Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part IV

"It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault."

When the final gun sounded in Super Bowl XXV, most football fans realized they may well have seen the greatest Super Bowl ever played. I’d say it’s certainly a strong candidate for three reasons: (1) A most interesting clash of styles—the old school smashmouth Giants vs. the no-huddle K-Gun quick strike Bills; (2) The teams played an even football game, competitive throughout, with four lead changes including two in the fourth quarter; and (3) The game didn’t just come down to the final seconds, it came down to the very last (non-kneeldown) play of the game.

Following his 47-yard missed field goal attempt, goat horns promptly sprouted on poor Scott Norwood and two decades later fans and the media still view him as the man who choked away the game for the Buffalo Bills. Hell, his miss may have scarred his team so badly they promptly went and got blown out in the next three Super Bowls. No, actually I don’t consider Norwood to be a choker. Consider this fact: Scott Norwood had never made a field goal of that length on natural grass in his entire NFL career. Let me repeat: Scott Norwood had never made a field goal of that length on natural grass in his entire NFL career. So the last play of the freaking Super Bowl is going to be the first? Anybody out there want to take odds on that?

Let’s take a closer look at Norwood’s ability to make that field goal. In his 7-year career Norwood converted 72.3% of his field goals. His best season was 1988 when his FG percentage was 86.5. That dropped to 76.7% in 1989 and 69.0% in 1990. After Super Bowl XXV, Norwood played but one more season and Norwood kicked himself right out the league following his 62.1 FG percentage in 1991. So when Norwood lines up to kick the football on Super Bowl XXV’s last play he was converting about only two of every three field goal attempts. Norwood converted about 58% of his FG attempts between 40-49 yards in his last two seasons, but for his entire career he only made two out of ten tries on FG attempts over 50 yards. And 47 yards is a lot closer to 50 than 40. Clearly that kick was at the upper end of Norwood’s range. Plus, the cool breeze and late hour wouldn’t have increased his chances. And I recently discovered one other interesting fact: the hold on that FG try was far from ideal. According to former kicker Jim O’Brien (who made the first SB winning kick ever) Jim O’Brien,

"That kick was bad the whole way…It was a bad hold. (Frank Reich) puts it down and the laces are to the right. Of course, the ball tails off to the right."

So the distance was at the very edge of Norwood’s ability, the conditions (grass, wind) were not ideal ones, and the hold was bad. Even if he was completely unaffected by the pressure of the moment is sure seems like Norwood’s chances of making that kick were well below 50%. It had to be more like one out of three. A “makeable” kick but nobody should have expected Norwood to save the day. Hell, Bill Parcells said later he knew Norwood wasn't going to be able to make it and the Tuna knows a lot more than you about football. Norwood actually did a hell of a job getting the ball as close as he did to the uprights. So get off his back already people. The man did not choke.

Allow me to proffer an alternative interpretation of the game identifying the game’s true goats. If you look at the game statistics, there’s one number that jumps out at you like it was lit up in neon: time of possession. The Giants held the ball for a staggering 40-plus minutes of gametime. So obviously the Bills’ defense deserves some blame for not getting the Giants’ offense off the field. But the flip side of time of possession is your offense keeping the other team's offense off the field. And here’s where the game was lost, not on Norwood’s desperate kick but on the Bills’ failure to sustain any drives. New York controlled the clock so well in part because Buffalo couldn't keep the ball away from them.

In terms of points scored and yards gained the game was a very evenly played game despite the enormous time of possession disparity. How could that be? Well big plays were the equalizer for Buffalo. The Bills completed a 63-yard pass on their first scoring drive, Thurman Thomas scored on a 31-yard run, and the defense scored on a safety. The team had only one sustained drive the entire game, moving 80 yards in 4:27 to score their first TD of the game. Their second-longest drive of the game was all of two minutes and 30 seconds! One stat tells the tale for Buffalo’s inability to chew up any clock: they went a pathetic 1 for 8 on third down (compare that to the Giant’s 9/16). The Bills lost because they missed a kick AND because they couldn’t convert on third down.

The way I see it Buffalo’s loss should be pinned on their offense’s failure to keep drives alive. Of the team’s trio of offensive stars, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed, no blame can be affixed to Thomas. He rushed for 135 yards on 15 carries. He averaged over 7 yards a carry if you take out his 31-yard TD run! So if the running game wasn’t the problem then the passing game is all that remains.

Let me take you back to what I believe to be the key moment of the game for Buffalo (yes, leaving aside the Norwood miss). After falling behind early, Buffalo tied the game with a FG, forced the Giants to punt, put together an 80-yard TD drive to take the lead in the second quarter, and forced a three-and-out and another Giants punt. Andre Reed was a key player for the Bills to that point, catching six balls for 53 yards in just a quarter-and-a-half. Reed caught four passes and accounted for 44 yards on Buffalo’s go-ahead TD drive. Leading 10-3, Buffalo drove to midfield where they faced third-and-one. Buffalo was on the verge of taking complete control of the game. A TD on this drive would give them a commanding 14-point lead. No Super Bowl team, then or since has ever come back from that large a deficit to win a Super Bowl. Even a field goal would have given the Bills a 10-point lead and only one team has ever come back from that far behind to win a Super Bowl (Parcells’ 1986 Giants as it turns out). Bills coach Marv Levy tried to cross up the Giants and called a pass play. Given the success of the Buffalo ground game that night you can certainly question that call but Reed was wide open on the play and Kelly threw it to him. Reed dropped it. No Giant was near him. If Buffalo scores on that drive they probably win that game. Instead they had to punt.

Reed’s drop didn’t appear disastrous at the time. The punt pinned the Giants inside their own 10 and the Bills scored a safety three plays later. 12-3 Buffalo lead and the football. Now a TD would give the Bills a 19-3 lead and a near-certain victory in the pre-two-point conversion era. Even a FG would force the Giants to overcome a 12-point deficit, something no Super Bowl-winning team has ever done. But Buffalo couldn’t gain a single yard. They used a mere 34 seconds of clock and had to punt it away. And the defense stopped the Giants again, for the fourth straight time! Buffalo’s offense got yet another chance to put a hammerlock on the game and while they manage to move the ball into Giants territory they had to punt after blowing yet another third-down conversion attempt. In their three offensive possessions after taking a 10-3 lead Buffalo went 0-3 on third downs and used up all of 4:34 of clock. New York had three separate drives that game all longer than those combined three for the Bills. When the Giants got the ball back, they quickly and calmly drove 87 yards down the field against the tiring Buffalo defense to close to within two points at the end of the first half. Buffalo’s momentum was gone.

And the failure of their formerly high-powered offense can be traced to Reed’s drop. For the rest of the game Reed caught only two more balls. In the second half, in a close back-and-forth affair where every play was crucial, Reed caught one pass for four yards. He dropped three times as many passes that night as he caught in the second half. The Giants planned to hit Reed hard at every opportunity and they did so. It clearly affected him and after Buffalo’s first TD Reed was a nonfactor for the rest of the game. He bears a huge share of the blame for the loss. He has to.

As for Kelly, he played ok. For him anyway. This was the only Super Bowl where he managed to not throw any interceptions. But he couldn’t convert on third down and only once could he keep his offense on the field longer than two-and-a-half minutes. The defense put Kelly in position to take control of the game but he couldn’t do it. He had plenty of weapons besides Reed to get a few first downs, including two Hall-of-Famers, Thurman Thomas and James Lofton.

For two decades now Scott Norwood has taken all the abuse and all the blame for the loss. I’m here to say if you want to blame someone then put it where it really belongs. Andre Reed and Jim Kelly simply didn’t get the job done. Norwood’s taken hits for them long enough.

Ok, now that we've got the blame game out of the way, can we say this was the greatest Super Bowl ever? Like I said at the top of this overlong post the game was close, the lead changed hands several times, the teams presented interesting contrasts and it came right down to the wire. That's a lot on the "yes" side. And it was a well-played game too; no turnovers. On the "no" side? The game's most memorable play, the only memorable play really, was a missed field goal. At the end nobody on either side of the football made a play to win it or lose it. Should that keep Super Bowl XXV out of the top spot? We shall see.

The Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time

Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part I
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part II
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part III
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part IV
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part V
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part VI
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part VII
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part VIII
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part IX
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Part X
Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time, Conclusion