Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
02 Feb 2004
by Russell Levine
Since Football Outsiders is run by a Pats fan (Aaron) and I assume it's frequented by many as well, I feel compelled to offer the following disclaimer before beginning this column:
In the next several paragraphs I intend to take John Fox to task for mistakes which I feel cost his team the Super Bowl. Of course I realize that had the Patriots converted two short field goals in the first half, had Tom Brady not thrown an interception in the end zone, had officials ruled a fumble instead of an incompletion on Carolina's first drive of the second half, etc., etc., the Patriots would have won by a wider margin.
The better team won the game -- I have no problem stating that. In fact, I think the Patriots' 15-game winning streak in this era of football is more impressive than Miami's 17-0 season in 1972. They have all but created a modern-day dynasty with their second Super Bowl win in three years. Trust me, with Michigan guys under center and patrolling the secondary, how could I not love the Patriots?
But all those things listed did happen, and the game unfolded as it did. Facts are facts, and the cold, hard ones of Super Bowl XXXVIII suggest that Fox, under the NFL's ultimate spotlight for the first time as a head coach, may have cost his team the game.
Readers of my column going back to the Football Network days (mom and dad, that means you) will recall that coaches blowing the two-point decision is my single biggest pet peeve in football. It baffles the mind how coaches, after going to any length to find talent, spending hour upon hour analyzing film, breaking down trends and statistics and plotting game plans, can still give away a game by butchering this simple decision.
Faced with a five-point deficit and more than 12 minutes to play, Fox went for two and failed. The fact that CBS' Phil Simms criticized the decision even before the try failed indicates how far the NFL has come with regards to the two-point play. Six or seven years ago, when the two-pointer was a new innovation in the pro game, the analysts no doubt would have said something about how the "chart" advises going for two when trailing by five.
Simms at least had the presence of mind to suggest the obvious -- that it was too early for the Panthers to chase points.
Going for two when trailing is an act of desperation. It indicates that the trailing team believes it doesn't have enough possessions left to make up for leaving that potential eighth point on the field. Coaches seem to be blinded by what that eighth point can do for them and fail to consider the ramifications of not getting it.
When deciding whether or not go for two, a coach must consider what will happen if he misses, and the other team scores again. In Fox's case, the Panthers were left trailing by five, which meant that if the Patriots went on to kick a field goal, his team would need a touchdown and two-pointer just to tie. If the Pats scored a touchdown, he'd be down 12, meaning he'd need two touchdowns to take the lead, instead of a touchdown, a two-pointer, and a field goal to tie.
One could argue, I suppose, that Fox considered both scenarios and decided it was an acceptable risk given that he could overcome either with a subsequent successful two-pointer. To me, that's an unacceptable risk, but I'll listen to the argument that Fox was at least thinking along those lines.
But the scenario that coaches never seem to consider, and the one that ultimately doomed the Panthers in the Super Bowl, is the one that results when the trailing team goes for two, misses, then scores again.
That's exactly what happened to Carolina when they intercepted Brady in the end zone and Jake Delhomme hooked up with Muhsin Muhammad for an 85-yard score. The first missed two-pointer left the Panthers trailing by five. Muhammad's touchdown gave them a one-point advantage with 6:53 on the clock. This time, Carolina was compelled to go for two and attempt to make it a field-goal advantage. Instead, another missed try left them in position to be beaten by a field goal. Simply kicking both extra points would have given them that field-goal lead.
This is why I said that for the trailing team, the two-pointer is an act of desperation. In effect, with the initial two-point attempt, Fox was saying he didn't believe his team could score another touchdown and that they needed to get within a field goal to have a chance. If he truly believed that his team could come down the field again on the New England defense, he wouldn't have weakened the potential impact of that subsequent touchdown by risking a missed two-pointer.
Again, one could argue that since New England went on to score a touchdown instead of kicking a field goal, that the missed two-pointers became a moot point, but you'd be wrong. New England's touchdown on a one-yard pass from Brady to linebacker Mike Vrabel gave the Pats a five-point lead with 2:51 to play, little enough time to make it an obvious and correct decision to go for two, which they converted to take a seven-point lead.
At this point, if Carolina had kicked two extra points, New England would have kicked an extra point and in all likelihood the Patriots would have led by four, 28-24. Carolina still would have needed a touchdown, but they would have been playing for the win, not the tie.
New England might well have gone on to win the game in overtime or even regulation. As I said, I think the better team won the game. But it's a shame that Fox's mangling of the two-point play hurt his team's chances to win.
If there are any NFL general managers out there that don't want to see the same fate befall their teams, my services are available. I'm ready, willing and able to be hired on as a two-point consultant. My qualifications are numerous: I watch a lot of football, and I'm pretty good at math. My requirements are minimal: first-class transportation to and from your game site each week, hotel accommodations, a reasonable per diem, a modest weekly stipend and a nice selection of sideline gear.
Here's how it works: I stand in the shadows on the sideline, materializing at the coach's side after each touchdown, holding either one or two fingers in the air. The head coach obviously has too many other things to worry about and isn't able to give this critical issue its due -- that's where I come in. Hey, the Pats already have 17 coaches. What's one more? And if it costs you a few thousand dollars a year and saves you a single victory, well, isn't that worth it?
As an added bonus, I'll even handle the squib/deep kickoff decision for you (see, the Patriots could also use my services).
Don't risk another game over a senseless two-point attempt -- hire me today! I'm also available to work for any BCS conference college teams that are interested.
* * *
Even though I watched him do it for two years as Michigan's QB and now for three seasons under center for New England, it still never ceases to amaze me how calm Brady is under pressure. Time and again, he makes the right read and delivers the ball on time to a place where only his man can catch it. He also manages the clock better than any QB in the NFL today.
Sunday, he was so proficient in the two-minute drill that you never once got the sense the Patriots were in a hurry, even as they basically had one play left to move into field-goal range.
Delhomme, too, showed tremendous poise, especially considering how green he is as an NFL signal-caller. However, he made one costly mistake during the Panthers' final drive that contributed to their ultimate defeat.
Delhomme had just connected on a 31-yard pass to Ricky Proehl down to the New England 14-yard-line with 1:42 left. He immediately signaled for an unnecessary timeout. In the CBS Booth, Simms and Greg Gumbel were too excited to notice this mistake. "No!" I shouted at the TV, "you'll leave too much time for the Patriots."
The second Proehl was tackled, the Panthers had all the time in the world. At that point, they should have been looking to slow things down, not stop the clock. As it turned out, the seconds they could have bled off the clock came back to haunt them as Brady drove New England for the winning field goal.
It was just a little thing, but Brady never would have called a timeout in that situation. Given his inexperience, Delhomme can be forgiven for being a little nervous, but in a game in which their production was very similar, it was one of the small reasons why Brady ended up on the winning side.
* * *
Where do these teams go from here? It's always tough to say in today's NFL, but both look poised for future success.
The Patriots are probably the closest thing we'll have to a dynasty in the NFL's salary-cap era. The have won two titles in three seasons and are well positioned to contend again for the next several years. They have four picks in the first two rounds of the draft, which means they'll continue to have young talent to replenish their roster when veterans are cast off. They have become the model NFL franchise in many ways. If they fail to repeat, it will probably be because of the little things that have a way of unraveling championship teams: critical injuries, complacency, etc. But having already proven their hunger with a second title, I'll be surprised if they don't contend again next season.
Carolina also looks to be in good shape. Like the Patriots, they will face a number of key free agency decisions in the coming offseason, but their talent core is young and they're built around a defense that should be in place for the next several seasons. Their toughest battle next year will probably be against the increased expectations that come with success. Many a team has taken a step back following a breakthrough season, and the Panthers may well go that route. The question is, will they be a team like the Bucs of the late '90s, who missed the playoffs following a breakout season in 1997, before qualifying for the next four postseasons, or will they be like the 1998 Falcons, who went 14-2, lost the Super Bowl, and immediately sunk back to the bottom of the NFL standings?
* * *
Wow, can this really be it? Is the season really over? I hope you've enjoyed my small contributions to Football Outsiders, and thanks for reading and for your comments. I'll continue to write on a semi-regular basis during the offseason. Now, when's mini-camp again?
You can read an archive of Russell's columns from earlier in the season, before he joined us at Football Outsiders, here.