However appropriate the hoorah over the Darrell Bevell/Pete Carroll call to throw a pass from the 1-yard line with 30 seconds to play, my lasting impression from the Patriots’ Super Bowl win will be that Malcolm Butler’s interception of Russell Wilson’s pass is the single greatest defensive play I have ever seen. First is the level of anticipation required to jump the route. I have seen hundreds of slant passes thrown and can’t remember a defensive back’s ever beating the receiver to the ball. The timing involved was exquisite, to get in the receiver’s path without interfering. Holding onto the ball, thrown directly at you from close range, with the receiver banging into you, raises the level of difficulty further. But what put this play in a category of its own was its impact on and the importance of the game. By itself, it turned a certain defeat into a certain victory, with no other factors playing a role. And the game was as big as they come: not only the Super Bowl, but a showdown between an aging dynasty and one in the making. The Immaculate Reception probably holds an equivalent spot in pro football offensive history (as does Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass for college football), but there was a lot of luck involved in the Steelers’ play (and, you could argue, in the B.C. play). Malcolm Butler’s interception, on the other hand, involved no luck, just great defense.
My other takeaway from the Patriot victory was their success with players who were undrafted, drafted in late rounds or released by other teams. I moan about the Vikings’ lack of talented players, especially at positions like running back, wide receiver and cornerback. Then I see the Patriots succeed with players like LaGarrette Blount, who was unused and allowed to walk away from his previous team, and the above-mentioned Malcolm Butler, who was out of football when the season started. They were perfectly available if the Vikings had wanted them. Do the Patriots have better scouts, better coaches, a better system? Whatever it is, you can’t accuse them, like the old Yankees, of buying a championship. They set the standard, but it should be something any other team could do, too.