Super Bowl 2017

Woody Hayes famously disparaged the forward pass because “three things can happen, and two of them are bad” – i.e., incompletion or interception. After the Atlanta Falcons’ stunning collapse before the New England Patriots, their coach Dan Quinn might want to add three more reasons not to pass: 1) a sack and 2) a holding penalty back-to-back knocked the Falcons out of field goal range with five minutes to play, holding an 8-point lead that would have been insurmountable had they run two plays for no yardage and then converted a 36-yard field goal. On their prior possession, 3) a strip sack on a second-and-1 play gave the Pats the ball and good field position to reduce their 16-point deficit to 8.
The strip sack not only led to a Patriots touchdown, it inexorably signaled a total shift in game momentum. New England had indeed started a comeback of sorts by holding Atlanta to three-and-out on their initial second-half possession; and after Atlanta scored its fourth, and last, touchdown the Patriots answered. But when their PAT attempt bounced the wrong way off the goal post, you still had the feeling that this was not New England’s day. Their next drive produced only a field goal, leaving the deficit at 16, with the fourth quarter melting away. The strip sack changed all that; and for anyone who thinks “momentum” is little more than a sportswriter’s fiction, this Super Bowl’s second half should convince otherwise.
It is easy to second-guess the Falcons’ play-calling: dialing up a long pass when a routine run would have netted a first down exposed quarterback Matt Ryan to the Patriot rush that produced the strip sack; and once the Falcons advanced to the New England 22 surely a conservative approach that ensured a field goal was called for, especially as Atlanta’s passing attack was sputtering and it took a sensational catch by Julio Jones to get there. The irony is that play-calling was the responsibility of Kyle Shanahan, the lauded offensive coordinator who was on the verge of moving to San Francisco as head coach. Not a good exit.
Most, if not all, of the credit for New England’s remarkable comeback is going to Tom Brady, hailed as the greatest quarterback, and maybe football player, of all time (the “GOAT”). There is no way to measure the psychological impact of his leadership, but I would point out that his physical performance was well short of impeccable. In the first half he threw an interception that was returned 82 yards for a seemingly crushing touchdown. Several long passes missed open receivers, and most of his completions were short- or mid-range. At least two of his passes on crucial fourth-quarter drives could have been intercepted, including a fade route in the end zone and the pass over the middle that Julian Edelman made the miracle catch on, after it bounced off defenders’ hands and legs.
At the same time, he received remarkable contributions from numerous teammates. Unheralded running back James White not only scored 20 points (a record) but was almost never brought down by the first defender he encountered. Brady’s offensive line firmed up in the second half – in contrast to Ryan’s – giving him time when one sack would’ve ended the comeback. His receivers, shaky in the first half, caught everything in the second. And the biggest plays, as mentioned above, came from the defense, stripping and sacking Ryan. Without Dont’a Hightower, et al., Brady wouldn’t have had the ball.
Last, but not least, is Lady Luck. The Falcons never saw the ball in overtime because the coin toss came up ‘heads,’ and the Patriots, for two years, have never called anything but.

Minnesota Sports

Notwithstanding the football Gophers’ upset win over Washington State in the relatively meaningless Holiday Bowl, this has been a dreadful year for a Minnesota sports fan. I don’t know why, or if this is at all peculiar to Minnesota, but pessimism has been my normal state since I moved there, and it has carried over to my non-resident fandom. Maybe it’s because the Vikings never won the Super Bowl, because Gary Anderson missed the kick, because Brett Favre’s pass was intercepted, because the Twins always fall to the Yankees, because the Gophers can’t compete with the Ohio States of the Big Ten or because the Timberwolves are the Timberwolves, I don’t know. Every community has its share of heartbreaks – think of Buffalo’s four Super Bowl losses, the Cubs’ hundred years without a championship, or Cleveland’s general misery before 2016 – and for every winner there are dozens of losers; so my view may be more the norm than I admit. But the fact remains that I expect every comeback to fall short and every draft choice to be a disappointment.
The Twins, as noted previously, set a team record for futility this summer. The only cause of optimism is the fact they have a new General Manager, although that fix usually takes several years to produce results. Their young superstars-to-be, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, had better start living up to their hype or the future will be bleak. The Vikings started the fall miraculously, going 5-0 with, first, a backup quarterback then a dominant defense. They gave away a game to the Lions and, seemingly, their confidence and their season unraveled from there, at first slowly and now precipitously. The T-Wolves excited their fan base with the prospect of a new, proven coach guiding three 21-year-old athletic phenoms. Things might be rough at first, but surely this bunch would start to deliver on its promise. Instead, they have held big leads in almost every game only to fall short at the end; and as we know, it is only the last five minutes of an NBA game that really matters. I am less invested in the U of M’s football team, but they, too, were a tease: holding second-half leads over the likes of Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin and finishing with a respectable 9-4 record, but without a “signature” win. There is an NHL team currently on a winning streak, but I can’t follow every sport and, except for three years reporting at Harvard, hockey has never interested me.
Perhaps I should file for divorce from Minnesota, now that I no longer live there. If Santa Barbara had a team, maybe I would, but I doubt I will ever identify with Los Angeles – the New York City of the West Coast. The Minnesota scene is still manageable, and I enjoy the StarTribune sports section each morning, so I expect I will stick. I just wish there were more fellow fans out here to commiserate with.

Super Bowl Thoughts

That there was no dominant – or even very good – team in the NFL this year was born out in spades in the lackluster performance of both teams in this year’s Super Bowl. At various stages of the season, the experts on ESPN hopefully anointed, respectively, the Packers, the Seahawks, the Steelers, the Patriots and the Cardinals as the potential team to beat – and of course none of them made it to the final Sunday. The fact that the Vikings – a seriously mediocre team – made the playoffs and almost beat the eventual champion Broncos confirms the underwhelming quality of play this year. And while Peyton Manning is being celebrated for winning his second Super Bowl at 39, let’s not forget that the story line for much of the year was, Should he still be playing, and it’s hard to find much to praise in his final performance. His two touchdown “drives” covered a total of 4 yards – half of which came from a debatable penalty – and his interception was a terrible throw.

Instead of being forgettable, the game was set up for a thrilling finish when Carolina got the ball with four minutes left, behind by 6 points. Surely, MVP Cam Newton would assert himself and, finally, lead his squad downfield for a last-minute touchdown. That he was sacked and fumbled made the Denver defense, rightfully, the story of the game. It’s just hard to get excited when the most important statistic is quarterback hurries.

I also haven’t seen enough discussion of the role of the officials, probably because the final score of 24-10 made any one play seem inconsequential.  For myself, I would like to see a column after every game devoted to evaluating the performance of the referee and his team. I can think of three calls that might have made a difference, two of which were shown to be clearly wrong by instant replay. Aqib Talib was about three feet offside on Carolina’s field-goal try that hit the goalpost and bounced wide. Given a rekick from 5 yards closer would, the Panthers would not only have added 3 points at a pivotal moment, they would have added some momentum. As it was, you wonder if the inevitable deflation and slightly worse field position didn’t help the Broncos, who quickly moved into field goal range of their own. Second, interference was not called on the Denver defender (probably Talib again) who had wrapped up Ted Ginn Jr. well before Newton’s third-down pass reached him, thwarting a Carolina drive. The third obviously crucial call was the incomplete ruling on Jerome Crotchery’s bobbling reception that the broadcasters and their in-booth ex-referee expected to be overturned when challenged. Instead, the call was allowed to stand – not “confirmed” – meaning that if the officials had called it complete at the outset the Panthers would have moved out of their own backyard and the subsequent sack-fumble-TD recovery would not have happened.

The other obvious consequential blunder that affected the outcome, as opposed to a great play, came when two Carolina defenders thought the Bronco punt returner had called for a fair catch, which he clearly should have, and backed off from a crushing tackle, allowing him to run 61 yards to set up another of Denver’s 3 points. And before I sign off, let me note the numerous off-target passes by Newton. In other words, it was a game of blunders, by players and officials, hardly worthy of a championship contest between the two best the game has to offer.

NFL Thoughts

1. The Extra Point. In an effort to add interest to the routine extra point after touchdown, the NFL added 23 yards to the length of the kick. This, however, added nothing of interest to the play itself. Yes, the point is more occasionally missed than before – especially by the Vikings’ kicker – but a routine kick is still routine. A field goal, like an extra point, is essentially a boring play, unless it comes at a challenging distance or affects the game’s outcome. If the NFL really wanted to spice up the extra point, it should have either eliminated the kicking option altogether, or moved the starting point closer, to the one-yard line for instance, to encourage an actual play that could be defended.

2. Why I Like the Jets. My antipathy toward New York teams was tested this fall by the Mets’ run to the World Series, fueled by their forlorn history, underdog status, low payroll, combination of castoffs and phenoms, and generally subordinate position to the hated Yankees. The Jets stand in the same relation to the New York Giants, including in their home stadium, and the only names I recognize on their roster are players deemed expendable by former employers. Their history of ineptitude, in terms of ownership, management and player personnel, is also well established. The New York press can hardly hide its amazement that it’s the Jets, not the Giants, that are meriting the headlines at the end of this season. More personally, I have a history soft on the Jets, despite their New York advantage. Seeking underdogs from an early age, I adopted the New York Titans as my favorite team, after outgrowing my even earlier infatuation with the Giants of Connerly, Gifford, Rote, Robustelli, Grier, Brown, Huff, et al. Al Dorow became my favorite quarterback until supplanted by Lee Grosscup, and Don Maynard my favorite receiver. The Titans morphed into the Jets, the AFL was absorbed by the NFL and the underdog aura evaporated, but not until Joe Namath, the key transitional figure, upset the Colts in the third Super Bowl. What brings me back to the Jets now is my connection to their three name offensive stars: Ryan Fitzpatrick went to my alma mater, Harvard; Eric Decker was a star for the University of Minnesota (and, frankly, is one of the few star white receivers); and Brandon Marshall shares my family name. Also, until yesterday, it seemed possible that they could finish the season with an 11-5 record and not make the playoffs, while a team from the NFC East could get in with an even, or losing, record.

3. Fantasy Sports Is Gambling. The bane of my NFL fandom is the rise of fantasy sports, specifically the two heavily advertising companies, FanDuel and DraftKing. Not only did their boring and implicitly misleading ads take time away from Geico and the other creative adsters, their product was being taken seriously by ESPN (among others including SI) which was producing shows devoted to the subject, in place of The Sports Reporters, which I can’t find anymore. What bothered me most, though, was the claim that fantasy sports was a contest of skill, not chance, and therefore not subject to every state’s anti-gambling laws. There is more skill in determining the winner of a team contest than in determining how many touchdowns an individual will score, yet betting on the former is universally considered gambling. The matter is now in the courts – many of them – but the case is open-and-shut in my mind.

4. Don’t Some Coaches Ever Learn? Perhaps by now it is widely understood that the only thing a “prevent defense” prevents is the continuing good play of the team employing it. Yet shortly after one terrible defensive ploy was exposed on national TV we saw it being repeated, no lesson learned. Aaron Rodgers beat the Detroit Lions on the game’s final play by throwing a 70-yard Hail Mary pass. How did the Packers have the time to get all their receivers into the end zone and Rodgers have the time and space to uncork his bomb? Because the Lions rushed only three linemen, leaving the rest of their defense to run into each other in the end zone, allowing Green Bay’s Richard Rogers to back into several of them and catch the pass. A few weeks later, the Chiefs were defending against the Ravens with the ball at midfield on the final play of the half and what did they do? They rushed three men (a fourth blitzed later), allowing Raven quarterback Jimmy Clausen to throw a Hail Mary that was caught by his receiver – whether the intended receiver or not we’ll never know – and run in for a touchdown. It seems so obvious: rush the quarterback hard and he won’t have time to throw to the end zone, or if he does, no one will be there to catch it. But in case you ever think NFL coaches are so smart, there was Vikings coach Mike Zimmer electing to run one more play from the Arizona 36-yard line with 12 seconds and no timeouts left instead of kicking a field goal to tie the game. Or, more famously, Pete Carroll trying a pass when the Super Bowl was only a 1-yard run away.

A Stupid Rule

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When I think of stupid rules in sports, I usually land on the golf course, where plenty of rules designed to add strokes to my score – usually involving the ball hitting a foreign object – are a mystery, both as to scope and necessity. This week, however, the NFL introduced us to a rule in football that seems to exist for no good reason, which seemingly no one knew about, yet which, if enforced, would have changed the outcome of a game. Briefly put: when a Lions receiver fumbled on the one-foot line, the loose ball was punched out of the end zone by a Seahawk player, resulting, per the officials, in a touchback with the ball going over to Seattle on the 20. Game over, Seahawk victory. What the game officials, coaches, players and TV announcers did not know was a rule prescribing a 10-yard penalty against a team that intentionally knocks a live ball out of bounds. If understood and applied, this rule would have resulted in the Lions’ retaining possession on the six-inch line, with a high probability of scoring a touchdown on the next play, for Detroit’s first win of the year.

After the game, ESPN’s officiating analyst pointed out the rule and said it had been on the books for the 26 years he had been an official. This resulted in much gnashing-of-teeth by Detroit fans and much incredulity by the players involved, who had never heard of this rule, but complaints by coaches and players and national outrage was rather muted because, I submit, everyone realizes what a stupid rule this is. In fact, the hubbub would have been significantly greater, I have to believe, if an official had, in fact, called the penalty and the Lions gone on to a victory that most would feel was not deserved.

What is the reason for such a rule? It’s not player safety – the reason behind so many recent rule changes. Punching the ball out of bounds avoids unnecessary physical contact. Does it give the offending team an unfair advantage? It does eliminate the need to control a loose ball, so maybe it eliminates an act of skill that should be required? And maybe it interferes with the other team’s chances of recovering the fumble.

(At this point, I should admit that I do not know the various permutations of the rule in question. Does it matter which team bats the ball out of bounds? How does batting it out of bounds on the sidelines compare to batting it out in the end zone? Is change-of-possession affected only when it is the defense doing the batting – and if so, is that fair? Or is possession affected only when the bat occurs in the end zone?)

In the incident in question, there was no Detroit player in the vicinity when the ball was batted, and the Seahawk defender could just as easily have caught the ball or fallen on it. Why reward Detroit? Perhaps there is room for a rule that says, if in the referee’s judgment a player’s batting the ball out of bounds prevented the other team from recovering it, that player’s team shall be penalized ten yards. There is already room for the referee’s judgment in the current rule, as the official has to determine that the batting was intentional, not inadvertent; so adding judicial discretion is not new.

The important thing for the rule – for any rule – is that it not change the game 180 degrees from what would have happened if the act precipitating the penalty had not occurred. Rules should facilitate the normal flow of the contest, not reverse it.

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Super Bowl 2015

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.