Even geniuses waste timeouts.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick burned through all three of his second-half timeouts by the fourth minute of the fourth quarter at Indianapolis Sunday night. That forced his hand in the endgame, giving him no choice but to go for it on fourth-and-15 at the Colts 45, down by three with just over four minutes to go.
That low-percentage Matt Cassell pass was picked off, and the Colts were able to nail down the 18-15 win.
It's impossible to say that the wasted timeouts beat the Patriots, but none of them seemed all that necessary, and if some or all of them had been saved New England could have pinned the Colts deep in their territory with four minutes left and the Pats able to kill the clock up to three times. You'd have to like their chances a lot better in that situation than having Cassell heave the ball downfield on fourth-and-15.
The first timeout was lost on a dumb challenge. It looked like one of those Belichick ego moves. The Patriots had tried to catch the Colts with 12 men on the field with a quick snap. The play gained nothing, leaving New England with a second-and-10 at the Colts 45. But Belichick challenged the officials' ruling that the 12th man had just barely made the sideline before the snap.
The payoff would have been a five-yard penalty, first-and-five at the 40. Not nearly enough gain to risk losing a timeout in the second half of a close game. At the time, early in the third quarter, the Colts led 7-6. If you're going to challenge there, you'd better be as sure as sure can be that you're right. Belichick was wrong. The Patriots drove downfield and scored a touchdown anyway, as if to prove how little they needed that 12 men on the field penalty.
The second timeout came later in the same drive, with 8:33 to go in the third quarter, when Cassell didn't like what he saw in the defense and called time before the snap on second-and-8 from the Indianapolis 17. A somewhat defensible move, but I'm a fan of taking the delay of game penalty in that situation.
There's a big difference between second-and-8 and second-and-13, but I think the difference between having one and two timeouts remaining in a tight game is bigger. The yardage wouldn't have moved the Patriots out of field-goal range.
Kevin Faulk ran for a first down on a draw play coming out of the timeout, and the Patriots, as noted, eventually scored the touchdown. That second timeout might have made both possible, and without it the Patriots might not have been in the game at the end. But I say hang on to those timeouts unless there's an overwhelming reason not to, and there wasn't.
The third timeout was as weird as the first. The Patriots, now trailing 15-12, had a fourth-and-1 at the Colts 7 with just under 12 minutes to go in the game. The Pats lined up to go for it, but Belichick, racing down the sideline, called timeout just before the snap. The play, which didn't count, did gain the first down. Belichick wanted the field-goal team.
Stephen Gostkowski hit the chip shot, but that timeout would have been saved by making the right decision in the first place. Or by making the wrong decision and sticking with it.
"We didn't get a very good look at the spot," Belichick said after the game. "At first we thought it was fourth and inches and then all along it was fourth and about a yard. So once we saw the distance, it just seemed better to go for the points."
Again, the difference between fourth-and-inches and fourth-and-1 isn't as great as the difference between having one timeout and having no timeouts -- and no challenges -- in a close game. Easy to say in hindsight, of course, but I think I've established my bona fides as a fanatic protector of timeouts.
Maybe the Colts would have beaten the Patriots anyway. Maybe Peyton Manning would have taken over after that punt with four minutes to go and driven his team 90 yards for the game-clinching score with a few seconds left. We didn't get to find out. There wasn't time.