The Patriots are usually on the receiving end of trick plays. In their close win against Green Bay earlier in the year, they lost their opening possession on a surprise on-side kick. Before that, they were bamboozled by Eric Mangini and the handful of gadget plays executed by Cold McCoy, Peyton Hillis, and the rest of the Cleveland Browns. But on Sunday's Divisional Playoff game against the Jets, they tried one of their own: a fake punt that went to Patrick Chung. Chung had his eyes on the easy cut to his right and let the ball slip out of his hands. The play resulted in a loss and a turnover on downs. It was an uncharacteristic move by the Patriots, and a clear sore spot for Bill Belichick.
In the post-game news conference, reporters asked Belichick about the play numerous times. Each time, Belichick refused to give any insight into the wisdom of calling it or the quality of execution. Obviously Chung's haste resulted in a bad play, but it's unclear if Belichick really approved of the play or not. Special teams coach Scott O'Brien was presumably the architect of this play, and it was probably one that didn't set well with the head coach. Belichick is not above trickery (once upon a time, he even signed off on Doug Flutie's impromptu drop kick field goal), but he prefers not to try them unless he has a good position in the game. It took Randy Moss a good deal of effort to allow him to try a trick play during the record-setting perfect season wherein he caught a "lateral" from Tom Brady, passed it back, and let TB launch it into the end zone. In this latest situation, Belichick did not seem pleased when the miracles stopped happening, and a coaching change may be on the horizon.
The other O'Brien is Bill, the offensive coordinator. He has developed one of the most complex offenses in the NFL this year, taking advantage of a dynamic set of undersized receivers and running backs who are skilled at eluding defenders over the middle. When the Patriots got down in the score against the Jets, he continued to try to run it with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. Some sideline camera work revealed an unusually animated Belichick having words with Bill O'Brien. Phil Simms and Jim Nantz speculated that Belichick was demanding more passing plays to keep the offense quick and develop some momentum. Bill O'Brien's pedigree as a player at Brown University reveals that he's probably a smart strategist like Belichick himself, but we all know that the Patriots as an organization don't do well in suffering mistakes.
We don't know what went on on the sidelines, but it's clear that Belichick wasn't happy with the performance (and why should he be). What remains to be seen is whether the O'Briens will be back next year. It's unlikely that Belichick will continue to serve as the defensive coordinator as the rookie defense is growing up quickly. A new coaching hire on that end could lead to a further shakeup. For now, though, we'll have to wait and see if the last trick of Bill or Scott O'Brien was a disappearing act.
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