Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made it clear that he won’t question Bill Belichick’s decision to punt the ball facing a fourth-and-3 from his own 46 in the overtime of Sunday evening’s eventual 35-29 loss to the Cowboys at Gillette Stadium.
But, like most fans and media watching New England kick the ball and the game away, it certainly sounded like McDaniels was both hopeful and prepared to go for it in such a key situation.
“I think those are tough decisions. Certainly if you go for it and it works out, everybody…it’s you’re a genius. If you go for it and it doesn’t work you were too risky and cost the team,” McDaniels said during a Tuesday afternoon Zoom with reporters. “Offensively, as an offensive coach, you always want to, you always kinda want to go for it even when it kind of is against the rational decisions. But you don’t always get a chance to do that. We’re going to prepare each week for third and fourth down like we do and if those opportunities present themselves and we’re given the chance to do it then we have to go out there and make those decisions the right decisions offensively.”
McDaniels did acknowledge that the decision was 100-percent Belichick’s to make.
“If he tells us to do anything we’re going to do it,” McDaniels declared. “Yeah, whatever Bill decides in those situations we have to do a good job of being able to execute our part of it whether we are going for it or not.”
In this case, the decision didn’t work out. Belichick chose to punt the ball back to a Cowboys offense that had moved the ball with relative ease on each of its last four possessions against a New England defense that appeared to be gassed and maybe even a little undermanned in the back end. Seven plays and 80 yards later, Dak Prescott hit CeeDee Lamb for the game-winning touchdown.
Still, McDaniels realizes that his desire to go for it on fourth down in that overtime situation and many others is a bit myopic. And certainly isn’t an easy, obvious call to make.
“I think there’s a lot of factors. It’s not here’s a spreadsheet the number says you have a 62-percent chance of converting. I think there’s a lot of variables,” McDaniels said. “I think that as a head coach I’m sure Bill has to be tied into all those factors. I’m certainly tied into one factor, which is what we are doing on offense. But I don’t have much awareness at that moment of how the kicking game is going, what the matchup is on the other side of the ball. So I think you have to take a lot of those factors in and try to make the best decisions you can. Like I said before, offensively if it’s fourth-and-6 in the first quarter at the 35-yard line you are like ‘Let’s go for it!’ In the back of your mind you are also going ‘that’s crazy but I also want to go for it.’ But that’s just being an offensive coach and having confidence in your players and what you might be able to do schematically.”
The fourth-down decision to punt in overtime wasn’t the only time Belichick’s choices were a bit curious and maybe overly cautious in the loss to the Cowboys. It was also notable that New England chose to kneel on the ball at the end of the first half with possession at its own 20 with 1:30 left on the clock after Prescott’s fourth-down fumble on the goal line. The Patriots had taken two timeouts during Dallas’ goal line tries, but then had Mac Jones take a pair of kneel downs following Damien Harris’ 1-yard gain on first down.
“When those situations present themselves I think there are a lot of things that Bill considers,” McDaniels said. “I know we were getting the ball to start the third quarter. There is some of that conversation going on. Certainly an element of the situation in the game and again you could say let’s just go all out and see what we can do. Then there’s the flip side of that which is to play it more conservatively, which we obviously did. Then try to take advantage of your opportunities to start the third quarter with the ball. So, I never am going to argue with the decisions that are made in those situations. I know we’ve used those situations to our advantage in the past. But we’ve also had situations where we’ve done what we did. So, when those decisions are made I just try to do the best that we can offensively to execute whatever our part is. And then hopefully we can help the team on both sides of it. If it’s to try to be aggressive there, then we’ll do the best we can. If it’s not, then try to end the second quarter with the ball and then do better than what we did at the beginning of the third quarter.”
Whether it’s going for it on fourth down in a critical situation or being more aggressive in a spot like the one at the end of the second quarter against Dallas, it’s clear the Patriots offensive coordinator has faith in his offense led by a rookie QB to get the job done.
“I believe in our entire group. Like I said, if they tell us to go for it then I have faith and confidence in our preparation and what we do each week to prepare and get ready to go,” McDaniels said. “When those opportunities present themselves, like I said, it’s our responsibility to be ready and also execute properly when they come up so we can convert and make those decisions the right decisions for the team. I have great confidence in all our guys.”