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07 Feb 2005

Confessions of a Football Junkie: The Art of Being Better

By Russell Levine

Every year the network broadcasting the Super Bowl feels the need to put on a longer, more elaborate pregame show than the year before -- I think Fox's coverage Sunday topped out at 137 straight hours -- and fans all across America wonder aloud "who watches all this?"

I do.

Well, not all of it, but a good portion. I'm not saying I pay close attention to everything, but I keep it on as background noise while I conduct my normal Sunday routine. And since my normal Sunday routine since the beginning of September has consisted of nothing but watching football, this fits right in.

But when you're trying to come up with an interesting angle on the most widely covered sporting event in North America, every tidbit of information helps. That's what I picked up while watching "Untold Stories of the Super Bowl" Sunday Morning. The show consisted mostly of a dubious countdown of the top 10 moments in Super Bowl history. In discussing the 17-0 1972 Miami Dolphins, winners of Super Bowl VII, Terry Bradshaw -- whose Steelers lost to Miami in the AFC championship game that year -- said his main thought about that team was that they weren't that good, or something to that effect. He said that when he studied them on film, they didn't scare him at all and he felt that the Steelers should have kicked Miami's tail in the playoffs.

Now, I don't think Bradshaw meant any Rodney Harrison Disrespect® (I'm applying for a trademark of that phrase on behalf of the Pats' outstanding safety, who was still talking about feelings of inferiority after the game) to the Dolphins' legacy. I think he just meant that when you watched those Dolphins play, they didn't appear overwhelming or unstoppable, and that feeling may have diminished their place in the pantheon of all-time great NFL teams.

I think the same thing might someday be said about this current edition of the Patriots, who most assuredly deserve the label of "dynasty" after winning three Super Bowls in four years in the salary cap era. Even in compiling back-to-back 17-2 seasons, the Patriots at no time appeared unstoppable. It's because the things they do spectacularly -- disciplined tackling, efficient passing, physical inside running, clock management -- aren't the most obvious facets of a football team's success.

Harrison was probably fuming Monday morning because football analysts spent a lot of time on Sunday night talking about what the Eagles did to lose Super Bowl XXXIX and not so much time talking about what the Patriots did to win it. Such has been the case after all three of the Patriots' Super Bowl wins, but such is the natural by-product of winning all of them the same three-point margin. That's the one aspect of New England's legacy that differs from the NFL's other Super Bowl-era dynasties. The 1960s Packers were hardly challenged in winning the first two AFL-NFL World Championship Games (as the Super Bowl was then known). The Steelers of the 1970s didn't author any huge routs in winning four Super Bowls, but they physically dominated the Vikings for their first Super Bowl win, won two tight games over Dallas, one of which was not nearly as close as the score indicated, and authored a 12-point win over the Rams in a game that was closer than the final score. The 1980s 49ers won a pair of close games over Cincinnati and a pair of blowouts, over Miami and Denver, and added a rout of San Diego in the 1990s for good measure. The Cowboys kicked off their 1990s dynasty with a rout of Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVII, before winning a pair of closer games.

I'm of the opinion that the lack of a rout on the Patriots' Super Bowl resume does nothing to diminish their legacy, but it does contribute to the feeling that these New England teams, though dynastic, were also somehow beatable if only their opponents had done some things differently.

The key word in that statement is "feeling" -- I'm not saying it's necessarily true, but I do think that perception exists among other NFL teams and some football observers. Personally, I don't know how many times the Patriots have to come through in clutch situations before everyone realizes that there's a reason why the team in blue always ends up on top -- it's because they're better.

The Patriots were the better team in Jacksonville, just as they were in Houston last year and in New Orleans three years ago, but that doesn't make it a pointless exercise to analyze what Philadelphia could have done differently.

For one, they could have not turned the ball over four times. Donovan McNabb looked very nervous throughout the game, and his gaudy passing yardage total (357 yards) doesn't cover the fact that he didn't enjoy one of his best games. McNabb usually looks like he's having more fun than anyone on the field, but he wore a grim demeanor throughout the game and looked shaky throughout, rarely putting a series of good throws together. Given a reprieve after an early interception -- on a terribly thrown ball -- was wiped out by penalty, McNabb repeated the mistake on the other side of the field on the next play, leading to a Rodney Harrison interception at the Patriots' 4-yard line.

The most common knock against McNabb before this season was for his accuracy. That problem seemed to go away this year, thanks in part to the arrival of Terrell Owens, as he completed 64% of his throws compared to a career average of 57% entering the season. But the problem resurfaced in the Super Bowl. McNabb connected on 30 of 51 passes (59%) but had two drive-killing interceptions on poorly thrown balls (a third interception came on a tipped ball with nine seconds remaining) and often threw behind, above, or below open receivers.

(As for Owens, I'd love to write a separate column about his Super Bowl performance, but there's not much I can add to the heap of superlatives that are being tossed his way. His performance was one for the ages and he is deserving of every accolade he receives.)

The Eagles had the correct idea to attack New England's secondary, especially after starting free safety Eugene Wilson left the game with a broken wrist, but McNabb was not accurate enough to take full advantage. His counterpart, New England's Tom Brady, also started slowly but avoided the killer mistake (no interceptions) and settled into a nice rhythm in the second half, ending the day with his typically efficient numbers: 23 of 33, 236 yards, two touchdowns, QB rating of 110.2, DPAR of 10.2. McNabb's rating was 75.4, with a DPAR of 2.7. (DPAR, Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement, explained here.)

Another area where the Patriots got the better of the play was along the offensive and defensive lines, particularly when the teams blitzed. It appeared that whenever the Patriots blitzed or threatened to (by bringing the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage), they were effectively able to create chaos around McNabb, even if they only actually brought four pass rushers. McNabb was rarely able to make big plays down the field against the blitz. The Eagles probably blitzed more than they planned to because they fell behind in the second half, and though they had some success, they weren't able to create as much pressure in Brady's face as New England was in McNabb's.

Both teams were effective against the run, but the Pats were even better in this area, completely neutralizing Philadelphia's rushing attack and putting the entire weight of the offense on McNabb's shoulders -- not a good thing for Philadelphia on a day when McNabb was not at his best.

New England, on the other hand, got just enough out of the running game to keep Philadelphia honest, and was also able to use the screen pass with great effectiveness, particularly as it built its lead early in the second half.

There was one final area where the Patriots got the better of their matchup with the Eagles -- the coaching department. After a back-and-forth first half in which the Eagles dominated early but couldn't capitalize on the scoreboard, New England made some critical halftime adjustments, going to four-receiver sets and emphasizing the screen pass in the third quarter. Philadelphia made no such noteworthy adjustments, and continued its up-and-down tack after intermission.

Despite being slightly outplayed in several key areas, the Eagles still had a chance in the fourth quarter before coach Andy Reid and McNabb committed their biggest gaffe -- failing to go into a hurry-up offense on their next-to-last possession. As has been written about ad nauseam in the game's post-mortem, Philadelphia continued to huddle after every play of their final touchdown drive, leaving themselves with just 1:48 to play and forcing them to attempt an onsides kick.

I was an extremely neutral observer of the game, and even I found myself screaming at the Eagles offense to hurry up. I can only imagine what that sequence was like for Eagles fans. It has been debated as to who is more to blame for that situation, coach or quarterback, but I put the blame squarely at the feet of Reid. When asked about it after the game, he seemed to still not really understand what the fuss was about. Had the Eagles skipped just one or two huddles on the touchdown drive, they could have kicked off deep and might have gotten the ball in much better field position as they attempted to send the game to overtime. Instead, they looked like a team that was totally unprepared to run the two-minute drill. Perhaps that's a by-product of having gone 13-3 and rarely trailing this season. Regardless, there's no excuse for the failure to grasp the situation and to adequately prepare for it. There's no way a Bill Belichick coached team would have committed that mistake. For his utter lack of urgency in the fourth quarter, Reid earns the season's final Mike Martz Award.

Where do these teams go from here? On the surface both look to be contenders for years to come. For New England, you have to wonder if the loss of both his coordinators will have an effect on Belichick. Much has also been said and written about the Patriot players' willingness to put team before individual in their quest for more championships. There can be no question that the organization has done a marvelous job of keeping everyone focused on the group goal, especially in the me-first era of the modern NFL (apologies to Peter King if I borrowed that last sentence from MMQB). But human nature suggests, and Belichick would probably agree, that it's a more difficult sell to the players after each subsequent title. A player that was still hungry after one title or even two may figure, after three rings, that it's time to seek more money and individual stardom elsewhere.

The Patriots have done a terrific job of drafting, coaching, and developing young talent, something that has allowed them to keep their salary cap in check. But at some point, some of the players who have helped deliver two or three rings are going to want to get paid. Maybe Brady will be one of them. Current market value would suggest that Brady is woefully underpaid compared to players like Michael Vick and Peyton Manning, who between them have made two conference title game appearances, both losses. Brady is 9-0 in the postseason, yet has never seen a payday in the same galaxy as the signing bonuses Vick and Manning banked the last two years. New England owner Robert Kraft seemed to suggest as much when he mentioned during Super Bowl week that if Brady wants to be the highest paid player in football, that would be very difficult for the Patriots to do. There's probably a compromise in the future, one that will keep Brady, all but a civic treasure in Boston, a Patriot, give him a huge enough payday and still save some money to pay the rest of the team. Such a contract will still have an effect the Patriots' depth the same way it does every other club in the NFL, however. Enough of those contracts and/or the departures of players who fail to secure them will eventually bring down the Patriot dynasty -- it's inevitable. Whether it happens in the next 1-3 seasons remains to be seen.

As for the Eagles, you have to wonder how they will react to this new kind of disappointment. After three straight defeats in the NFC title game, the Eagles didn't play like they were just happy to be in the Super Bowl, and the fact that they were so much in the game despite a bevy of mistakes has to make their disappointment all the more difficult. If they're able to overcome the emotional scars of this loss -- something that Reid, with his ever-calm demeanor, should be quite adept at -- they should be right in the thick of the NFC next season.

* * *

This will serve as the final weekly edition of Confessions of a Football Junkie this season. Thanks to all the readers for putting up with my non-statistical analysis ramblings about the NFL and college football and for offering your comments in the discussion threads. Junkie will be back with occasional efforts over the offseason.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 07 Feb 2005

1 comment, Last at 19 Aug 2005, 4:22pm by Rovdog


by Rovdog (not verified) :: Fri, 08/19/2005 - 4:22pm

People seem to forget that the Superbowl was pretty close. Both teams looked poor in the first half. The Eagles made more mistakes, including some uncharacteristic ones on defense and that was a significant difference. Without that red zone turnover it could have been a very different game. Comparing the quarterbacks is not useful- actually it was the Pats commitment to a solid running game in the second half is what tipped the advatage their way. The Eagles were not getting "blown off the ball" as someone suggested the whole game, but they were dominated at the line of scrimmage during a key, timing consuming series in the second half. The Pats won by shortening the game, after an atypical start for both teams, in their usual solid judicious manner. People think that they don't get their just due for this which was the orginal comment here, but I think that is absurd. They get more than their due for this from the like of Trey Wingo and everyone else on ESPN. They are obviously the best team in in NFL right now but I don't think the Eagles or Steelers are too far away. As far dynasty goes, would there be all this talk of dynasty if the balls and the rules hadn't bounced their way in the road to their first superbowl. I think they need to legitmately win one more superbowl in the next two years and then I will consider them a dynasty, up with some of the great teams mentioned here.