By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For the first half of the New England Patriots' season, it has appeared that the only person capable of slowing down the offense is Coach Bill Belichick. And he has been decidedly uninterested in doing so.
The Patriots will take an 8-0 record into Sunday's showdown in Indianapolis with the 7-0 Colts. The Patriots are on course to shatter the NFL's single-season scoring record and are drawing comparisons to the greatest teams in history. They're so imposing that they've made an underdog of the Colts even though they're the undefeated defending Super Bowl champions playing at home.
But it also has been a season of controversies for the Patriots and Belichick, their unyielding coach, and the latest is whether Belichick might be violating one of the sport's unwritten rules by using a merciless approach to win games by lopsided margins and embarrass opponents.
"It could be making some people mad," former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said this week. "It certainly could be. I don't doubt that at all."
But the question remains: Is Belichick doing anything wrong? Reese and other observers said no.
"Having been on both sides of it, it always boils down to, if you want to keep it from happening, you have to stop them," Reese said. "The problem is, right now they're almost impossible to stop."
Former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said yesterday of Belichick: "He doesn't give a damn about what anyone thinks, and that's great. The NFL isn't a social club. You're not supposed to score against this [opposing] coach because his job is on the line? Come on. You do something about keeping your own job. The Patriots have got the pedal to the metal, and they're not backing off."
After beating the Redskins, 52-7, on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots have scored 331 points; the NFL record is 556 by the Minnesota Vikings in 1998. The Patriots' average margin of victory is 25.5 points per game. They haven't scored fewer than 34 points in a game or won by fewer than 17 points.
But what has created the stir is the way that Belichick has gone about things the past three weeks. In an Oct. 14 game at Dallas, Patriots reserve running back Kyle Eckel scored a touchdown with 19 seconds to play on a one-yard run on fourth down. That made the final score 48-27. A week later, Belichick sent quarterback Tom Brady back into the game in the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins -- after backup Matt Cassel's pass had been intercepted and returned for a touchdown that reduced the Patriots' lead to 21 -- and Brady threw his sixth touchdown pass of a game that ended with a 49-28 score.
Against the Redskins, the Patriots left their offense on the field for two fourth-down plays in the fourth quarter with the score 38-0 and 45-0. They converted both, the second with Cassel in the game, and ended both drives with touchdowns. The television cameras caught Joe Gibbs, the Redskins' Hall of Fame coach, with an angry expression on his face on the Patriots' first fourth-down conversion, but Gibbs said after the game he had "no problem" with anything the Patriots did. Not all of his players agreed.
"Most coaches, the reasonable thing to do is kick the field goal," Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels said after the game. "Run the ball. Kneel down. Something. I think everybody was surprised. I don't know what was going on. You have to ask him. I can't read his mind."
When center Casey Rabach was asked in the locker room if the Patriots had run up the score, he smiled and said: "Come on, you think? . . . It is what it is. Hey, to the victors go the spoils. It's a crappy way to go about things, but I don't want to get into trouble. Move on."
But Daniels also said it was up to the Redskins' defense to stop the fourth-down plays. And in the same locker room, Redskins left tackle Chris Samuels said, "They're entitled to call what they want to call."
Belichick has always masterfully fostered an us-against-the-world attitude among his players, and many people around the league think he's more combative than ever after being disciplined by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for using videotaping equipment to steal the signals of the New York Jets in the opening game of the season. He might be exacting his revenge on whichever coach and team happens to be on the opposite sideline that particular day.
Former Denver Broncos, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves said he could remember being a player for the Cowboys and seeing legendary executive Tex Schramm bristle whenever coach Tom Landry would call for quarterback kneel-downs at the end of a game. Schramm thought paying customers were being cheated by such plays, Reeves said. But as a coach, Reeves said, he embraced Landry's way, not Schramm's.
"I can't say I had too many opportunities, but I didn't do it," Reeves said. "I worry too much about injuries. To me, there's a time to say, 'Let's move on to the next game.' "
Yet even Reeves didn't fault the Patriots, noting that point differential is a playoff tiebreaker.
"I don't think there are any unwritten rules," Reeves said. "I think the league took care of that when they put point differential into the playoff formula. That gave people an excuse if they wanted to do it. [But] I've been on the losing end a bunch. It hurts and you don't appreciate it. You always make a mental note of it when it happens."
Reese said that Belichick's team is so proficient that Belichick is placed in some no-win situations when it comes to coaching decorum.
"I felt for the Redskins," Reese said. "I felt for Joe and especially Gregg [Williams, the Redskins' defensive boss who worked for Reese in Tennessee]. But the Patriots, they're just so good. You get into a situation like that on fourth down, what do you do? Do you kick a field goal? That's automatic points. You don't punt where they were on the field. So you might figure they're going to anticipate a quarterback sneak, and you run a play they have a chance to stop. If you start kneeling down with a lot of time left on the clock, that looks bad, too."
Theismann was the quarterback for the Redskins in 1983 under Gibbs when they scored 541 points, second most in league history. Those Redskins beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 45-7, and the Los Angeles Rams, 51-7, in a playoff game. He said Belichick must ready the Patriots for games like this one against the Colts and December meetings with the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers in which they might not be able to choose the final score.
"I don't have a problem with anything they're doing," Theismann said. "Points is a tiebreaker in the NFL. This is a ruthless and very tough business. If you don't want them to score on you, you keep them out of the end zone. It's your job, not theirs. If the Patriots want to play 60 minutes of football, good for them. What happens if you play Tom Brady three quarters every week and you have your team used to playing three quarters, and then you go to Indianapolis and you can't get by playing three quarters?"
And if Brady gets hurt staying on the field when the outcome is no longer in doubt, Theismann said, the Patriots will just have to live with it.
"You can't play the game worried about that," Theismann said. "You just play. Injuries are part of the game and if they happen, they happen. If you're a quarterback and you're on a roll and you're doing things a certain way, you don't want to come out of a game ever."