By now, you have seen it, heard about it and/or been subjected to endless "takes" about it: the New England Patriots came back from a 25 point third quarter deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime in Super Bowl LI. Bill Belichick now stands alone above NFL coaches with five Super Bowl wins and Tom Brady stands alone above NFL quarterbacks with five Super Bowl wins (Charles Haley won five Super Bowls as a linebacker for the 49ers and Cowboys).
I try to avoid engaging in hyperbole but considering the quality of the teams, the magnitude of the historical legacies at stake, the many great individual plays and the dramatic overtime conclusion, Super Bowl LI is the greatest Super Bowl ever.
Here are some of my thoughts and observations to place Super Bowl LI in a larger context:
1) Has any major sports figure more thoroughly forced the media to completely reevaluate his legacy than Bill Belichick? Cleveland media members mocked Belichick during his tenure with the Browns (fun fact: Belichick presided over the Browns' most recent playoff win, after the 1994 season) and after Belichick resigned following just one day as the New York Jets' coach the national media ganged up on him as well (Belichick believed that the Jets lacked the organizational stability necessary to build a championship team and history has certainly vindicated him about that).
When New England owner Robert Kraft was considering hiring Belichick, Art Modell--who backstabbed Cleveland's fans by moving the Browns to Baltimore in 1995, a decision that also sabotaged Belichick's final year with the team--told Kraft that hiring Belichick would be the biggest mistake he ever made. Modell thought like a media member (he was a Madison Avenue ad man before buying the Browns) and, like most members of the media, he would not have known a bubble screen from bubble wrap, but instead of accepting responsibility for his actions in Cleveland he preferred to make Belichick the scapegoat.
Kraft wisely ignored Modell and the media know-it-alls. Kraft not only hired Belichick but he had enough sense to stay out of his way (something that Modell never figured out how to do as an owner) and enable Belchick to rebuild the Patriots from the ground up. Go back and look at the headlines from early in Belichick's tenure in New England; the stupidity of the media is breathtaking. It is also pathetic that Modell, who had pledged that Belichick would be the last coach that he hired only to betray him, was not satisfied with firing Belichick but that he also tried to ruin his reputation among other NFL owners.
2) The Patriots proved the power of positive thinking. Shaquille O'Neal often says that if the general panics then the troops will panic but if the general is calm then the troops will be calm. The Patriots did not play well in the first half but you did not see Belichick or Brady losing their cool. They exuded a quiet confidence that there was a lot of time left in the game and that they could still win. Many media members love to talk about "halftime adjustments" or "in game adjustments" but the reality is that game-planning is done before the game, not during it.
If you have to come up with a new game plan at halftime then you are dead. If you listen to Belichick or Gregg Popovich or any other great coach you will notice that they almost sneer when a media member asks them about halftime adjustments. Belichick had a game plan that took into account the Falcons' tendencies and, as Belichick noted after the game, by the middle of the first quarter it was obvious that the Falcons were going to almost exclusively stick with man to man defense. The only "adjustment" the Patriots had to make was to stay focused, not panic after making some mistakes and execute the game plan that had been drawn up to counter man to man defense. There were no great halftime speeches and no "adjustments" drawn on a chalkboard.
The Patriots stayed calm, they stayed focused and they followed Belichick's mantra: "Do your job." This approach is a marked contrast to what we often see in the sports world. When challenges arrive, it is very easy to think negatively or blame your teammates or to abandon the game plan as opposed to focusing on executing it. When the Cleveland Cavaliers hit a rough patch recently, LeBron James blamed everyone but himself and he is reportedly actively involved in trying to arrange for the Cavaliers to trade Kevin Love to New York for Carmelo Anthony. Belichick and Brady did not whine that they needed "another playmaker" after Rob Gronkowski suffered a season-ending injury; instead, they won a Super Bowl with a bunch of wide receivers who no one would have ever heard of if those receivers had not had the good fortune to be coached by Belichick and thrown to by Brady. The 39 year old Brady did not complain about having to throw the ball over 60 times because the Patriots' running game could not get going. World Chess Champion Vasily Smyslov once said that in chess you must do things as they have to be done and then see what happens (Larry Brown might call this "playing the right way") and that is what Brady did: the Patriots had to throw the ball a lot to win, so he threw the ball a lot and did not complain or whine or make excuses.
It is also worth noting that when all was said and done, neither Belichick nor Brady announced that they were the best of all-time; they deflect praise and they speak about the contributions of the other members of the team. I can't help but think back to when James quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs and then announced at his press conference that he had "spoiled" the fans by being so great for so long--or to when James declared that he never lacked confidence because he is "the best player in the world." Muhammad Ali could get away with saying such things because he went in the ring by himself and proved in one on one combat that he was the greatest but it is a little different in a team sport--and when a team sport athlete makes such a statement it then becomes quite legitimate to ask why he has a losing record in the Finals: if you keep tooting your own horn then you can't complain when the critics point out your discordant notes. Brady and Belichick don't have to say anything because their resumes speak loud and clear: the Patriots are contenders every year and they have posted an unprecedented 5-2 Super Bowl record in a league that is designed to promote parity.
3) "Do your job." Julian Edelman's job is to catch footballs. Before Super Bowl LI, he warmed up by catching passes one-handed, first with his right hand and then with his left hand. A few hours later with the championship on the line, Edelman outfought three Falcons for the ball and cradled it in his hands just inches above the turf. How does one little 5-9 receiver beat out three players to make such a play? Edelman did his job. Losing teams get in trouble because some players try to do too much or because other players become so discouraged that they stop trying at all. The Patriots do their job until the clock strikes triple zeroes. As Belichick said after the game, it takes 60 minutes of effort and sometimes even a few minutes more than that (because of overtime).
4) The difference between winners and champions. In the first half, Brady did not look like the greatest quarterback of all-time. He made uncharacteristic mistakes and he even seemed rattled mentally and/or physically by the Falcons' pass rush. However, Brady kept battling and his confidence permeated throughout the team. There are two recurring themes in the Patriots' post-game quotes: (1) Coach Belichick prepared us for anything that could happen and (2) We never doubted that we could come back because we had Tom Brady running the offense. That kind of leadership cannot be quantified; indeed, other than height, Brady lacks just about any measurable you would look for in a franchise quarterback but you cannot measure mental toughness and work ethic and leadership.
In an interview aired on Fox before the Super Bowl, Kraft told Erin Andrews that the toughest part of any task is completing the last 5% of the job. I would add that the final 5% is what separates champions from everyone else: it is the difference between winners and champions.
The Atlanta Falcons are winners. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise; they had a great season and they played brilliantly in the NFC playoffs to advance to the Super Bowl. What the Falcons are not is champions: they were not able to complete the last 5% of the job. Perhaps they will find a way individually and collectively to develop that championship mentality; there have been other teams that fell just short only to eventually take the last step--but there have also been plenty of teams that fell just short and then collapsed, because the way that they fell short revealed something essential about their competitive spirit that just could not be fixed.
I love the unscripted drama of sports. No statistical model could have predicted what transpired down the stretch in the Super Bowl. I read a stat somewhere that at one point the Falcons were 99.8% favorites to win the game. Such statistical modeling fails to take into account the human spirit. I think back to the famous "Battle of 1816," when John McEnroe defeated Bjorn Borg by that score in the fourth set tiebreaker of the 1980 Wimbledon Finals. Borg had won four straight Wimbledons but it seemed like McEnroe was about to dethrone him. It would have been understandable for Borg to quit against his younger rival but, instead, Borg played an almost flawless fifth set to win a then-unprecedented fifth straight Wimbledon crown. That tiebreaker is often replayed but one time when Borg was asked about it he almost whispered with a knowing smile that it was the fifth set that mattered.
I have never had the opportunity to compete at the highest level of any sport but in my local and regional competitions I have attempted to apply what I have learned from a lifetime of studying the greatest champions. It took me nearly a decade to win my first Dayton Chess Club Championship. Perhaps my most frustrating failure came after I raced to a 3-0 lead by beating my main rivals, only to fall short by losing to two lower rated competitors. Such a setback is a cause for serious introspection; I had already won many tournaments and attained an Expert level rating but I had never won a chess championship, falling short both in the city high school championship and in the DCC Championship.
The next time that I played in the Dayton Chess Club championship after blowing that 3-0 lead, I was not deterred when adversity arose in certain games and I was not distracted by what anyone else in the tournament did, because I had finally figured out that what mattered was not accumulating rating points or being satisfied by beating the players who were the biggest threats on paper: what mattered was completing that last 5% of the job, winning that fifth set, beating out three players to catch a pass.
Being a champion is like being addicted to a drug; it took Michael Jordan several years to win his first NBA title and then he won six in the next eight years. After I won my first DCC title, I won three in a four year stretch en route to capturing a record 10 overall in a 20 year period despite rarely if ever being the highest rated participant. No "metric" would have projected that I would win 10 DCC titles--and that is what is great about competition.
Please forgive the personal interlude but trying to understand champions has been a lifelong fascination of mine and I have attempted to apply what I have learned both in my writings about champions and also in my modest endeavors to be a champion on a local/regional level. I also should make it clear that I consider my rivals for the DCC title over the past two decades--including but not limited to Earle Wikle, John Dowling, Chris Atkins, Ross Sprague, Les Whorton and Will Sedlar--to be champions as well and any time I describe my journey to become a champion I certainly mean no disrespect to the journeys that each of them took to become champions: when two champions square off someone has to lose but a true champion shows his mettle by bouncing back. McEnroe beat Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon Final to secure his legacy as a great champion; Belichick and Brady have responded to their two Super Bowl losses by adding two more Super Bowl wins to their resumes. It will be interesting to see what these Atlanta Falcons are made of and if they can complete the final 5% of the job or if they have already peaked. After the Super Bowl, Jimmy Johnson said that the Falcons will be back but as an NCAA and NFL champion he should know better: championships are not promised to anyone, no matter how talented or young or hungry.