By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Sunday’s loss was full of uncharacteristic moments for the Patriots. From lack of preparation to poor situational awareness, it didn’t feel like watching a Bill Belichick-coached team.
One decision that has stood out in the days following the game has been Belichick’s choice to not challenge the spot on a James White third down run, a play that resulted in the Patriots punting from deep within their own territory.
With 12:56 to go in the game, Josh McDaniels called a speed option to the right side on 3rd & 3. Cam Newton pitched the ball to White, who seemed to cross the line to gain with a last-second lunge forwards. However, the ball was spotted a yard short, and Jake Bailey was brought on to the field.
Why didn’t Bill Belichick challenge the call? Looks pretty clear, right?
It’s important to remember that as clear as the video looks, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to NFL officiating. To challenge a call in the fourth quarter of a two-score game when timeouts are crucial is putting a lot of trust in the replay process to get it right.
“I feel it’s nice to be able to sit up there and watch replay after replay and have unlimited challenges, but that’s just not the way it is. So, we don’t have unlimited challenges,” Belichick said when asked about the play on Monday.
Belichick did pick his spot later on in the game, when he was able to get a down by contact call overturned on what was a Cam Newton touchdown.
“We challenged the touchdown, the quarterback sneak on the touchdown, because we thought there was enough to overturn it,” Belichick said, seemingly implying that that wasn’t the case with other plays in the game, such as the White play in question.
“There’s a lot of close plays out there,” he continued “If you challenge all of them, then you run out of timeouts and run out of challenges and everything else. So, you have to pick out the ones that you think are the right ones. It’s certainly an unscientific process.”
It’s the unscientific process, the human element, that may have led to Belichick keeping the red flag tucked away in his sock. How?
The referee for Sunday’s game between the Patriots and the Broncos was Scott Novak. Novak is in his seventh year as an NFL official, and his second as a head referee.
As a head referee, Novak has overseen 19 replay reviews, of which he’s overturned seven. That’s 36 percent, which is under the league average. Just two of the last eight challenges in games overseen by Novak have been successful.
This may seem like a minute difference, but don’t think it’s something the Patriots don’t prepare for.
“We look at the officials every week,” Belichick said on Tuesday, when asked if he and his staff prepare for specific referees. “I wouldn’t say it’s something that we spend like five hours a day on, but we look at them every week and we talk about it going into the game, what we know. Obviously, each game is different”
While the NFL’s updated review rules have the league’s senior VP of officiating, Alberto Riveron, helping out from New York, the decision on those plays is ultimately made by the referee on the field.
So even if Belichick and his staff feel confident that what they see on a replay was an incorrect call, they also have to trust the official on the field to see the same thing. Given Novak’s history and the circumstances surround that play, perhaps that wasn’t the case.
If Belichick had challenged the play successfully, the Patriots still would have had to go 81 yards to get one of two scores they needed to win the game. On a day where the offense was stagnant at best, that’s a big ask.
On the other hand, if Novak didn’t see enough to overturn the play the Patriots lose a key timeout. On such a play, the official has only 90 seconds to find “indisputable evidence” the play should be overturned, which can be especially tricky on ‘down by contact’ calls.
Given the way the Patriots offense looked on Sunday, Novak’s history, and the general uncertainty around overturning a ‘down by contact’ call, it’s likely Belichick could have decided it wasn’t worth risking the timeout when he could put his dominant defense back on the field. That gamble ended up working out, as the Patriots forced a three-and-out off the punt, then drove for their only touchdown of the day.
Like so many things he does, we’ll probably never know for sure why Bill Belichick didn’t challenge the seemingly-obvious first down on Sunday. But given his history, it’s fair to wonder if this was another ‘chess vs. checkers’ type decision.