As he watched the endgame of an offensive epic from the sideline Sunday night, Tom Brady had an unusual thought. Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill had snared a long pass, cut upfield and blazed past New England Patriots safety Duron Harmon. A touchdown and extra point would erase the Patriots’ seven-point lead with about three minutes left in the fourth quarter. But as Brady watched Hill race Harmon, he found himself rooting not for his teammate, but for Hill.
“When he was running — Tyreek was running to score — I said, ‘Good, score quick,’ ” Brady said Sunday night at his news conference. “Because then we had enough time. They had one timeout left, and it gave us a little time to go down and kick the field goal.”
The scoring environment of today’s NFL requires a rethinking of the game, a reconsideration of even football’s basic strategic tenets. The point of playing defense, always and forever, is to stop the other team from scoring. But what if, under certain conditions, the point of playing defense should be something else?
The Patriots, even if it was not intentional, provided an answer Sunday night. On Kansas City’s final possession, New England yielded a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play. On the surface, it looked like pure failure. Upon deeper consideration, the Patriots’ defense had succeeded in getting their offense the ball back with ample time remaining. After Hill scored, the Patriots received the ball with 3:03 left in a tie game. They would drive down the field and kick a field goal that sailed through the uprights as the final second ticked off. Patriots 43, Chiefs 40.
Patriots Coach Bill Belichick probably didn’t employ a defense meant to either force a turnover or yield a quick score, as fascinating as that may have been. “Bill is good,” one longtime NFL defensive coordinator said, “but that might be pushing it.”
The notion of allowing the other team to score is not new. But the way the tactic can be incorporated into defensive strategy at the end of games should be evolving. The Patriots’ defense didn’t necessarily let Hill score Sunday night. But getting the ball back quickly, in any fashion, even if that meant allowing a touchdown and seeing their lead vanish, helped them win.
At the end of a game between high-scoring offenses and helpless defenses, defense should not necessarily be about preventing a score. It should be about getting the ball back quickly and giving an offense time to score last, however that needs to happen.
“You definitely get to that point in a game,” said Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley, a veteran of Big 12 shootouts. “That’s happened often through the years. You feel like the worst thing [that] can happen is for the other team to work the clock down.”
In last year’s Super Bowl, the Patriots and Eagles combined for 74 points and one punt. Playing defense with the primary aim of getting the ball back became a sound strategy. At one point in the fourth quarter, an NFL Films microphone picked up Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz telling Coach Doug Pederson, “I’m going to be aggressive, because I’m either going to get it, or we’re going to get the ball back for you.”
“That’s good,” Pederson replied.
Sunday night, in a game that produced 83 points, Belichick may have had a similar thought. As ever, Belichick did not provide any kind of specific breakdown. But he admitted the circumstances Sunday night demanded extraordinary game management.
“Every game is different,” Belichick said. “Each game has its own dynamics and the team you're playing and the situations. They're all a little bit different. Sometimes they fall into a general category. Sometimes they fall a little bit outside of that and we just have to try and react to it and do the best you can.”
"Again, each situation is a little bit different based on time, timeouts and score and so forth,” Belichick added. “But this one ended up playing out good for us. We had the final possession. We had the final opportunity and we made it. … We work on that stuff every week. Both ways — if they had had it, if we had it, need a touchdown, need a field goal, so forth. We try to be prepared for that.”
The Chiefs took over on their own 25-yard line with 3:16 left Sunday night, trailing by a touchdown. In Kansas City’s last five possessions, it had scored a field goal and three touchdowns. The Patriots could assure victory with a stop, but the chances of getting one were slim. A long drive would likely mean overtime, and coin-flip odds of victory for the Patriots.
The Patriots’ defensive alignment and scheme did not suggest over-aggression, and it’s more likely the play was a result of Hill’s freakish speed, not Belichick’s genius. But even if the Patriots did not employ the high-volatility approach intentionally, the game revealed the merits of such a strategy. Between teams like the Patriots and Chiefs, offense dictates the end of games. With a long drive, especially if they had gone for two, the Chiefs could have engineered the final minutes of the game. With the ball and 3:03 left, the Patriots had total control of their fate.
“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility,” Pro Football Focus chief data scientist George Chahrouri said. “I think it’s the smart play. In that situation, you have to take into account specifics of the game. If you are pretty darn confident — which the Patriots should have been — that the Chiefs are going to score, you’re going to end up in a tie game . . . The strategy is not only sound, but it’s also one the Patriots would be at the forefront of using.”
Allowing a team to score causes conflict between ethos and strategy, and in football that conflict is more intractable than other sports. Nobody blinks when basketball teams foul when trailing late or when a pitcher issues an intentional walk. But it’s borderline sacrilege in the eyes of some football coaches to let another team score. They cannot bring themselves to tell their players to betray their fundamental task. It feels uncompetitive, like admitting defeat.
“It’s really hard to instruct competitive NFL players to basically allow a score quickly to let your QB get back out there,” the defensive coordinator said.
But those coaches and players need to remember: The fundamental task of any player is not scoring or preventing scoring. It’s to give his team the best chance to win. What makes that interesting now is that in the current offensive environment, it’s going to be sound to let the other team score — or at least to get the ball back to your offense quickly — at the end of games with higher frequency. Possessing the ball last can matter as much as scoring or preventing points.
The end of the game had played out perfectly for the Patriots, mainly because their offense had the chance to dictate it. That is how football works in 2018. Sometimes it means employing unconventional strategy. And sometimes it means rooting for the other team to score.
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