Monday, February 6, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI Rewind

By Brad Oremland

Super Bowl XLVI
February 5, 2011
Indianapolis, Indiana
New York Giants 21, New England Patriots 17

Four years ago, I wrote that Super Bowl XLII was the best I had ever seen. This year's version in Indianapolis wasn't exactly a rematch — both rosters, New England's in particular, have been overhauled — and it wasn't as cleanly played, but it nearly matched the earlier game in fourth-quarter drama. The Giants delivered another game-winning fourth quarter touchdown drive, and the Tom Brady magic that always seemed to carry the Patriots in the early 2000s was nowhere to be found.

Why the Giants Won

The Patriot offense wasn't the same with Rob Gronkowski hobbled, and Eli Manning took what the Patriots gave him. During the regular season, Manning was a down-the-field bomber who led all full-time quarterbacks in yards per completion (13.7). The Patriots almost never blitzed, but they took away the deep pass, and the Giants didn't have a 20-yard pass play until the final drive of the game. Manning averaged just 9.9 yards per completion, but forced to string third-down conversions together and slowly march down the field, that's just what the Giants did.

You don't want to deflect credit after the Giants played so well, but it's tough to imagine this game going the same way if Gronkowski had been healthy. All season, Gronk was the most dynamic tight end in the NFL, really a unique challenge to defenders. He had 8 catches, 101 yards, and a touchdown when these teams met in Week 9, and the Giants were prepared to devote double-coverage to him. But Gronkowski was severely limited by an ankle injury sustained in the AFC Championship Game, and after the first two quarters he wasn't even an effective decoy.

New England lost its best player outside of Tom Brady and had to radically re-work the offense without a multi-dimensional standout like Gronkowski, while the injury took considerable heat off the Giants' defense, which largely contained Brady and the Patriots even without a strong performance by their much-hyped pass rush. The Giants very seldom changed their defensive personnel, especially during the first half, using a nickel defense on nearly every play. The Giants lost a couple tight ends of their own during the game, but there's no comparison between Travis Beckum or Jake Ballard and a game-changer like Rob Gronkowski.

Noteworthy

When football video games were a big part of my life, I used to turn off fumbles. They were so random, being good at the game just didn't matter when the ball was loose. The Giants fumbled three times in Sunday's game, and the scoreboard might have looked a lot different if that oblong ball had bounced a little differently. The Patriots actually recovered the first fumble, but it was nullified by a 12-men-on-the-field penalty. The next two were loose, but both times New York got the right bounce. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, and in Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants were both.

You don't usually hear much about the Super Bowl punters, but what a game from the Giants' Steve Weatherford. Three times he pinned the Patriots inside their own 10-yard line, including a beauty out of bounds at the four, and the first punt of the game, setting up a safety. If that's a touchback, or a fair catch at the 12, I'm not sure the Giants still win. The Patriots deliberately allowed a touchdown in the fourth quarter rather than letting the Giants run the clock out, but without the safety, the score is 17-13 and New York needs a TD. Maybe they get it and win anyway, but maybe they don't. Huge game from Weatherford.

What Happened

For all the strategic chops of Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick, the beginning of the game looked like something you might have seen decades ago. The Giants came out in I-formation, sometimes two tight ends, and balanced the run and the pass. The Patriots used a 4-3 defense with very little blitzing and tried to keep everything underneath. The Giants' six-minute drive stalled after a pair of sacks, and Weatherford's punt pinned the Pats at their own six, setting up the safety when Tom Brady was called for intentional grounding in the end zone.

Following a nine-play touchdown drive, the Giants led 9-0, with an incredible edge in time of possession: 11:28 - 0:08. That evened out a little after New England got the ball back, and the Pats got the first possession of the second half, but the Giants ended the night with a 15-minute advantage in time of possession, grinding out their drives while Brady sat on the sideline.

The game appeared to turn just before halftime, shortly after another great play by Weatherford and the Giants' coverage team pinned the Patriots at their 4-yard line. A false start penalty pushed the Pats back to their own 2, but Brady then completed 10 consecutive passes and drove New England 98 yards for a touchdown, giving the Patriots a 10-9 halftime lead, with the ball coming to them to start the second half.

Another touchdown made it 17-9, and all of a sudden it felt like New England might run away with this thing. Even when New York field goals made it 17-12 and 17-15, it still felt like the Patriots were in control. Just when some drama started to creep back in, Danny Woodhead gained 19 yards on a crucial third down, and Brady started marching them down the field, picking up first downs and running out the clock. With under 5:00 to play, the Patriots had a two-point lead and a first down in Giant territory. It looked like they would burn the clock and score, leaving the Giants in a terrible hole.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis was stuffed on a run, but that's another :40. On second down, the dagger. Wes Welker was open downfield — another first down, time off the clock, ball in scoring position. Except Welker dropped the pass. It was a tough catch, one you expect him to make, but hardly an easy play. To me, that felt like a turning point. Rather than sinking the Giants, it gave them hope, and it gave the Patriots serious doubt. It also stopped the clock at 4:06. Another incompletion forced the Patriots to punt, and the Giants took over with 3:53 and a timeout, plus the two-minute warning.

Immediately, Eli Manning hit Mario Manningham on the sideline for a tip-toe catch so close it merited the game's only replay review. Manningham's 38-yard gain was the biggest play of the game by either team. The Giants calmly drove downfield, never even faced a third down, much less fourth, and scored the winning touchdown when it became clear they would otherwise run out the clock and kick a chip-shot field goal. Ahmad Bradshaw tried to stall his momentum and fall outside the goal line, but he instead literally sat into the end zone. A two-point conversion failed, so the Giants led 21-17.

New England got the ball back at their own 20 with :57 remaining, but ran out of time. Belichick's clock management on New York's final drive was really puzzling. What was he saving his timeouts for? It's nice to have them available for your own drive on offense, but that's a luxury. You can't just watch your opponent burn :39 between plays with the Super Bowl on the line.

What Happened to the Patriot Dynasty?

New England's roster is more talented now than it was in 2003 or 2004, and it's much more talented than in 2001, but those Patriot teams won the Super Bowls that have eluded Bill Belichick and his squad for the past eight seasons. The most obvious scapegoat involves the old adage that "defense wins championships." The Pats are now an offense-first team, and it's not a conservative, grind-it-out offense. It's a light up the scoreboard, close the gates of mercy offense.

Maybe there's something to that, but I think it also has a lot to do with the makeup of the team. The 2007 Patriots were very old, especially on defense, and they seemed worn down by the end of the season. The 2011 Patriots are young at many positions, especially on defense, and they frankly don't seem as smart as the Super Bowl teams of the last decade. Those groups compensated for lesser talent with superior strategy and by never beating themselves. This year's Pats dropped passes, didn't wrap up on tackles, ran out of position, and forced throws.

The apparent mental lapses from Brady are most puzzling of all. He's unquestionably a brilliant quarterback, one of the greatest in history and still one of the best in the game today. But he makes mistakes I don't remember ever seeing in his first few seasons, and he seems to make them most often when the stakes are high: big games, critical moments. The announcers blamed his fourth-quarter interception on Gronkowski's ankle, but it was a very poor throw from Brady. A decade ago, that's a ball he would have thrown away. On Sunday, he lofted it down the field, 10 yards behind his receiver, and made it a jump ball with his man out of position to make the catch. And how do you explain the intentional grounding for a safety?

Maybe when he was younger, Brady simply didn't know what he couldn't do. Maybe now he's older and more cynical and recognizes just how hard it is to create the magic he won with in the early 2000s. Maybe he has more faith in his abilities now and tries to force throws that really aren't there. Maybe he has less faith in his defense and feels like he needs to create something out of nothing. Maybe he's just had a few rough games and we're making something out of nothing. But 5-10 years ago, Belichick's Patriots were the ultimate overachievers, thriving on their underdog status and winning against the odds. The last few years, they've repeatedly disappointed in the postseason. I'd like to see the team try to get back to the formula it was so successful with in '03 and '04.

Eli Manning, MVP

Eli was a good choice for Most Valuable Player, probably the same guy I would've picked if I had a vote. But let's not forget about the Giants' defense, which held New England to a season-low 17 points. After the conference championship games, I predicted a 27-20 Giants victory, then spent two weeks doubting the forecast. Did I really predict the Patriots, who averaged 32.1 points during the regular season, would only put up 20 against a Giants defense that allowed 25.0 and ranked in the bottom quarter of the league? No one superstar emerged to deny Manning the MVP, but the Giants' defense outplayed their offense.

Unfortunately, in today's sports world we turn almost immediately from enjoying the moment to the bigger picture, and already some people are now comparing Eli to Peyton Manning. There's no comparison. Eli Manning has played very well in the two most important games of his career, but you don't judge a player by two games. Peyton was one of the two best quarterbacks in the game for over a decade. Let Eli be what he is and enjoy what he's accomplished, but let's stay in the realm of reality here.

In addition to the Super Bowl MVP Award, Aaron Rodgers was announced Sunday as the runaway winner of the league MVP Award, with San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh taking Coach of the Year. The most puzzling selection was Denver LB Von Miller as Defensive Rookie of the Year. He had a nice season, but I'm unclear as to what the voters felt put him ahead of Aldon Smith and Ryan Kerrigan. The NFL also announced before the game that Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk 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.

Announcers, Entertainment and Commercials

NBC's announcing team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth had their moments, but overall, I thought they performed below their usual standard, from Michaels repeatedly misidentifying Julian Edelman as Danny Woodhead to Collinsworth criticizing the Giants for keeping Chase Blackburn on the field literally seconds before he made an important tackle. Maybe Al and Cris just let the pressure of the big game get to them. I loved NBC's camera shot of the New England bench when Wes Welker dropped a potentially game-clinching pass with 4:00 left in the game.

Madonna's halftime show was okay. Her fans probably enjoyed it, some of the choreography was interesting, and I'm always happy to see M.I.A. — who apparently flashed a middle finger at some point, which I didn't notice — but I would have loved to see what Madonna might have done with this kind of platform 10 or 20 years ago. The performance got better the longer it went on, though it did seem to go on rather a long time. I wish they would scale back the elaborate sets for the Super Bowl entertainment so the players can have something more closely resembling a normal game experience. The crew did a great job getting the set on and off the field quickly, considering what they were working with. I'd just like to see them working with a little less so it doesn't take 10 minutes to get done.

The Super Bowl advertisements featured a couple of commercials promoting good causes rather than beer or cars, and one of them related to the game in an engaging way. The ad by Mayors Against Illegal Guns might actually have been my favorite of all Super Bowl commercials this year. Michael Bloomberg and Tom Menino showed off nice presence and delivery, the rivalry between them felt real, and I'm a sucker for football tie-ins. Alternatively, I also enjoyed the Ferris Bueller tribute.

At some point in the future, I'd like to see more Super Bowl ads that look like America. We've really moved beyond getting a token black dude into the ad. Let's start getting token Asians and Latins in there, too! The country isn't 90% white, and it speaks poorly of advertisers that so many of them think that's what the country wants to see from the most-watched telecast of the year.

Hall of Fame

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the Class of 2012 on Saturday: Jack Butler, Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy, Curtis Martin, and Willie Roaf. This was an interesting year, with no real locks and no first-year eligible candidates selected. All in all, it's a strong class. Dawson was the best center of the '90s, Kennedy was an eight-time Pro Bowler and the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year, and Roaf was a standout for both the Saints and Chiefs, part of one the strongest offenses in recent history with the latter. Chris Doleman was almost an exact contemporary of both Reggie White and Bruce Smith, which I suspect is why he hasn't been enshrined before this, but he was one of the greatest pass rushers ever.

Butler, a Senior Candidate, was first-team All-Pro in three seasons. He is one of only four players with three seasons of nine or more interceptions, gained over 100 INT return yards four times, and twice tied for the NFL lead in interception return touchdowns. Butler was also the subject of one of the all-time great sports descriptions, from Pittsburgh writer Pat Livingston, who described Butler as having "the face of a choirboy and the heart of an arsonist."

With the voters choosing four linemen and a defensive back who's been retired for more than 50 years, Martin is the player best-known to most fans. He's a fine choice, comparable in my mind to Tony Dorsett, who retired as the second-leading rusher in history. Martin is fourth all-time, but he has more "all time" to deal with, especially since Dorsett was among the first RBs to play 16-game seasons. Dorsett probably was never the best running back in the NFL, being overshadowed by Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, and Eric Dickerson. Martin played at the same time as Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson and Priest Holmes.

But both Dorsett and Martin were consistently among the best at their position, and did a great deal to help their teams. That kind of decade-long consistency is almost impossible to find at a brutal position like running back, where standout players in their 30s are a rarity. Martin isn't Jim Brown or Payton or Sanders, but he's a fine addition to Canton's Hall of Fame.

The big story, I suppose, is the continued failure of standout wide receivers like Tim Brown, Cris Carter, and Andre Reed in the HOF balloting. I'll address this in depth as we enter the offseason, beginning next week with a review of the finest Hall-eligible wide receivers of the 1990s, including Brown, Carter, and Jimmy Smith.

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