Running Up The Score?

Is there such a thing as "running up the score" in pro football? That debate has taken hold concerning the 2007 New England Patriots, and continued after last Sunday's blowout of the Dolphins. Some media types have called it "classless." Miami Dolphins head coach Cam Cameron doesn't agree.

In college it's expected that a superior team will continue scoring on a hapless opponent because of the weight that the final score carries when BCS rankings are calculated. Standings only matter for conference championships, but the real goal is to be ranked highly enough to get an invitation to the National Championship Title game. In the Pros there is no ranking system. Teams are measured by wins or losses whether those wins are one-point margin of victories or 21-point blowouts.

A number of media outlets have accused the New England Patriots of running up the score in their past few games. Against the Dolphins, a media member questioned Belichick why have Tom Brady in the game when the score was so lopsided?

"One more turnover and it's a 14-point game in the middle of the fourth quarter," Belichick said. "Look, we've all seen games… the Tampa-Indianapolis game a couple of years ago, 21 points in four minutes or whatever it [was]," Belichick replied. "Don't tell me about leads in this league. Until the final gun goes off, it's not a win."

The criticism first increased after the Patriots scored late in the fourth quarter in their 48-27 blowout of the Cowboys, to put the final cap on the game with less than a minute left.

The critics, including ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook, felt that the Patriots should have taken a knee to give the ball back to the Cowboys because the score was 41-27 at the time, (not 42-27 as the article incorrectly stated) and out of reach for Dallas. New England had a number of second string players in the lineup, and opted to run the ball. After taking over on the Dallas 20 with 3:45 left in the game, the Patriots attempted to get a first down. One running play and two passes later they managed a first, but there was still 2 minutes left on the clock. The Pats then handed the ball off four successive times, once to Kevin Faulk and the final three to former Navy fullback Kyle Eckel who ended up scoring. It was Eckel's first professional score.

Easterbrook tried to point out that the Patriots could have displayed a sense of sportsmanship by ending the game on consecutive kneeldowns. The facts were incorrect, the Patriots simply could not have taken a knee multiple times to end the game as the ball would have been turned over on downs to the Cowboys with time left on the clock. While no one can speak for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, maybe the decision to give the ball to a fourth-string running back behind a second string line was more about giving the reserve players an opportunity to go against a top-ranked defense in a goal line situation, rather than a sportsmanlike decision. Maybe, it was just a way to give his players experience in a live game situation which may prove helpful later in the season if injuries occur. Maybe, as those critics failed to point out, Belichick was just rewarding the guys who work so hard to help the team but never see live action on Sundays.

Like many in the media, Easterbrook implied the Patriots decisions are a matter of sportsmanship – or lack thereof. Many accounts of both the 48-27 win over the Cowboys and the 49-28 win over the Dolphins claimed the Patriots showed a lack of class.

In Miami, head coach Cam Cameron didn't feel that way.

Belichick appeared to be piling on when he brought Tom Brady back in fourth quarter after Jason Taylor's interception of a Matt Cassel pass for a touchdown. The return made the score 42-21 early in the fourth quarter. Brady directed a scoring drive to put the Patriots up 49-21, before he came out of the game for good. Cameron didn't take offense to the move.

"He (Belichick) came across the field at the end of the game, you guys may or may not know that Bill Belichick and my father, they worked together at one time," Cameron said. "The first thing that came out of Bill's mouth after the game was 'Do you know how Ronnie is?' He was sorry to see that Ronnie got hurt. Again, I feel the same way. That's why we have so much respect for these players. I thought that was first class."

To hear Cameron say Belichick is "first class" after seeing his team dismantled by the Patriots, doesn't sound like how critics decided to describe the Patriots head coach.

"This doesn't just demonstrate Belichick has no class (although it certainly demonstrates that)." Easterbrook wrote about the Cowboys game. : It's worse -- this suggests something vindictive."

Maybe it's the way the Patriots continue to blow out lesser opponents in a football game that fuels Easterbrook's anti-Belichick tirade. He even goes so far as to call the Patriots "Evil". If the head coach of the opposing team wasn't worried about it, then TV talking heads, sports columnists and sports talk radio shouldn't be so concerned. Until then, the Patriots will do what they do best, score when opportunity presents itself, and if they win by 2 or they win by 22, matters little.

As Tom Brady put it, "I never feel comfortable until there is no time left on that clock. I've seen some pretty crazy things happen."

Just check out the 29-points the Texans put on the Titans in the fourth quarter to take the lead in their game on Sunday. Brady's right, anything can happen, and to those naysayers who feel the Patriots are running up the score, maybe the other team should do a better job of preventing that from happening.

This is professional football. Players on both teams get paid mountains of money to play the game. As one nationally recognized former player said, "If you don't want them to score, then stop them."

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