation -- one we suggest is a toss-up, slightly favoring a conversion attempt -- who would?
Unsurprisingly, attempting to convert a 4th-and-8 between the 30 and 40 outside of the fourth quarter isn't just outside the limits of Belichick's courage. NFL teams faced the situation 15 times this season (including playoffs) before Belichick faced it last Sunday, and 15 times the teams kicked -- four punts and 11 field goals, with just six successful.
4th-and-8 happens to be a convenient example -- teams at least tried once on everything else from 4th-and-1 through 4th-and-11. But coaches shy away from attempting any fourth down longer than one yard, and anything longer than three is treated like the plague (looking at just the first three quarters to try and eliminate desperation attempts).
Here are the plays separated out into individual blocks, with wide blocks representing successes and narrow ones representing failures. You can mouse over the individual blocks for a description of the play:
There's little reason to believe this pattern will change in the Super Bowl. It's not that the Harbaugh brothers are necessarily conservative, although they attempted just one fourth down conversion on six opportunities with a fourth-and-3 or longer between the 30 and 40. It's just that the Super Bowl has never been a time of great innovation, particularly in this area. According to Pro-Football-Reference's Super Bowl Play Finder, just eight times have teams attempted to convert any fourth down between the opponent's 30 and 40.
Just once did it resemble the decision Belichick faced last Sunday -- first three quarters and greater than two yards to go. In Super Bowl XIV (1979), Rams coach Ray Malavisi let Vince Ferragamo throw for a 4th-and-8 from the Steelers' 37. He hit Billy Waddy for a 10-yard gain and a first down and the Rams managed a field goal to take a 13-10 lead. It wasn't enough -- the Steelers dominated the second half behind Terry Bradshaw to win 31-19 -- but it looked like a genius call at the time.
One of the Harbaugh brothers very well could be the next to break the mold and take a bold shot from no-man's-land in this year's Super Bowl, to be sure. But the smart money is on the game's conservative nature taking over on its grandest stage, as usual.