When an NFL team attempts something as rare and curious as a dropkick kickoff, the play will clearly be a talking point following the game.
When the unsuccessful result of such an out-of-the-ordinary play is seen as the springboard for an opponent's 35-point explosion and an upset loss, the focus turns far more critical.
That's the spot Bill Belichick found himself in both Sunday night in his postgame press conference and heading into Monday afternoon's traditional day-after-game conference call with the New England media.
With the Patriots leading 14-0 over the Eagles midway through the second quarter Sunday evening, Nate Ebner's dropkick kickoff, which Belichick compared to more common "mortar" style kickoffs, did nothing other than give Philadelphia possession at their own 41 yard line, the furthest they'd advanced all evening. The Eagles turned the possession into seven points and a flurry of subsequent big plays turned the game into a 35-28 shocker that some are calling the biggest upset to date this season.
Not surprisingly, the dropkick decision and result were a major point of questioning Monday afternoon and Belichick explained the theory behind the play as well as touching on the return of Jamie Collins following a four-game absence due to illness.
1."Could have done something else.": Sunday night when queried about the decision to call on Ebner for the dropkick kickoff, Belichick said there "wasn't a tremendous downside to the play." A day later, when asked if giving an Eagles team that had punted four straight times to open the game momentum was a consideration when he made the call and Belichick admitted that with the benefit of hindsight he might have done things differently.
"Sure, if you know at the end of the play that's where the ball was going to end up and that's what it would be…then, yeah, of course, it's 100 percent obvious to say, 'well, yeah, let's do something else.' If the ball hits the ground and rolls around back there and you recover it, then that's something else. Or if it rolls back there and they get it on the 20-yard line it's one less play that [Josh] Huff has to return, then that's ... So yeah, look, it's easy to sit here when you know the outcome of the play and say, 'well, yeah, we could have done something else.' I mean sure, yeah, no question."
Belichick also described the theory behind the dropkick attempt, or any mortar-style kickoff looking to find some dead area in the intermediate part of the kick return team's end.
"It's hard to … kickoff return is a play that takes an element of timing because you never know exactly where the ball is going to go, how much hang time it's going to have and then judging the speed of the guys that are covering and so forth. So you try to set up the return so that it has that element of timing in it based on a normal kick that the kicker makes – his average length and height and so forth based on the conditions. A lot of times when teams have six guys up on the line of scrimmage like Philadelphia did, like we usually do, a lot of teams do that, then that leaves five players to cover the field and that leaves…there is quite a bit of space back there. So if the ball gets into that space then it's hard to set up a return and it's possible that it could roll around and not be handled and you can make a play on it. But it definitely puts pressure on the return team to handle that ball and get a good organized return. That's the idea of that type of play. To disrupt the timing and put the ball in a location where it's not easy to handle and put the pressure on your opponents to be able to make the right decision, adjust the blocking and handle the ball and so forth. I think the concept of that play is a lot different than a true onside kick where you kick the ball 10 yards. I mean to me it's a totally different play."
2.Pick-6 could have been a PI: Outside of the three huge plays in the kicking game that went the Eagles way, Malcolm Jenkins 99-yard interception return for a touchdown was another key step toward the Philly upset. The play came as Tom Brady tried to squeeze the ball into tight, double coverage on Danny Amendola right at the goal line. Replay showed that the receiver may have been bumped by Walter Thurmond before the ball arrived, but Belichick said it was certainly not an obvious call in either direction.
"Yeah, that's another close one," Belichick said. "It's a close one. The ball's low. It's a bang-bang play. Probably however it gets called that's probably what it is. It's pretty close. But … coverage is tight. There is definitely contact there. Is the ball…yeah, it's tight."
3.Collins "competed well" in his return: Jamie Collins missed more than a month of practice and four games with an illness that reportedly caused him to lose weight and strength. He returned to the field with the starting nod against the Eagles and played 54 of 61 total defensive snaps. He led New England with eight tackles, adding a QB hit, a pass defense and a forced fumble in an impressive return. Collins' forced fumble came as Philly was trying to run the clock out (although they probably should have just taken a knee) with barely a minute left to play. Collins ripped the ball free and Malcom Brown's recovery gave Brady and the offense a last-ditch attempt at a comeback that would eventually come up short.
Belichick said there were no real limitations on Collins heading into the game after a week-plus on the practice field for the linebacker.
"Jamie had a pretty good week of practice. So, he didn't play all the plays but he played a good chunk of them. Some of that was a little bit of feedback from him as to how he was doing. But he was doing fine. When you play a team like Philadelphia that runs the up-tempo and that type of thing you have to have a little bit of awareness for that. But he competed well. Obviously that was a big play he made at the end of the game to get us the ball back. I'm sure that with another week of practice and another week of being out there that it will continue to improve. But he worked hard to get back and I'm glad we had him yesterday."