Monday, February 8, 2010
Super Bowl XLIV Recap
Super Bowl XLIV
February 7, 2010
New Orleans Saints 31, Indianapolis Colts 17
In four short years, the Saints have completed a storybook turnaround. For years, this franchise was the laughingstock of the NFL, the 'Aints, the team whose fans showed up to games wearing bags over their heads. This team went 20 years without a winning record and, prior to this season, had won only two postseason games in its 42-year history. Even with that grim tradition, 2005 marked arguably the low point in franchise history.
Hurricane Katrina devastated the entire Gulf region, with the city of New Orleans particularly hard-hit. The Saints played their home games in San Antonio, Baton Rouge, and — insult to injury — New Jersey, for a "home" game against the Giants ... in Giants Stadium. The team went 3-13, and there were rumors that it would leave New Orleans permanently. Then everything changed.
The team brought in a new coach, Bill Parcells disciple Sean Payton, and a new quarterback, former Charger Drew Brees, plus an explosive rookie named Reggie Bush. It was an overhaul reminiscent of the 1999 Rams, who brought in a new offensive coordinator, a new QB, a talented veteran RB, and rookie wideout Torry Holt. Aided by a series of key injuries to other contenders, the Rams won the Super Bowl that season. It took New Orleans a few years longer, but the turnaround is finally complete.
What Happened and How the Saints Won
The short answer is that New Orleans won this game, like the NFC Championship against Minnesota, with turnovers. The long answer includes a motivated team, a superior quarterback, thousands of screaming fans, and bold, play-to-win coaching.
The game began with a statistical anomaly, as the NFC won its 13th consecutive Super Bowl coin toss. After that, it was quickly downhill for the NFC champs. Dwight Freeney was healthy enough to give Jermon Bushrod problems at left tackle, and the Colts played aggressive defense, shutting down the run and keeping tight coverage on the New Orleans receivers. The Saints' short passing attack wasn't stretching the field vertically, and Indianapolis looked very comfortable.
On offense, the Colts were clicking. Peyton Manning opened the game with a perfect pass to Dallas Clark. The Saints played most of the game with only three defensive linemen, in a 3-4 base or 3-3 nickel defense, and Indianapolis RB Joseph Addai took advantage, with 77 rushing yards, a 5.9 average, and a touchdown. Addai was also smart about finishing his runs, keeping both hands on the ball to avoid the kind of turnovers that sunk Adrian Peterson and the Vikings two weeks ago. The Colts' 96-yard second drive tied a Super Bowl record, and they finished the first quarter up 10-0.
Everyone is keying on the onside kick and the interception as turning points, and those where certainly the two most important plays in the game. If you're looking for the real turning point, though, I believe it was the second quarter. New Orleans put together a pair of six-minute scoring drives, Brees got into a rhythm, and Peyton Manning was sitting on the sidelines. That's how you beat the Colts. The end of the half provided a miniature portrait of the game, showcasing the Saints being aggressive (going for it on fourth down) and the Colts being conservative (Peyton Manning has the ball and you're trying to run the clock out?).
The onside kick to begin the second half was the kind of play that defines a game, even a coaching career. The Saints had a clear strategy of keeping Manning off the field, and they executed it well. When you have two offenses this good, an extra possession is a very big deal. The teams traded touchdowns, Garrett Hartley kicked his third field goal, and we entered the fourth quarter with Indianapolis ahead 17-16.
The Colts' next drive stalled with 4th-and-11 at the New Orleans 33. This is No Man's Land when your kicker is 42 years old. It's too close to punt, too far to go for it, and a 51-yard field goal is probably a 3:1 shot at best. There's no good choice there, but I would have gone for the first down. You have the best third down offense in the NFL (the best for five years running, in fact) and a quarterback who is very capable of picking up 11 yards on one play. The Saints will be hanging back to stop the first down, so even if you don't get it, there's a good chance to pick up eight yards and leave New Orleans around its own 20. The missed field goal gave the Saints possession at the 41.
From there, the Saints scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion, returned an interception for a touchdown, and the rest was basically a formality. The New Orleans defense came up with a nice goal-to-go stop at the end, but probably would have won without it.
Bring it all back to one thing, and it's still about turnovers. Including the onside kick, the interception, the missed field goal, and the turnover on downs at the end, the Saints were +4, and it made all the difference.
Why the Saints Won
Besides turnovers, you mean? Coaching. I love what the New Orleans coaching staff did in this game. Obviously you can't win without great players, and the Saints have them, but so did Indianapolis. What set the Saints apart on Sunday were Sean Payton and his staff.
They came out with the same offensive gameplan I would have, establishing the run early. The Colts, to their credit, were ready for that and played it effectively. New Orleans was quick to adapt, and really used different formations to their advantage. On offense, they went with a lot of multi-receiver sets, particularly with everyone in tight so they could run effectively and neutralize the Colts' speed. On defense, they used a 3-4 and lots of nickel, with consistent blitzing in the second half. On Tracy Porter's interception, it was evident that he knew what was coming. That's preparation before the game.
Payton was also unapologetically aggressive. It's been the team's M.O. all season, from their explosive offense to the gambling, turnover-hungry defense. They went for it on 4th-and-goal, they kicked onside, they blitzed. It was just a never-ending belief in the team and a total unwillingness to leave anything behind. And, for those of us who study these things, it was playing the odds, too.
I have no problem with Drew Brees winning Super Bowl MVP. He has been the team's best player all season, and he had a great game (288 yards, 118.3 rating) against an underrated defense. I voted, though, for Jonathan Vilma, who played well in pass coverage, made several critical stops, and always seemed to be around the ball. In their 16 meaningful games (the first 14 of the regular season, plus the AFC playoffs), the Colts were held to 17 points or fewer only twice: the season opener, and Week 11 against Baltimore. When you hold an explosive offense like this under 20, the defense deserves a lot of credit, and that starts with Vilma.
In addition to the MVP Award, the league announced before the game that Kansas City guard Brian Waters won this year's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. This primarily honors off-field contributions, and it's a very high form of recognition. Also, long-time Indianapolis offensive line coach Howard Mudd is retiring, and while there's no specific award coming his way, Mudd deserves a send-off. He's been a huge part of the Colts' success this decade, and the league will miss him.
Announcers, Entertainment, and Commercials
This section is a scattered collection of thoughts that don't fit well into paragraph format, so I'm just going with bullet points.
* The Super Bowl pre-game show gets more useless every year.
* Is Pierre Garçon's name really pronounced gar-SONE, with a hard O? Because if it's not, someone should tell Jim Nance.
* My favorite Super Bowl ad: Google. Interesting, sweet, and told a story in a way that left you wanting to see what came next.
* Those commercials with the baby are really tired. They need to stop.
* Okay, Peyton Manning. Now I believe that you don't pay close attention to records. In an interview before the game, Peyton said that he was fourth on the all-time TD list, behind Brett Favre, Dan Marino, and John Elway. That's passing yards. He's third on the TD list, behind Favre and Marino, and just ahead of Fran Tarkenton.
* Next year, the Super Bowl should invite Florida or Alabama. Miami was packed with Saints fans on Sunday, but it doesn't seem like Indianapolis travels well.
Hall of Fame
The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the Class of 2010 on Saturday: Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little, John Randle, Jerry Rice, and Emmitt Smith. Rice and Smith were locks, no debate necessary. LeBeau and Little, the Senior nominees, were also expected to get in, though their candidacies did spark some debate.
For LeBeau, the issue is this: he was a very good cornerback and a very successful defensive coordinator. What he was really inducted for, unless it was blind worship of interception statistics, is inventing the zone blitz. Technically, he's now in the Hall as a cornerback, and that's misleading. I'm glad LeBeau got in, but I hope fans will recognize that he's in more for his strategic contributions than his play as a defensive back. Little was the best player on consistently bad Bronco teams in the late 1960s and early '70s. He didn't have a long career, but he had a few brilliant seasons in a bad situation. The Hall would be fine without Little, but it will be fine with him, too.
Randle was the best interior pass rusher of the last 30 years. Grimm was the best of the Hogs, and I'm thrilled that the most legendary offensive line in history is finally represented in Canton. After years of being overlooked, the 1980s Washington dynasty is finally getting its due, with Grimm joining Darrell Green and Art Monk as recent enshrinees. Jackson was a superior pass rusher on the first great Saints teams of the late 1980s.
Of those three, the one I'm least excited about is Jackson. He was a great player, and outside linebackers continue to be underrepresented in the Hall. I don't believe that Jackson was the best — or even second- or third-best — eligible OLB, though. My guys are Kevin Greene (160 sacks, 5 Pro Bowls), Chris Hanburger (9 Pro Bowls), and Chuck Howley (Super Bowl MVP, 5-time All-Pro). Hopefully Jackson's induction will clear the way for some of them.
There's a growing backlog of deserving players, and the biggest surprise now is usually who doesn't get in. Dermontti Dawson, by near consensus the greatest center of the 1990s, didn't make the cut. I'm optimistic that Grimm's selection will help him pick up a few more votes. Don Coryell, who was one of the most influential coaches in history, was a finalist but didn't get enough votes for induction. Most of all, though, we can't seem to get any receivers into the Hall.
Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Andre Reed, and Shannon Sharpe were all finalists this year. I think all but Reed should be in. Sometimes, when one position or group of positions gets bogged down like this, it holds everyone back because the votes get split. We've seen it recently with the offensive and defensive lines, and maybe outside linebacker, where there have been three straight selections (Andre Tippett, Derrick Thomas, and Jackson) after a long drought. Once someone gets in, it's like the floodgates have opened. I'm particularly partial to Sharpe, who paved the way for today's high-impact receiving TEs.