Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Bowl XLII: The Aftermath

The New York Giants' 17-14 win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII will be talked about for decades to come. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind in the immediate aftermath of this incredible upset:

1) The New York Giants deserve a lot of credit for coming up with good game plans on both sides of the ball and then executing them under pressure against an undefeated team. Some people said before the Super Bowl that all the pressure was on New England because of the perfect season and because New York was a heavy underdog but I never bought that; when you are playing for a world championship there is a lot of pressure. The Giants faced a lot more pressure in this game than they did in the regular season finale versus New England, when the Patriots had much more at stake.

2) Neither Tom Brady nor the New England Patriots will ever mention this or make any excuses but anyone who watched Brady guide New England's record setting offense this season can plainly see that he was not the same player after he injured his ankle in the AFC Championship Game versus San Diego. The Boston Globe and Boston Herald both reported that he suffered the dreaded high ankle sprain in that contest; more than a week before the Super Bowl, MSNBC.com said that after reviewing game film ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski concluded that Brady was initially injured in the first quarter and then reinjured the ankle in the third quarter, probably after a Luis Castillo sack with 13:15 remaining. Brady threw two of his season-high three interceptions after that hit, including one on the very next play. He did not complete a pass of longer than 19 yards the rest of that game or in the Super Bowl; down the stretch versus San Diego, the Patriots uncharacteristically relied on their running game after being a pass first team for the vast majority of the season. In the MSNBC article, Dr. Steven Weinfeld explained what kind of impact the injury could potentially have on the Super Bowl: "But if it’s really a high ankle sprain, those things take up to three or four months to resolve. Two weeks is better than one week, but I think there’s a chance that he might not be at the top of his game come Feb. 3."

Watching Brady play in the Super Bowl, two things stood out: (1) he is normally accurate on deep throws but in this game he consistently failed to complete passes that he had made throughout the season; (2) like Dan Marino used to do, Brady is a master of making subtle moves in confined quarters to buy an extra split second to complete passes but against the Giants Brady's footwork seemed awkward and sluggish. These shortcomings are what one would expect from someone who has a gimpy ankle. The Giants deserve credit for their relentless pass rush but Brady faced blitzes all season long and had a phenomenal passer rating and completion percentage in those situations. I'd say that he was operating at about 75% versus the Giants, a level that would probably still be good enough to beat most teams but did not quite get it done against a very determined opponent.

Injuries are a part of the game and no matter what condition Brady was in the Giants still had to make plays and they should be commended for doing so. All I am saying is that I don't believe that physically this was the same Brady who torched the NFL record book during a 16-0 regular season.

3) We will probably never know the true extent of Brady's injury unless it turns out that he has to have surgery. However, the same is not true of Ellis Hobbs, the cornerback who Plaxico Burress beat to score the game winning touchdown. FoxSports.com reports that Hobbs played most of the season with a sports hernia/groin injury that is going to require surgery and that he aggravated that injury in the first quarter of the Super Bowl. Of course, Burress also played hurt for most of the season, so he may have been just as physically limited on that fateful play as Hobbs was.

4) Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth down with a 7-3 third quarter lead instead of kicking a field goal has already been heavily criticized, in no small part because of the rather obvious fact that the Patriots ultimately lost by three points. However, there are some other, less obvious facts that must be considered when evaluating this decision. The first thing is that it is hardly a sure thing that Stephen Gostkowski would have made the kick; I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that Belichick has a better idea of his kicker's range than random outsiders do. Also, Belichick has always been a firm believer in going for it on fourth down. You could say that is part of his basic strategy, just like blackjack players have a basic strategy--and any good blackjack player knows that basic strategy only works if it is applied consistently. Statistical research has shown that if a team goes for it all the time on fourth down--even deep in its own territory--in the long run the extra possessions will lead to more scores than the opposing team will get as a result of making stops on fourth down. Even Belichick is not going to go for it on fourth down deep in his own territory but he is pretty consistent about going for it on the other side of the 50 unless time, score and field position strongly dictate kicking a field goal. Just because this was the biggest game of the season is no reason to vary from his basic strategy. Finally, if the Patriots had indeed made a field goal then both teams would have played differently on offense and defense the rest of the game, so it is hardly certain that the score would have ended up 17-17 at the end of regulation. People who want to second guess this one decision should keep in mind that this and other aspects of Belichick's basic strategy have resulted in three Super Bowl victories and two winning streaks of at least 18 games. Are you really sure that you could do a better job strategically from the comfort of your living room couch?

5) The line between immortality and complete failure is razor thin. The Patriots just missed completing several plays that could have all but assured victory. Of course, the play that will be talked about forever is David Tyree's incredible "helmet-catch" that set up the winning touchdown but what about the potential interception that sailed through Asante Samuel's hands earlier on that drive? Or, for that matter, what about Eli Manning writhing free of tacklers perhaps a nanosecond before being sacked and then firing a laser to Tyree? It is truly staggering to consider how history would be completely different if not for a couple inches here or there.

Some athletes and teams reach a point in their careers where nothing other than a championship is good enough. In the late 1980s, the Detroit Pistons just missed winning the title a few times before trading Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre in the middle of the 1988-89 season. Detroit went on to win the championship that summer--and nothing less than that would have been good enough, as Aguirre told me almost 20 years later: "We had to win the title. There is no question. Before I came, I let them know that if we don’t win the title this is a bust." The Patriots have won three Super Bowls, so for this coach and this group of players nothing less than a championship will ever be acceptable. The Patriots' 2007 season will always be considered, in Aguirre's words, "a bust," but it is too soon to say how this will affect the Patriots' overall place in history. When John Elway was a three-time Super Bowl loser he had one place in history but two titles at the end of his career completely rewrote that story, even though he still had a losing career record in the big game. Bill Belichick's Patriots are 3-1 in Super Bowls, including back to back championships, two winning streaks of at least 18 games and the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history. That already is a most impressive resume and if the Patriots add one or two more Super Bowl victories--and I'll go on record now saying that the Belichick-Brady duo will wind up with five Super Bowl rings before it is all said and done--then this Super Bowl loss will be one setback in the midst of a tremendous run. Even if this turns out to be Belichick and Brady's last Super Bowl the Patriots will still go down as the team of the decade--unless the Giants win two more Super Bowls--and their three titles in four years will be enough to keep them in the discussion with the Lombardi Packers, Noll Steelers, Walsh 49ers and the 90s Cowboys. As devastating as this Super Bowl loss is, the most that it can do is "taint" the 16-0 regular season; no rational person can say that it detracts from the previous Super Bowl wins.

6) It is really remarkable how this Super Bowl brought the Patriots full circle; their championship run began with them being heavy underdogs against a high scoring Rams team and producing an upset victory. This time around, the Patriots were the huge favorites and they had an offense that was even more productive than St. Louis' "Greatest Show on Turf." It will be very interesting to see if the Giants can use this triumph as a springboard to win more championships or if they will fade away like the Ravens, Buccaneers and other one year Super Bowl wonders. There is little doubt that the Patriots will still be formidable Super Bowl contenders next season, as they have been during most of Belichick's tenure.

7) There is a certain mystique about champions who always win the big game. Michael Jordan not only won six titles but he never lost an NBA Finals series. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana each went 4-0 in the Super Bowl. Bill Russell did lose one NBA Finals but after that he won eight in a row and he finished with 11 championships overall, so his one "failure" can be "forgiven." The one thing that Belichick, Brady and the Patriots can never recapture is the aura of having never lost on the biggest stage. Even if they surpass the Noll-Bradshaw duo and win five Super Bowls, in many people's minds that 5-1 record will not be better than 4-0. This is not entirely rational, because playoff losses in earlier rounds seemingly don't figure in this equation--Brady's career playoff record of 14-3 tops both Bradshaw's 14-5 and Montana's 16-7--but the fact is that wins and losses in the final playoff round in any sport are weighed more heavily in the minds of not just fans but also historians.

1 comment:

vednam said...

The criticism of Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th down is absurd. He clearly knows his team better than fans or analysts do, and things don't unfold the way the did if he had made a different decision.

I agree completely with your comments about the razor thin margin. I think the Pats beat the Giants 8 out 10 times. However, it goes both ways. That is why I felt it was important for the Pats to win in very convincing fashion rather than the way they would have won if the Giants didn't put together that last drive (in other words, winning despite getting outplayed for most of the game). If the Pats had barely won, there would always be that lingering feeling that a few plays here and there could have easily altered the result. For a team to be the greatest of all time, there should be no such lingering feeling. Teams like the 1985 Bears and 1989 49ers left no doubt in the playoffs that they were the best team on the field. To me, leaving no doubts in the end is more important than having an extra game or two go your way in the regular season.

Of course, if the Patriots won by a slim margin, everyone would have chalked it up to their "gameplanning" and their mystical "will to win". The funny thing is, before the Super Bowl few would have disputed such a mystique, and now after the Super Bowl no one believes in it. The fact that such a mystique could disappear overnight is why I don't buy into it. (It's also why I don't think having a 3-0 record in the Super Bowl would somehow be better than a 3-1 record.) In sports, and especially football, where each game is so unpredictable, an umblemished record (and the mystique that goes along) often comes down to luck. Dominance, on the other hand, doesn't.

I'm not pretending I knew the Patriots would lose. I actually predicted a blowout for them. On the other hand, I did feel that their playoff performance going into the Super Bowl had been a bit underwhelming given all the hype.

Brady didn't look 100% to me either, but the Giants were also getting past the Pats offensive line more frequently than I've seen any other team all season. If we're going to qualify the Giants' victory by citing Brady's injury, maybe we should also note that the Pats may not have even been in the Super Bowl if Phillip Rivers and/or LaDainian Tomlinson were healthy. (Or maybe the Pats' would have undoubtedly beaten the Chargers anyway since their "will to win" didn't expire until February.)