Why Bill Belichick’s explanation for not calling timeout ahead of late-game red zone trip doesn’t hold up

In Sunday night’s wild loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the New England Patriots made a mistake on their final drive. No, it wasn’t calling for Cam Newton to run QB power on the final play, only to see the run get blown up in the backfield. When you’ve had as much success with that exact run as New England had through the first 119 minutes and 58 seconds of its season, that’s a perfectly respectable play-call. It just didn’t work. 

It started with a first-and-10 at the 31-yard line, with 36 seconds on the clock. Newton hung in the pocket, waiting for one of his receivers to spring open while the offensive line held up beautifully against Seattle’s four-man rush. Eventually, Newton spotted Julian Edelman moving right to left across the field, and hit him with a perfect strike at the 13-yard line. Edelman tried to get out of bounds as he was being tackled, but ultimately Bobby Wagner was able to take him down in the field of play, so the clock kept running. 

This was the mistake. With 28 seconds left, the Patriots could and probably should have called a timeout. 

Instead, Newton hustled up to the ball and ran the next play, nearly hitting Edelman for a touchdown on a seam route to the right side of the formation. But by the time they got set, another 14 seconds had run off the clock. The ball wasn’t snapped until the game clock had run down to 13 seconds, and by the time Newton’s pass fell incomplete there were just nine seconds remaining. The Patriots needed 12 yards and only had 28 seconds to get them, and burned 19 of those seconds on one play. 

When Newton hit N’Keal Harry for 11 yards on the very next play, it took only seven seconds off the clock. But if the Pats knew they didn’t have their timeout, they A. would have thrown the ball into the end zone instead; or B. been ready to hustle up to the line of scrimmage from only 11 yards away, rather than the 18 yards they had to run after Cam’s pass to Edelman. (They also presumably would not have had to wait for Edelman to get across the field to run his route from the right side of the formation, since they would have been spiking it anyway. That’s another couple seconds they could have saved.) They could have had more than one shot at the end zone from a yard out had they used their timeout earlier. 

Here’s the whole sequence. 

Following the game, Bill Belichick was asked about the decision not to use his timeout in that situation. At first, he misunderstood the question, assuming the reporter was asking about using a timeout following the incomplete pass to Edelman. “Seattle took a timeout,” Belichick said. “I mean, what are you talking about?”

When the reporter clarified the question, Belichick wasn’t quite as eloquent. He simply said, “Yeah, well.” And then he sat in silence for 22 seconds before the public relations director called for the next question.

This isn’t the first time Belichick controversially did not call a timeout down the stretch of a game against the Seahawks. In Super Bowl XLIX, Belichick could have used a timeout before the fateful Russell Wilson-to-Malcolm Butler interception, saving his team some time on the clock should they get the ball back after a Seattle score. He probably should have called that timeout, and had Seattle punched it into the end zone with Marshawn Lynch, he would have caught considerably more criticism for not doing so. But that’s not how things worked out. Butler got the pick, the Pats got the win, and people forgot about the mistake. This time, there were worse consequences for mismanaging the clock, and, “Yeah, well,” does not hold up as an explanation.

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