New England won the toss in overtime against the Jets, meaning they had the opportunity to get the ball first in an overtime featuring modified sudden death rules. That's good. But in a confusing turn of events, Patriots special teamer Matthew Slater told the referee the Patriots wanted to kick off.
Slater seemed quite confused with referee Clete Blakeman, asking why he wasn't allowed to choose.
Slater: "Hey we won. Don’t we get to choose?" Blakeman: "You elected to kick." Slater’s reaction: pic.twitter.com/9i0h9B2owi— Joon Lee (@iamjoonlee) December 27, 2015
That confusion caused many to believe that he had made a massive mistake. After all, why would anybody want to kick off to start overtime? The NFL's OT rules allow the first team that scores a touchdown to win, and sure enough, Eric Decker scored a touchdown on the Jets' first possession:
Surely, Slater had made a mental error at a critical time. It seemed like there was no other explanation.
But it turns out Slater didn't make as big a mistake as people thought. Bill Belichick had actually told him he wanted to kick the ball off:
Slater says Belichick told them to kick off. Only confusion was whether they got to choose direction.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) December 27, 2015
Slater says he checked a few times with Belichick to make sure he wanted to kick if they won the toss. "There's not much to it."— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) December 27, 2015
VIDEO #Patriots head coach Bill Belichick asked about kicking ball to start overtime vs Jets #WBZ pic.twitter.com/Znq5EeyvKM— Scott Sullivan (@SullySportsTV) December 27, 2015
This actually isn't the first time Belichick has chosen the side of the field in overtime. He did it in a 2013 game against the Broncos on a windy day in Foxboro. In that game, the wind led to a critical Broncos special teams turnover and the Patriots won on a field goal. The Vikings also did it earlier this year on a windy day in Minnesota, and the wind was a factor in a Vikings win. It's a bit confusing why Belichick would've asked for that today -- it's downright balmy in New York, a non-wintry 60 degrees without much wind -- but it's something he's done before.
The confusion is actually about the fact that Belichick wanted Slater to select a direction. Slater says "we want to kick that way," but the part that was really critical was "that way." The problem is that he led off his response with "we want to kick." You can choose to kick or receive to start overtime, or you can choose a direction. You can't pick both.
Blakeman heard "kick" and interpreted this to mean the Patriots would kick off, pre-empting Slater's clarification of "that way." That allowed the Jets to choose the direction, and led to Slater's bewilderment. The NFL's rulebook specifies that the captain's choice is "final and not subject to change," so Slater's pleas fell on deaf ears.
There's actually precedent here, although we have to go back to the early days of football. In the 1962 AFL Championship game, Dallas Texans captain Abner Haynes started overtime by telling the referee his team wanted to "kick to the clock," but the "kick' overrode the "to the clock" part.
So, to conclude: Slater misspoke, but not quite as badly as you might think. The confusing decision to kick was actually a strange strategic blunder by Bill Belichick, who hasn't had many of those in his career.
It's very silly weird that we allow a critical moment in football games to be decided by a coin toss, but we like silly and weird things.
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SB Nation presents: What Bill Belichick is really thinking at his press conferences