Monday, February 5, 2018
Super Bowl LII Review
Super Bowl LII
February 4, 2018
Philadelphia Eagles 41, New England Patriots 33
Minneapolis' second Super Bowl was exciting from the first play to the last, setting multiple records for offensive production. It was a good game, fun to watch, and as dramatic as any game I've ever seen. I don't know if I'd call it a great game, though. By the third quarter, I wanted to see some defense, and the game never really delivered on that. Ping-ponging TDs are exciting, but not the sport at its best.
This game set an NFL record for combined yardage (1,151), along with numerous records specific to the Super Bowl or the postseason. New England had three 100-yard receivers, didn't punt all game, and set a record for most points by a Super Bowl loser. There's a lot to unwrap here, so let's dive in.
Why the Eagles Won
Offense. If the Eagles won this game, it was supposed to be with efficient offense and outstanding defense. The defense allowed 613 yards and didn't force a punt all game, allowing 33 points. The offense, however, played almost flawlessly. Doug Pederson and Frank Reich put together a brilliant game plan, enhanced by inspired play-calling that kept the Patriots off-balance. Let's also credit Pederson for an aggressive approach that included two fourth-down conversions, both of which led to touchdowns.
Nick Foles played brilliantly, receivers made plays, backs broke tackles, and the line mostly played well, but we also have to discuss the meltdown of New England's defense. It was never the strength of the team, but it was AWOL on Sunday. Stephon Gilmore made plays all game, James Harrison generated a pass rush, and Kyle Van Noy had that one great tackle in the first quarter. But otherwise, it was an embarrassing performance. It's hard not to believe Malcolm Butler could have made a difference. Bill Belichick's decision to bench one of his best defensive players will be questioned for a long time.
There were two consequential replay reviews in this game, with the call on the field correctly upheld in both cases. The league's stated criteria, which I passionately endorse, is that "clear and obvious evidence" is required to overturn an official's original decision, and that was absent on both plays in Super Bowl LII. The second replay, eventually confirmed, was especially obvious. Zach Ertz caught a pass, took three steps and a jump, and landed in the end zone, where the ground may have caused him to momentarily lose possession of the ball. The NFL's insane catch rule doesn't apply to runners once they have established a reception.
I think the appalling mismanagement of replay during the regular season, and the obscene applications of the most counter-intuitive rule in sports, have conditioned some people (like Cris Collinsworth) to expect bad replay rulings so much that they get irritated when the original intent of the rules is applied. Certainly enforcement needs to be more consistent, but they got it right on Sunday.
The Eagles started hot, with a 14-play drive and an easy field goal by their rookie kicker. New England answered with its own field goal, but the Philadelphia offense stayed hot, with a 36-yard rush by LeGarrette Blount and a 34-yard TD reception by Alshon Jeffery. Jake Elliott missed the extra point, and on the Patriots' next drive, Stephen Gostkowski missed an easy field goal because of a bad snap.
Following Gostkowski's miss, Philadelphia went three-and-out, the only punt of the game by either team. After an Eagles TD and a Patriots field goal (making it 15-6), Nick Foles threw a bomb to Jeffery, which he nearly secured, but instead juggled into the arms of Duron Harmon. New England drove 90 yards for a touchdown, but Philadelphia answered with a quick 69 yards and a trick play on which Foles caught a TD pass. The Patriots flubbed their clock management, and went into halftime trailing 22-12.
New England opened the second half with three straight passes to Rob Gronkowski, who scored a touchdown on his fourth reception of the drive, narrowing the Eagles' lead to 3. The teams traded TDs, but Philadelphia settled for a field goal on its next drive, now leading 32-26. Gronkowski scored another touchdown with 9:26 left in the game, giving the Patriots their first lead. The Eagles responded with a 14-play TD drive — their seventh drive of more than 50 yards — capped by Ertz's dive into the end zone. Now leading 38-33, Philadelphia tried a two-point conversion, which failed. New England got the ball back with 2:21 remaining, down 5.
On just the second play from scrimmage, defensive lineman Brandon Graham beat Shaq Mason and knocked the ball out of Brady's hand — the game's only sack by either team — leading to a recovery by Derek Barnett. The Eagles took over at New England's 31-yard line with 2:09 remaining. Three straight runs set up a successful 46-yard field goal and, just as importantly, drained the game clock to 1:10, with New England out of timeouts. The Patriots advanced to midfield, but Tom Brady's Hail Mary got knocked down, giving the Eagles their first NFL title since 1960 and the first Super Bowl victory in franchise history.
Nick Foles, MVP
Nick Foles didn't start until Week 15, the latest of any Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Other backups have won the game, and even been named MVP — like Tom Brady in 2001 — but Foles was the one who felt most like a backup, especially in the face of the absurd level of hype for Carson Wentz. Foles absolutely deserved MVP honors, assuming you think someone on the winning team should get the award. Foles passed for 373 yards, 3 touchdowns, an interception that clearly wasn't his fault, and a 106.1 passer rating. He made good decisions and sharp, on-target throws throughout the game. You couldn't ask for a better performance, and I think he was a pretty obvious choice.
I have nothing against Carson Wentz, but the idea that he was ever an appropriate MVP candidate was misplaced. How valuable is a guy whose team sweeps the playoffs and wins the Super Bowl without him, with his backup named MVP? Maybe you just have a different definition of "valuable" than I do, but it's got to be, like, much different.
Tom Brady just played the best Super Bowl of his life. He passed for 505 yards, a postseason record, with 3 TDs and a 115.4 rating. He dropped a pass, he got tackled in bounds at the end of the first half, he missed an open Rob Gronkowski once, and he lost a fumble on the game's only sack. Other than those four plays, he was essentially flawless, against one of the league's best defenses. It was a superb performance, and he would have been a no-doubt MVP if the Patriots had won.
In Brady's previous Super Bowls, all of his MVPs were debatable. This one wouldn't have been: he was the Patriots' star throughout the game.
Bullet points here:
* The Eagles lined up in an illegal formation on Nick Foles' TD reception, with too many men off the line. Hat tip to Matt Chatham on this one.
* Brandin Cooks, who had a 1,000-yard receiving season, missed about three-quarters of the game following a head injury. It's hard to imagine New England's offense could have been any better with him, but in a tight game, it's also easy to think an elite deep threat could have been the difference in the contest.
* What was up with the Patriots' last play of the first half? With :03 remaining and the ball at midfield, they throw a short pass near the sideline? The play seemed designed to gain yards, not points. Was it just to pad Brady's stats, or did they really think Danny Amendola was going to weave 50 yards for the touchdown?
* This was the 24th time since 1978 that a team lost a game in which it never punted. Twenty-two of the previous 23 committed multiple turnovers, and most of them at least three. The 1995 Cleveland Browns, also coached by Bill Belichick, lost a game in which they never punted by a score of 37-10, having committed five turnovers.
Entertainment and Commercials
Many of this year's Super Bowl commercials were understated; I'm sure there aren't any I'll remember a month from now. I do think the ones designed to tug at heart strings were more effective than the ones meant to be funny or exciting. The conclusion of the Bud Light battle was a pretty big letdown. Since this year's ads weren't particularly exciting, here's a link to my favorite Super Bowl commercial ever, from five years ago.
Justin Timberlake did a good job with the halftime show, overcoming a dumb opening segment. I'm not a fan of his music, but he gave a tight performance that I found entirely tolerable, and delivered exactly what his fans were hoping for. I also appreciated his nod to Prince, and the Minnesotan crowd seemed to, as well. We've had a pop singer for at least six years in a row, though, and I'd like to see a different direction — rock, rap, country, whatever — next February.
I enjoyed the NBC broadcast of Super Bowl LII, which was straightforward and professional. The network treated the Super Bowl as a football game rather than a public relations event, with positive results. There were a couple of wonky angles on kickoff returns, but that's a trivial offense.
I was disappointed, though, by Cris Collinsworth. He's a good analyst, sometimes excellent, but he also has really bad games. This wasn't really bad, but Cris seemed a little out-of-sorts. He promoted a backwards, extremely conservative approach, essentially tearing Doug Pederson to pieces for trying to win the game instead of playing not to lose, and he threw a fit when the first replay challenge was upheld. He admitted that the play was "obviously a close call," yet insisted that it should be overturned, advancing not only the league's odious catch rule but also the dangerous on-a-whim replay philosophy that departs from "clear-and-obvious" criteria and de-legitimizes results. It wasn't enough to ruin a good broadcast, but I wish Collinsworth had brought his A-game.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
I'll probably write a full-length article about this next week, so I'll try to contain my contempt for Daniel Snyder in this space, but this was an unusually ill-advised trade, even for Mr. Snyder, who is known for remarkably ill-conceived ideas about anything to do with football. I advised that Washington not sign Kirk Cousins to a long-term contract at the price he was seeking, and I like Alex Smith, but Snyder overpaid in every sense.
To acquire Smith, Washington sent the Chiefs 22-year-old cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round draft pick. Fuller, a local product who grew up in Maryland and went to college in Virginia, intercepted 4 passes last season. He allowed the lowest passer rating in slot coverage (55.0) of any player in the league, and Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 2nd-best slot corner, and the 5th-best cover corner out of 121 qualifiers. And — this bears repeating — he's 22, with his whole career in front of him. Smith is 33, and Washington gave up valuable assets to acquire him even though this looks like a well-stocked offseason for free agent quarterbacks, with several viable starters available for nothing but the price of their contracts.
That's the other problem: Snyder signed Smith to a four-year contract extension — he'll be a backup or out of the league before it's over — for about the same price they would have had to pay Cousins, who is 29, knows the system and players already, and is probably better than Smith. This probably isn't as bad as the RG3 trade, but it's really, really bad. If I'm a Chiefs fan, I am doing somersaults today. This was a heist. If someone in your fantasy league tried to make a trade like this, the commissioner would veto it.
The NFL and the Associated Press announced this year's major award winners on Saturday night. Tom Brady won his third MVP, while Los Angeles Rams Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald won Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively. Similarly, New Orleans Saints Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore split Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
New Rams coach Sean McVay was named Coach of the Year, while former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, the new head coach of the New York Giants, easily won Assistant Coach of the Year among a field of nine vote-getters.
There are no real surprises here, and no outrageous selections. Like AP, I chose Gurley, Donald, Kamara, Lattimore, and McVay. At MVP, I went with Gurley, who finished 2nd in the voting, and I chose Shurmur's colleague George Edwards, the Minnesota defensive coordinator, as the top assistant. Those are quibbles, though; the official selections are entirely reasonable.
Hall of Fame
The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the Class of 2018 on Saturday: Bobby Beathard, Robert Brazile, Brian Dawkins, Jerry Kramer, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Brian Urlacher. It's a strong class, and I'm glad to see the maximum number of candidates elected.
Lewis, Moss, and Urlacher were first-ballot selections. Lewis was a 13-time Pro Bowler, 7-time All-Pro, 2-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Super Bowl XXXV MVP. Moss had ten 1,000-yard seasons and ranks 2nd all-time in receiving TDs. Urlacher was an eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro, and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.
Dawkins was the greatest safety of his generation, a nine-time Pro Bowler who could cover and tackle. I wouldn't have voted for Owens, but I get why he's in. He ranks 2nd all-time in receiving yards and 3rd in receiving TDs. He was probably the most disruptive locker room presence in the history of professional sports, a player so toxic he made his teams worse instead of better, but he was a terrific athlete and he made a lot of big plays.
For the second consecutive season, no offensive linemen were chosen, despite the presence of six-time All-Pro Alan Faneca, five-time All-Pro Steve Hutchinson, All-Decade center Kevin Mawae, and three-time Super Bowl champ Joe Jacoby. I suspect those four split a lot of votes with each other. This is a strong HOF class, but it's disappointing that the voters focused so much on glory positions like wide receiver and middle linebacker. This was Jacoby's final year on the ballot.
The Senior nominees, Brazile and Kramer, were excellent choices. Brazile was Defensive Rookie of the Year, a seven-time Pro Bowler, and voted to the All-Decade team of the 1970s. Kramer was a five-time All-Pro and five-time NFL champion with the Packers in the 1960s. He threw one of the most famous blocks in history, on Bart Starr's game-winning QB sneak in the Ice Bowl.
People like Bobby Beathard are the reason for a separate Contributor category. Not many voters want to select a personnel man at the cost of a great player, but Beathard belongs in Canton. He was a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs when they played in the first Super Bowl. He was Director of Player Personnel for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. And he was General Manager for Washington in the 1980s, bringing in players like Darrell Green, Russ Grimm, Art Monk, and Jacoby. As GM in San Diego, he drafted Junior Seau and helped the Chargers reach their only Super Bowl in team history. There are Hall of Fame coaches who have done a lot less to help their teams.