Monday, February 2, 2015

Super Bowl XLIX Rewind

By Brad Oremland

Super Bowl XLIX
February 1, 2015
Glendale, Arizona
New England Patriots 28, Seattle Seahawks 24

That was a great game.

It's easy to confuse an exciting fourth quarter with a great game, but this one delivered throughout. The general excitement of a Super Bowl — the gravity of the situation — carried us through a scoreless first quarter, and the drama and tension built up to unbelievable finishes at the end of both the first and second halves.

Most people I talked to this week were rooting against New England, but if you just wanted to see a good game, this made up for last year's blowout. Let's break down some of what we saw.

Why the Patriots Won

The Patriots won with their passing game. Seattle's defense hadn't allowed 28 points since mid-October. Tom Brady completed a Super Bowl-record 37 passes and threw for 4 touchdowns. The Seahawks took away the deep pass and forced Brady to beat them underneath, stringing together first downs to drive the length of the field. The Patriots answered the challenge, with five drives of eight plays or more, including all four TD drives. Seattle's pass rush was ineffective: Brady was sacked only once, and hit seven times, in 58 dropbacks.

Rob Gronkowski had 68 yards and a touchdown, but he didn't break the game open. The Seahawks probably feel pretty good about the way they defended Gronk. They also contained New England's run game, frustrating LeGarrette Blount (40 yds, 2.9 avg), and didn't get burned by any offensive trickery. But they didn't get consistent pressure on Brady, and they couldn't cover Julian Edelman (9 rec, 109 yds, TD) or Shane Vereen (11 rec, 64 yds).

Two weeks ago, in my Super Bowl XLIX Preview, I explained how Seattle could win the game: "Limit New England's ground game and take away Rob Gronkowksi. The rest of the offense doesn't scare you. Offensively, Seattle wants to get [Marshawn] Lynch going. The priority with [Russell] Wilson is limiting turnovers. If he plays a clean game and Lynch rushes for 100 yards, the Seahawks will win." Wilson's clean game evaporated on the goal line, but other than that, Seattle accomplished its goals. The Seahawks shut down Blount and contained Gronkowski, and Lynch rushed for 102. Give the Patriots credit for winning without big plays, and for scoring four TDs on the backs of secondary weapons like Edelman and Vereen.

You wonder about the impact of injuries in Seattle's secondary. Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and especially Earl Thomas all came in banged up, while Jeremy Lane left early with an injury, and defensive end Cliff Avril was out on the Patriots' last two touchdown drives. Sherman, Chancellor, and Thomas weren't noticeably limited, Lane isn't a key player, and Avril wasn't a major factor in this game, but this was a very close Super Bowl, and one more play could have been the difference. New England has been burned by injuries to players like Gronkowski in previous Super Bowls, and this time they were on the other side.

Passing at the Goal Line

It's 28-24 Patriots, with :26 remaining in the game. Seattle has 2nd-and-goal at the New England 1-yard line, with one timeout left. Momentum is with the Seahawks, and the announcers are wondering whether New England should simply let them score, so there's enough time left for Tom Brady to engineer a comeback. Russell Wilson drops back and throws a quick slant — which gets picked off by rookie safety Malcolm Butler, the first interception of his pro career. Following a couple of penalties, the Patriots run out the clock and win Super Bowl XLIX.

Everyone on NBC seemed to agree that it was a crazy, untenable play call, and I guess Twitter blew up with the same idea (perhaps prompted by Cris Collinsworth). I didn't have a problem with the call.

I've expressed my admiration for Marshawn Lynch a number of times (and I'm about to again; I'll announce my 2005-14 NFL All-Decade Team next week), so I probably would have run it. But it was second down. You can give it to Beast Mode on third and fourth if the pass doesn't get it, and Pete Carroll said afterwards that was the plan. If that pass is completed, it's brilliant strategy. Even if it's incomplete, no one criticizes the call. The problem was the pass itself, the great defensive play made by Butler, and perhaps a questionable effort by Ricardo Lockette.

The Patriots brought in a goal line defense, designed to stop Lynch. Passing against a stacked front like that isn't crazy. In fact, it's a good idea as long as you don't get a sack or a pick. This "worst call ever" controversy is nonsense.

Noteworthy

The Patriots did very little with the tricky formations we saw in the AFC playoffs, confusing eligible and ineligible receivers. I don't know if that was a function of the game plan, or if after all the DeflateGate foolishness, the team just wanted to prove a point. If it's the latter, that's an awfully big risk to take in the Super Bowl. It seems to me that every time a team — and in particular, that team's quarterback — has faced major controversy, media scrutiny, or distraction leading up to the Super Bowl, that team has emerged victorious. I'm thinking specifically of Len Dawson (who faced baseless gambling charges prior to Super Bowl IV), Doug Williams (the first black QB to start a Super Bowl), maybe Joe Namath (with his famous guarantee), and certainly Tom Brady (DeflateGate).

Let's talk about the end of the game. At the two-minute warning, Seattle was down 28-24, but had the ball in Patriots territory, with 1:55 on the clock and all three timeouts. Following an incomplete pass, the play clock ran down (the game clock was stopped) and Russell Wilson called timeout. Three plays later, another timeout, when the Seahawks didn't get downfield fast enough following Jermaine Kearse's ever-bouncing reception.

So when Wilson got intercepted at the goal line, the Seahawks had :20 and one timeout instead of three. With three timeouts you can get the ball back. The other issue, of course, was penalties. Seattle had some really harmful penalties in this game, perhaps none moreso than Michael Bennett jumping into the neutral zone with New England pinned on its own 1. A potential safety became an easy kneel-down to run out the clock. Bennett had a great Super Bowl, but he blew it on that play. Cris Collinsworth lamented, "Michael Bennett jumps offsides more than anybody else, 10 times this year. And in this critical, last-chance moment, he does again." Seattle's hopes were pretty slim at that point, but self-destructive clock management and penalties sealed the game.

First Half

The Seahawks ran three plays in the first quarter. Both teams punted to begin the game, then the Patriots started grinding out first downs, with a 13-play, 58-yard drive that took them to Seattle's 10-yard line, whereupon Tom Brady threw one of the dumber interceptions of his career. Collinsworth was astonished: "Hard to believe that Tom Brady just made that mistake. Under pressure, yes, but really just threw that one up." It was a terrible decision.

For Jeremy Lane, it was the first interception of his three-year career, but he was injured while returning the pick and had to leave the game. Lane was replaced by Tharold Simon, whom Brady picked on several times. The announcers even wondered if the interception helped New England, simply because it brought Simon into the game. That's a stretch. Jeremy Lane is not Richard Sherman, and there's no reason to believe Lane — who came into this game with zero career INT — would have shut down his side of the field. His pick turned a long drive into zero points. It was a big play for Seattle.

New England put together a pair of TD drives while Seattle's offense continued to struggle. Russell Wilson didn't complete a pass until 5:32 remained in the second quarter (the second-longest drought in Super Bowl history), and the Seahawks punted on their first three possessions. New England's secondary is the strongest unit on that defense, while Seattle's no-name receiving corps doesn't include a lot of game-breaking play-makers. With the main receiving threats shut down, Wilson eventually turned to rookie Chris Matthews, who had never started a game or caught a pass in the NFL. He caught 4 of 5 targets in the Super Bowl, for 109 yards and a touchdown. Matthews dominated Kyle Arrington so badly that in the second half, New England switched its coverage to put Brandon Browner on Matthews.

A 44-yard reception by Matthews set up Marshawn Lynch for Seattle's first TD, and after New England regained the lead with :36 remaining in the first half, three long plays and a face-mask penalty set up the Seahawks to even the score. This sequence helps explain why Seattle has been so successful under Pete Carroll. Taking over at your own 20 with :31 left, most coaches would kneel out the half. The Seahawks handed off, still a conservative call, but miles away from a kneel-down that would concede the halftime deficit. The successful drive gave Seattle 1st-and-10 at the Patriots' 11-yard line with :06 left. The NBC announcers urged a field goal, but in that situation, you've got to try for the end zone, and hope there's a tick or two left on the clock if you're incomplete. As it turned out, Wilson threw a touchdown pass to Matthews, and there were two seconds left on the clock. Great call by Carroll and his offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell. Announcers are almost always too conservative.

Second Half

The Seahawks had to feel good coming out of the locker room. They had tied the score to end a poor first half, they established rhythm and momentum on offense, they were about to receive the second-half kickoff, and they've been a second-half team all year. Sure enough, they drove 72 yards and kicked a go-ahead field goal, 17-14. Three minutes later, Bobby Wagner intercepted Brady, and Seattle scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession. The 24-14 deficit is the largest Brady and Belichick have ever faced in a Super Bowl.

After the touchdown, the teams combined for four straight punts with only one first down, then New England drove for a TD that closed the gap to 24-21. The key play was a 21-yard reception by Edelman, on 3rd-and-14. He actually ran 33 yards on the play, but the last 12 were called back because his knee and elbow hit the ground. In hindsight, that seems like a really big play to me. It was big at the time, too, but after that run by Edelman, New England's offense really hit its stride; momentum shifted to the Patriots.

The Seahawks went three-and-out (with a little help from an uncalled tripping penalty on eventual hero Malcolm Butler), giving the Patriots possession with 6:52 remaining in Super Bowl XLIX. Seattle fans had to be worried at this point. Al Michaels commented, "A very fast three-and-out, exactly what New England was looking for." And by this time, Seattle's defense — missing Cliff Avril, who was injured during Wagner's interception return — couldn't stop Edelman or Vereen, and Gronkowski was starting to roll. The Patriots drove for an easy touchdown, 11 plays without ever facing a third down. With 2:02 left in the game, New England was ahead, 28-24.

With an empty backfield, Wilson hit Lynch for a 31-yard gain along the left sideline. As we reached the two-minute warning, no one was complaining about a boring game — but the action was just getting started. Following two incompletions, Wilson hit Lockette for 11 yards on 3rd-and-10, then one of the more unlikely plays in Super Bowl history. Wilson threw a deep pass to Jermaine Kearse in double coverage. Kearse and Butler both stumbled, the ball bounced into the air, Kearse fell to the ground and fumbled at the ball for a second or two, and it finally came down in his hands: first down Seattle, at the New England 5, with 1:06 remaining. I swear, whoever decided to use an oblong ball that bounces funny, rather than a round one, is responsible for the excitement of professional football.

So Seattle suddenly had a great chance to win. Lynch ran left, down to the 1-yard line. It was at this point that Al and Cris discussed whether the Patriots should deliberately allow a touchdown, just so they'd have some time to come back. Then came the play that everyone will remember from this game, Butler's interception (discussed above). But you don't allow a TD in that situation. When the Patriots let Ahmad Bradshaw score in Super Bowl XLVI, they led 17-15. The Giants could have kicked an easy field goal to win the game. Here, Seattle needed a touchdown. A field goal wouldn't even tie it. You've got to trust your defense in that situation. In this case, the defense came through, bigger than anyone expected.

Unfortunately, a thrilling Super Bowl ended with two kneel-downs and three penalties. The Patriots drew a meaningless celebration foul after the interception, then Michael Bennett had a game-clinching encroachment, and for some reason Bruce Irvin and Bennett started a fight after the first kneel-down. In a year when the NFL has been defined by the bad behavior of its players, you really need to have a straight fight in front of the biggest audience of the year? Right at the end of a great game, when the focus was on the sport itself? I hope the league will fine Bennett and Irvin, and I wouldn't mind seeing one or both suspended for the first game of 2015. Irvin was ejected.

Tom Brady, MVP

This could have gone in different directions. Edelman and Vereen had great games, and Darrelle Revis was pretty fantastic other than that one play where he got picked off by the umpire. But Brady's a sound choice. He completed 37 passes, for 328 yards and 4 TDs, with a 101.1 passer rating. Of course, he also threw 2 interceptions. Brady is the first Super Bowl MVP since Terry Bradshaw 35 years ago to win the award despite throwing multiple INTs. I probably would have voted for Edelman.

Brady joined his idol Joe Montana as the only three-time Super Bowl MVPs. Brady, Bradshaw, and Montana are the only four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. Brady is also the only Patriot to play in all four of the team's Super Bowl victories. In fact, Brady and Vince Wilfork are the only Patriots remaining from the team's last championship, in Super Bowl XXXIX. It was pretty awkward when Dan Patrick kept asking Rob Gronkowski how it felt to win the Super Bowl again. Gronk was in high school the last time the Patriots won a Super Bowl.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady

In the wake of a thrilling Super Bowl victory, we'll hear a lot of discussion about whether Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all-time, and Tom Brady the best quarterback ever. In fact, you'll probably hear more assertions than discussions.

I don't believe either one has a strong case. Three years ago, when I ranked the best coaches in NFL history, Belichick rated fourth. I'd place him second or third now — it's tough to evaluate so soon following a big win, before you've had time to put the accomplishment in perspective. Here's the main competition:

George Halas: 318-148-31 (.671), 6 championships
Paul Brown: 213-104-9 (.667), 7 championships
Belichick: 211-109 (.659), 4 championships

Brown was also the foremost innovator of the Modern Era. He invented modern pass-blocking techniques and the quarterback pocket. He was the first coach to give film grades or call plays from the sideline. He pioneered year-round coaching staffs and tutored five eventual Hall of Fame head coaches, including Chuck Noll and Don Shula. Brown has the largest, most important coaching tree in NFL history. He's the father of modern football. Bill Belichick is a brilliant coach, the best I've ever seen. But he's not the best ever, not ahead of Paul Brown.

Tom Brady has been one of the best QBs in the league for over a decade. He's passed for 50,000 yards, nearly 400 TDs, and he's never thrown 15 or more INTs in any season. He holds several postseason records, he's started in six Super Bowls, quarterbacked four Super Bowl winners, and won three Super Bowl MVPs. He's an obvious Hall of Famer, one of the greatest QBs of all-time.

It's hard to compare Brady to some of the other top quarterbacks, because he hasn't spent much of his career with elite receivers. He had a few years with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, a few with Gronkowski. Other than that, some fine players, but no one you'd call elite. How do you compare him against someone who threw to Jerry Rice, or Raymond Berry, or Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne?

But if Malcolm Butler doesn't intercept that pass, and Lynch runs in for a TD on the next play, should that really affect our perception of Brady? Why should his legacy be dictated by a play made when he was on the sideline? If the Seahawks score there, Brady becomes only the fourth QB to lose three Super Bowls (Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, and Jim Kelly). I know some people will hammer me for this, like I can't tell the difference between one Super Bowl and four, but it's obvious to me that Tom Brady isn't as great as Peyton Manning. Everything Brady does well, Manning has done better: more accurate, better play-fakes, better avoiding sacks, better reading and responding to defenses. Brady's better at QB sneaks. Manning turns every receiver he plays with into a superstar. Emmanuel Sanders was nothing special in Pittsburgh, and Ben Roethlisberger is not exactly chopped liver. With Peyton, Sanders caught 101 passes for 1,404 yards and 9 TDs. Last year, Brady was lost without Wes Welker and a healthy Gronk.

Brady's an all-time great. And he's still playing well, so there's reason to believe he'll move up the all-time lists, but for now I think he's still behind a handful of other passers, guys like Manning, Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, probably Dan Marino and Joe Montana. Maybe a couple of others, too, depending on what you look for. I get that people are excited after the Super Bowl, but I don't believe any thorough analysis would show Brady as already the top QB in history. Let's check back on this topic in two or three years.

I don't really have anywhere else to put this, but Belichick tied Chuck Noll as the only four-time Super Bowl-winning head coaches. I'm not trying to down Brady or Belichick. I have tremendous respect for both of them.

Entertainment and Commercials

I was in a bad mood at the beginning of the game, so I'll go ahead and admit this: I hate when "America the Beautiful" gets performed at sports events. I've never liked that song, it's never inspired patriotic feelings in me, and it's overkill to do two anthems for one game. There, I said it. Whew.

I love the Star-Spangled Banner. It does everything for me that the other song doesn't. But I didn't like it in Arizona on Sunday. First of all, the crowd showed no respect. Fine, you don't like Bill Belichick. But how do you boo during the national anthem? Let's save the cheers (or boos, if necessary) for the end. Beyond the less-than-classy crowd reaction, Idina Menzel didn't respect the song. A crisp Star-Spangled Banner runs about 1:20. She drew that thing out. I clocked her at 2:05. A long anthem isn't always a disaster, but at no point did Menzel sound good. A good performance is about the song, not the performer. Menzel clearly wanted it to be about her, but she ain't Whitney Houston.

It was a disappointing opening, but I enjoyed the halftime show. I'm not a Katy Perry fan, and I didn't care about the music one way or the other, but it was visually pleasing, an aesthetically effective show. I wish they would quit using so many different performers, though. It's insulting to the headliner, whether it's Bruno Mars or Perry or whoever, to invite so many guests, like the star can't carry the load on her own. If you hire someone to do the show, have the confidence to let them do their thing.

Also, we have got to reel in the length on these things. A normal halftime runs 12:00. I timed 31:50 between the last play of the first half and the second half kickoff. That's a huge disruption for players, and it needs to be curtailed. Perry's performance didn't even begin until 10 minutes into halftime.

The commercials were pretty bland this year, but evidently many advertisers had the same ideas as one another. The big two were inspiring people with prosthetic legs (a car company and a software company), and sappy dad ads (two car companies, and a company that makes hygienic products and toiletries). A fast food company was in on that idea, too, except with mom love. None of the commercials were executed well (except maybe the first car/leg ad), and I find it really insulting when advertisers try to manipulate people with stuff like that. It's also not apparent how how most of the products being advertised related to the commercials themselves.

Just when I'd given up on the commercials, we got the Budweiser Pac-Man ad. I want to do that. Clearly the best ad of the Super Bowl. But I think the Best Buds stuff, which I liked two years ago, and appreciated last year, has run its course. Let's not do any more of those.

Season Honors

The NFL and the Associated Press announced this year's major award winners on Saturday night. Aaron Rodgers ran away with the MVP race, drawing 31 of the 50 votes, far ahead of J.J. Watt's second-place 13. DeMarco Murray (26 votes) topped Rodgers (15 votes) for Offensive Player of the Year, because the voters believe that they must select a quarterback or running back, and that no one should win both awards.

Watt won Defensive Player of the Year, of course, and became the only player ever selected unanimously. Odell Beckham and Aaron Donald won Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, and the Panthers' Thomas Davis was named Walter Payton Man of the Year. Cardinals coaches Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles took home Coach of the Year and the inaugural Assistant Coach of the Year Award, respectively.

Those choices largely mirror my own, and the only major disagreement (on Murray) was predictable.

Hall of Fame

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the Class of 2015 on Saturday: Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Charles Haley, Bill Polian, Junior Seau, Will Shields, Mick Tingelhoff, and Ron Wolf. It's good to see the maximum eight nominees elected, but this is not a strong Hall of Fame class.

There are some inductions to celebrate. Tingelhoff, the Senior nominee, was a five-time All-Pro who started in four Super Bowls, and his selection was long overdue. The PFHOF also changed policy this year, separating "contributors" from players and coaches, so the two don't compete against each other in the selection process. The result was two worthy personnel men, Polian and Wolf, getting recognition for their parts in building multiple dynasties. Both the selection committees and the voters who approved them did fine work on these nominations.

In the general election, we got Bettis, Brown, Haley, Seau, and Shields. Seau was a no-brainer. He's one of the greatest linebackers of all time. Shields, a 12-time Pro Bowler, was also a sound selection. This was his fourth year of eligibility, and I'm surprised he wasn't inducted earlier. Tim Brown was a fine choice, as well, though it's strange to see him chosen over fellow wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who was turned away for the second time. I guess some of the voters are dismissing Harrison as a product of Peyton Manning's brilliance, but Harrison was an exceptional route-runner, and the best I've ever seen at keeping his toes in bounds for that critical catch on the sideline or in the corner of the end zone. He and Peyton helped each other.

Bettis and Haley do not belong in Canton. I've written many times before to explain why Bettis falls below the Hall's standards. He only had three impact seasons, and he was never the best RB in the NFL. He didn't run-block, couldn't catch, and wasn't a great short-yardage runner. I don't want to spend more space bashing him, because some readers are probably starting to believe I have something against Bettis personally. I don't; he seems like a nice guy. But his election diminishes the Hall of Fame and lowers its standards.

Bettis is not the worst running back in the Hall. Haley probably is the worst defensive end in the Hall. Haley was a good player, but he got elected because he's the only man to play for five Super Bowl-winning teams, and that's largely a coincidence — Haley was in the right places at the right times. Haley was a pass-rush specialist, but he had fewer sacks (100.5) than contemporaries like Jim Jeffcoat (102.5), Trace Armstrong (106.0), Greg Townsend (109.5), Sean Jones (113.0), and Clyde Simmons (121.5), who are nowhere near the Hall of Fame. Fellow HOF Finalist Kevin Greene had 10 seasons with double-digit sacks, twice as many as Haley (5), who was also a difficult man to get along with, an annoyance for some of his former teammates and coaches.

It's frustrating to see worthy candidates like Harrison, Greene, and Terrell Davis left out while good-but-not-great players like Bettis and Haley are ushered in. Hopefully their selections will at least clear the way for stronger candidates at the same position.

Kenny Easley was an honorary captain for the Super Bowl coin toss. I would really like to see the Seniors Committee nominate him a few years down the line. Easley was an Ed Reed-type player, a hard-hitting strong safety who went after passes like a ball-hawking free safety. He made five Pro Bowls in just seven seasons, and he was Defensive Player of the Year in 1984, when he intercepted 10 passes, returning two of them for touchdowns. New HOF inductee Ron Wolf, who was Easley's division rival with the Raiders, called Easley "the best safety I've ever seen."

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