Super Bowl LI Review

Super Bowl LI
February 5, 2016
Houston, Texas
New England Patriots 34, Atlanta Falcons 28 (OT)

Well, that was something. An apparent Falcons blowout — they led 28-3 near the end of the third quarter — turned into by far the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, the first overtime game in Super Bowl history, the most wins by a head coach in Super Bowl history, the most wins by a quarterback in Super Bowl history, and the most Super Bowl MVPs by any player in Super Bowl history.

It was a strange comeback to watch, because it didn't seem like the Patriots were really doing anything differently than when they fell behind by 25. Atlanta seemed to stumble a bit, but even that didn't look particularly dramatic; it was more a general coming apart at the seams.

Why the Patriots Won

New England ran 93 offensive plays on Sunday, more than twice as many as Atlanta's 46. It's well-established that defenses tire out faster than offenses, and in the last quarter and overtime, Atlanta was exhausted. The Patriots had 40:31 time of possession; in the regular season, the Falcons lost both times they allowed over 33:00 of possession. In the first half, Atlanta put pressure on Tom Brady with a 4-man pass rush and tight man-to-man coverage. Brady even looked a little rattled. In the second half, the rush was far less effective — outside of Grady Jarrett, who tied a Super Bowl record with three sacks — and the secondary was a step slower, giving receivers the openings they needed.

Sports fans talk a lot about terms like clutch and momentum and experience, and most of it is B.S., but I wonder if the long halftime — FOX reported an hour and eight minutes between plays for the Atlanta offense — didn't give the Falcons too much time to think, and the Patriots too much time to adjust and fine-tune their strategy.

Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan had a perfect passer rating (158.3) in the first half: 7-of-8 for 115 yards and a touchdown. He finished with a 144.1 rating, nearly matching the Super Bowl record. But he also had 5 sacks for 44 yards and a lost fumble. There's so much that passer rating misses. Rather than saying Ryan was 17-of-23 for 284 yards, 2 TDs, and no interceptions, let's call him 17-of-28 for 240 yards, 2 TDs, and a turnover. That sounds a lot less impressive, and it's much more reflective of his performance. Ryan had a solid game against a very good defense, but a straightforward reading of his stats is misleading.

What Happened

A scoreless first quarter saw four punts, followed by back-to-back 60-yard touchdown drives that showcased Kyle Shanahan's play-calling. The Patriots' best drive ended in an 82-yard interception return touchdown by Robert Alford. The Falcons' defense followed the formula for containing Tom Brady, which is generating pressure without blitzing and keeping tight coverage. They got two sacks on New England's second drive, with continued pressure afterwards, and the secondary kept everything in front of them, forcing the Pats to string first downs together, which wasn't happening. Atlanta went into halftime up 21-3 and got the first possession of the second half.

After a couple punts, Atlanta scored again, making it 28-3. Falcon fans, Patriot haters, and Ted Wells uncorked the champagne; Arthur Blank and his family came down to the sideline. It was over. No team had ever come back from more than 10 points down in a Super Bowl. The Patriots had 3 points in the first 43 minutes. How were they going to score 25 more in the final 17 minutes, and shut down Atlanta's league-leading offense?

The latter was surprisingly easy. A three-and-out saw the Falcons lose yardage, due to penalties and a sack. The next drive saw Ryan take a sack and lose a fumble. On the following drive a sack and penalty pushed Atlanta out of field goal range. And poor clock management aborted an attempt to replicate John Elway's "The Drive" at the end of regulation.

Offensively, New England turned to Tom Brady and James White. Let's discuss those two a bit more.

Tom Brady, MVP

Brady won his fourth Super Bowl MVP, breaking a tie with Joe Montana. I feel about this MVP award basically the same way I did about the previous three: it's perfectly reasonable, but I might have gone in a different direction. The Patriots completed a miraculous comeback, and Brady broke a Super Bowl record with 466 passing yards. He persevered through pretty significant adversity, and he played well in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Running back James White, filling the Kevin Faulk/Shane Vereen/Dion Lewis role, rushed for 29 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game-tying score and the game-winner in overtime. He also rushed for a successful two-point conversion. He caught a Super Bowl-record 14 passes for 110 yards and a third touchdown. That's more TDs than Brady, and he didn't throw a pick-six.

If I had an official vote, I would have voted for James White.

Noteworthy

Bullet points here:

* In the regular season, Atlanta's Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks (15.5) and tied for the lead in forced fumbles (6). He was invisible in the Super Bowl, with no sacks, no tackles, and no assists. He did tip a pass, which got caught anyway. Beasley played some pass coverage, but it was a deeply lackluster performance from the Falcons' only defensive star.

* New England's 19-point fourth quarter wasn't a record — Washington scored 35 in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII — but it's the only NFL game I can think of in which a team scored two successful two-point conversions in the fourth quarter. It's probably happened before, but I couldn't tell you when.

* Roger Goodell had to know Patriots fans would boo him during the Lombardi Trophy presentation, and he handled it like a trooper. But he deserved it.

Entertainment and Commercials

Luke Bryan's performance of the Star-Spangled Banner was unremarkable, which is fine with me. Not every year needs to be Whitney Houston. The commercials were largely unremarkable, too, though it was striking how many advertisers chose to broadcast a message of inclusivity and acceptance in the midst of our bitter political climate. A few companies chose to go the other direction, which I thought came off badly. Maybe that's just me.

If I had to pick a favorite commercial, I might go with Christopher Walken and Justin Timberlake, even though I don't remember what they were selling. That's okay. I just like Christopher Walken being weird.

I found Lady Gaga's halftime show disappointing. If you're going to a hire a big-name musician and repeatedly hype her set as "music's biggest moment of the year" — repeating that a dozen times doesn't make it true — the performance should focus on the music, and this didn't. Lady Gaga can really sing, and obviously she's an interesting person, eccentric and artistic and not afraid to be judged. That's why I was so disappointed that her halftime show came off as staged and inauthentic. I thought the focus was on the spectacle rather than the music, and it seemed like everyone was trying too hard. At best, it seemed like a generic pop show with tight choreography, and at worst it felt contrived and disjointed. It wasn't bad, exactly, but it could have been so much more.

FOX Broadcast

Let's start with the positive: the camera work was professional, and there were lots of replays. Joe Buck has become a solid play-by-play announcer, and Troy Aikman is one of my favorite color analysts. He's a nice guy, pleasant to listen to, and his analysis has improved immensely the last couple of seasons. There was minimal intrusion from the sideline reporters; they contributed to the broadcast and stayed out of the way.

That said, the network's Julio-Jones-only replay policy in the first half was frustrating. I mean, I know how to rewind the DVR, but it would nice for the replay of a sack to show the linemen, instead of watching Julio being covered. Early in the first quarter, Mohamed Sanu laid a terrific block, and the announcers went into ecstasies about Jones, who barely got in the defender's way. I hate dishonest broadcasting. The one thing an announcer needs — I mean, maybe not the only thing, but certainly one of the essential qualities — is neutrality: you can't have an agenda. Julio Jones does so many sensational things — his last catch was unbelievable — he doesn't need anyone at FOX making up new ones for him.

When the Patriots won, the entire FOX crew rushed to judgment, proclaiming the best Super Bowl ever, the best coach ever, the best quarterback. Did I miss when Joe Buck became a historian? He's a professional play-by-play announcer, but he has this job because of his daddy, not because of his special insights into the history of the sport. I liked Terry Bradshaw on FOX in the late '90s. It's 2017 now. He doesn't have anything positive to contribute, and it's been that way for a few years.

Season Honors

The NFL and the Associated Press announced this year's major award winners on Saturday night. Matt Ryan won MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, while Khalil Mack garnered Defensive Player of the Year honors, beating Von Miller by a single vote.

Joey Bosa easily won Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan took home Assistant Coach of the Year, three votes ahead of Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Two other Cowboys did cash in, though, with Dak Prescott winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and Jason Garrett being named Coach of the Year. Those two, I don't get.

Prescott and teammate Ezekiel Elliott were the obvious OROY candidates, splitting the 50 votes 28½-21½. Those half-votes should be prohibited, for what it's worth. But here's the thing. Elliott was a sensation. He was first-team All-Pro, earning 47 votes. Prescott didn't get any All-Pro votes. Elliott got 6 MVP votes, compared to 1 for Prescott. Elliott got 5½ Offensive Player of the Year votes, Prescott none. Prescott had a great season, but Elliott was more outstanding. In recent years, the voters grade rookie quarterbacks on a curve, and it's stupid. This is why we had nonsense like Sam Bradford winning OROY in 2010. Prescott would be a fine choice in most seasons, but Elliott was clearly better.

Does anyone think Jason Garrett is a particularly good coach? The Cowboys had the best record in the NFC and exceeded expectations, but that one just doesn't make any sense to me. Dallas improved because it drafted two dynamite rookies and the key players stayed healthy, not because Garrett turned into Bill Belichick. Garrett is who we thought he was.

My own selections were substantially different, with Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan the only agreements.

Hall of Fame

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the Class of 2017 on Saturday: Morten Andersen, Terrell Davis, Kenny Easley, Jerry Jones, Jason Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Kurt Warner. It's a strong class, with some surprises both pleasant and otherwise.

Taylor and Tomlinson were first-ballot selections, deservingly. Taylor was a six-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro, and Defensive Player of the Year in 2006. He scored 9 touchdowns and 3 safeties, including 6 fumble return TDs, the most in history. Tomlinson rushed for 13,684 yards (5th all-time) and 145 touchdowns (2nd all-time). In 2006, when Tomlinson won NFL MVP, he set a single-season touchdown record (31) that will probably never fall in a 16-game season. Those choices were obvious, and fans throughout the league look forward to seeing them honored in Canton.

Another first-time Finalist, safety Brian Dawkins, didn't make the cut. I imagine he'll get in next year. Likewise, no offensive linemen were chosen, despite the presence of six-time All-Pro Alan Faneca, All-Decade center Kevin Mawae, and three-time Super Bowl champ Joe Jacoby. Contributor Finalist Paul Tagliabue was also turned away, even though he wasn't in direct competition with any of the other nominees. Tagliabue was a successful commissioner, but reports indicate that his mishandling of concussion policy overshadowed his forward thinking in other areas.

The pleasant surprise was the induction of all-time leading scorer Morten Andersen and Broncos running back Terrell Davis. I've lobbied for both of them in the past — especially Davis — and I'm glad to see them recognized. I have mixed feelings about Kurt Warner, but his enshrinement became much more likely when teammate Orlando Pace was elected last year, since teammates often split votes. Warner's selection could also help clear a path for Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt in the future. It will be interesting to see whether Terrell Owens or Bruce gets in first, not that the order really matters.

That leaves Senior nominee Kenny Easley and Contributor Jerry Jones. Easley was the Ed Reed of his generation, a hard-hitting strong safety who went after passes like a ball-hawking free safety. He had a short career, due to severe kidney disease, but he was a devastating, dominant player. He's an excellent addition to the PFHOF. I don't get what Jerry Jones has done to merit the sport's highest honor, but I've accepted that the Contributor category is basically an excuse to enshrine all the team owners. Ten years from now, Daniel Snyder will go in. Ten years after that, the Yorks. Meanwhile, contributors on the football side of things — successful personnel experts like Bobby Beathard and George Young — continue to get overlooked. It's shameful, but it's the way things are right now.

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