This is the kind of mistake that can end up costing coaches jobs.
One incredibly costly and confounding foul-up proved catastrophic for the Indianapolis Colts in their 34-27 loss to the visiting New England Patriots Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
What were they thinking on that fourth-down trick play late in the third quarter? That’s what everybody was asking each other in the press box for the remainder of the game. During a timeout late, I visited the men’s room and was asked by three different reporters about the Colts’ botched attempt to fool the Patriots that instead led to what ultimately became the game’s deciding touchdown.
The Colts said the shift out of punt formation on a fourth-and-3 play was designed to catch the Patriots out of alignment and perhaps subbing players and having too many men on the field. But it didn’t work. The Patriots had three defenders on the football when reserve wide receiver Griff Whalen lined up at center and reserve safety Colt Anderson stood behind him as quarterback.
The other eight Patriots lined up closer to the sideline where the other nine Colts had moved. Problem is, after watching the replay countless times, it’s obvious those Colts weren’t properly positioned on the line of scrimmage. Nobody lined up correctly. The only person on the line was, in fact, Whalen standing over the football in the middle of the field. So even if the trick worked, it would have been negated by the illegal formation penalty called after Anderson was devoured for a 1-yard loss.
New England said, “Thank you very much,” declined the penalty and took over possession at the Colts’ 36-yard line.
Good question. Pagano later said it was all his fault and advised not to blame the players. The coach said he didn’t communicate everything well enough to his special-teamers.
“I take full responsibility,” the coach said.
So be it.
Simply put, that mistake can’t happen. Not in a game of this magnitude, not with the Colts trailing just 27-21 and a quarter to play. There was too much time remaining. Sure, it’s easy to second guess after the fact, but the Colts should have been smart enough to know that when the look isn’t there, take the delay of game penalty as planned. Then punt the damn ball.
The Colts (3-3) had finally put themselves in position to challenge the defending Super Bowl champions in the final quarter. After four previous losses by an average of 29 points, this was their opportunity to prove something not to just the Patriots (5-0) but to the NFL. This was their chance to legitimize a claim as Super Bowl contenders.
Instead, after what punter Pat McAfee aptly described as the “one of the most failed fakes of all time,” the Colts opened the door for the Patriots to score a touchdown six plays later.
The obvious descriptive, given the opponent, is deflating. It couldn’t have been more deflating.
It’s also obvious Pagano was convinced the Colts had to take chances to knock off their nemesis. That’s why they tried an onside kick after getting a gift touchdown when Julian Edelman bobbled a pass into the air while falling down and Colts safety Mike Adams snagged the ball and waltzed 14 yards into the end zone for a 14-10 lead in the second quarter.
Donte Moncrief eventually came up with the football on the onside kick. The replay showed that. But a quick on-the-field ruling gave the ball to the Patriots, who had initially recovered but didn’t appear to retain possession when the scrum ensued.
Pagano challenged, which he should have done, but was told “no clear recovery” could be discerned from the replay. That didn’t make sense to anyone but the refs. Still doesn’t. Then the Patriots drove to a go-ahead touchdown.
Unfortunately, the later failed fake trumped the Colts coming up empty on the onside kick. The Colts still overcame that setback to lead 21-20 at halftime. It was the best first half of football we’ve seen from these guys this season.
Had the latter not occurred, many of us might be writing that the Colts got hosed by a ridiculous ref ruling instead of lamenting that they screwed themselves.
Or as Pagano insisted, he screwed up.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Colts owner Jim Irsay was thinking when he saw that trick play unfold and then end so inexplicably bad. He’s continued to be noticeably silent in his reactions to how this season has been playing out.
Until the first half, when the Colts finally scored a touchdown on an opening possession for the first time in 21 games, this team had not been playing well. Everyone could see it. They were lucky to beat Jacksonville 16-13 in overtime after the Jaguars missed two potential game-winning field goals. These same Jaguars allowed 51 points at New England the previous week and 38 in a loss at Tampa Bay after the Colts game.
Everything has been a challenge for the Colts. That’s why a game like this will likely linger. It's a memorable lost opportunity.
Not just in our minds, but if this season doesn’t end well, it will undoubtedly still be sticking in the mind of Mr. Irsay, who has to decide if he’s going to re-sign his head coach.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.