Thursday, February 18, 2010

Super Bowl XLIV

PI intended to post its Super Bowl pick at some point prior to the game. In the immediate aftermath of the conference championships PI assumed the Colts would be the pick. The Vikings clearly outplayed New Orleans and the Saints emerged triumphant due only to Minnesota's unfortunate propensity to put the ball on the turf. Meanwhile the Colts impressively came from two scores down to decisively defeat the Jets thanks to perhaps the best peformance of Peyton Manning's career. But immediate impressions can be dangerous ones. PI took a closer look at each team, did some reading, checked some numbers and then changed its mind. PI heard Aaraon Schatz of Football Outsiders say his stats showed the teams as evenly matched. PI heard a gambling-oriented sports-radio talk show host state that the "smart money" was being bet on the Saints. So if the numbers showed the Saints and Colts to be even, then you take the underdog Saints and the 4.5 points no? But unlike the Vegas smart guys couldn't go with the logic. Some nagging feeling or perhaps an all-too-recent reading of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink made us reluctant to part from the early Colts pick.

Let's be honest. It was Manning.

After the fourth MVP award and the impressive playoff wins, the consensus was starting to build that Manning might well be the greatest QB ever. A second Lombardi Trophy would go a very long way to making his case a convincing one. Manning did appear to be playing the very best football of his career. And it's been one hell of a career so far. Click here for Throwing Into Traffic's lyrical analysis of how Manning and the very best of his teammates elevated the rest of their roster to a team capable of winning a championship. It's good stuff. And it had PI almost believing. Given the numbers, the personel, the records, etc., there was no rationale reason to have considered Indianapolis a lock to win. Just look at the QB's. Drew Brees quietly played at least as well as Manning this season, if not better. And his play over the last several years was comparable to Manning as well.

But while he'd never been on the big stage before and hadn't played great in his two NFC title appearances, Manning seemingly ended questions about his big game ability back in 2006. Winning every game he started and finished in 2009, including seven comback victories, lots of people were making the case that the already-great Peyton Manning had managed to raised his game even further. That he was something we'd never seen before in professional football: an equivalent to Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Somebody capable of propelling himself and his team to victory through sheer mastery of the game. The most cerebral, most prepared QB the game's ever seen. Was really that possible? A lot of people certainly thought so and those thoughts made PI start to doubt what the numbers were saying. We posted no pre-game prediction.

In the game's early stages Manning emerged looking every bit the player so many asserted him to be, the greatest quarterback to ever play. The game's greatest thinker. Two well-executed drives complimented by a Dwight Freeny-led defense that stymied the Saints completely added up to a dominant first quarter and a 10-0 lead. As the quarter ended all Colts fans had to be confident of victory. No Saints fan could have been optimistic. As we've written about before here Super Bowls do not lend themselves to comebacks. Only two teams had ever come back from more than two scores down to win a Super Bowl. Ten points remains the greatest deficit overcome in victory. The Colts were likely one score away from an insurmountable lead. And then the game changed.

The Saints first two drives ended in punts. The team had yet to cross into Colts territory. But on their third possession Brees started to find his range as they say. A huge sack by Freeney forced New Orleans to settle for a field goal but by scoring three the Saints assured they would not trail by three scores no matter what Indy did on their next possession. The drive also kicked off a streak of six consecutive Saints possessions that ended in Colts territory. The Saints scored on all but one of those possessions. Yeah, and not counting the final kneeldown that accounts for every remaining possession. Essentially, after his first two drives Brees and the Saints offense became unstoppable. And remember the Saints second drive, the one that ended at midfield, would have continued into Colts territory had Marcus Colston not dropped an easy reception.

Brees did nothing spectacular in terms of big plays. The Colts apparently made the decision not to give up the big play. So Brees just efficiently and remorselessly picked the Indianapolis D apart. Rarely under pressure Brees showed near-perfect accuracy. He couldn't be stopped. Every pass was right where it needed to be. But with their early 10-0 lead the Colts could still win if Manning could just match Brees. But the two key plays of the second quarter, the two failed third-down conversions, prevented that from happening. Pierre Garcon's huge drop forced the first Colts' punt of the game. A big gain might well have led to a 17-3 lead and given Super Bowl history the Saints' offense might well have begun to press at that point. Certainly the Colts defense would have been given a big lift, as well as more time to rest. But their defense did rise to the challenge for the last time in the game. A huge goal-line stand put Indy back in the driver's seat once more. And then came the second huge Colts blunder of the game: a run for no gain on third-and-one from their own 10 with 46 seconds left in the half. The subsequent punt gave the Saints a chance to add three points right before the half and Brees easily moved the team into FG range for Hartley.

Now after the game Saints coach Gary Payton was lauded for his aggressiveness. Going for the TD at the one and later calling for the second-half opening onsides kick. Conversely, the Colts were pilloried for playing conservatively. And this alleged conservatism was demonstrated by the Colts decision to run the ball three times on their final drive of the first half. I can't agree with that at all. The Colts played it exactly right; it just didn't work out. When you take possession at your own one-yard line, holding the lead with less than two minutes left in the half, the overriding goal is not to score but to prevent the other team from scoring. Playing it safe is the smart play. Turning the ball over down there and giving up the lead right before the half is a surefire way to lose a Super Bowl. Running it was the way to go. The Saints were weak against the run this year and the Colts ran well in this game--more reasons to to go with the ground game. Plus Manning's reputation as the two-minute warning master aided the Colts here as New Orleans was hesitant to burn their own timeouts in case Indy did try to push the ball into Saints' territory. Two runs gained nine yards. One first down would guarantee at least a 7-point halftime lead for the Colts and they'd have about 50 seconds left and two time-outs to try to add three more. And they'd have the psychological boost of the goal-line stand entering halftime. But they got stuffed on third-and-one, punted, Brees went to work, and Hartley burned them for the FG that effectively erased the Saints earlier failed fourth-and-goal. Just a huge turning point. And for all those who ripped Indy for running it what about the Saints' strategy there? If Payton was so smart and aggressive why'd he let the Colts burn almost a minute of clock. Payton could have used up all his time-outs when the Colts had the ball, trusted his D to get the three-and-out and then Brees would have had almost an extra minute. Not doing that cost his team a shot a game-tying TD right before the half. Had the Saints lost wouldn't we be hearing about that?

This is pure conjecture but if the Colts get that first down and then tack on a field goal to go up 13-3 before the half they probably look for that onsides kick. The bigger lead makes an onsides kick more likely. Anyway if Hank Baskett holds onto the ball then both of Payton's aggressive calls blow up in his face. Not that he made the wrong call either time but no matter how brilliant your decisions you sometimes need some luck too. And the Colts didn't get any. The failed third-down conversions prevented Indy from taking a commanding lead. The onsides kick did the same while also giving the Saints a chance to take the lead and further limiting the number of Colts' possessions (only 4 in each half).

Now the fourth big play that cost the Colts the game was a true blunder and Jim Campbell deserved to be ripped to shreds for sending out Matt Stover to try a 51-yard field goal. Who didn't know he was going to miss? One of the worst coaching decisions I've ever seen. I suppose you could the play before a blunder as well. Going deep on 3rd-and-11 was not a wise choice by Manning. He did the same thing in the 2005 divisional playoff loss to Pittsburgh. Instead of trying to get closer for his kicker he went for the home run ball. It wasn't close. Just getting some yards might have made going for it on 4th down a possibility too. But a pooch punt would have made way more sense. The short field made it just too easy for Brees.

The fatal fifth play was of course Tracy Porter's pick-six. That all but ended the game, the chance for our first overtime Super Bowl, and ensured I would not have to edit my Greatest Super Bowl of All-Time series for at least one more year. (I'd rank this one at maybe 11th).

In the aftermath of the game Manning's place in history became as big a topic of conversation as it had been before the game. But instead of Manning now moving into position to be the consensus greatest ever, the consensus now foreclosed him from ever reaching such exalted status. Now I have no doubt this is true barring a couple of future Super Bowl wins (still a possibility); most people expect to find several championships on the Greatest Ever's resume. But I think heaping most of the blame on Manning's head for the loss is unfair.

When Manning began to drive his team down the field for what they hoped would be the tying touchdown I checked the time and realized the game was at about the three-hour mark. Taking into account the super-long halftime show and the extra commercials we'd been force-fed I realized just what an incredibly fast game we'd been watching. But it perfect sense. Long scoring drives, few incomplete passes and no turnovers until THE turnover equalled fewer possesions, just 8 for each team. I can't remember seeing anything like that before. Here's a list of those 8 Indianapolis drives:

1) 53-yard drive. FG
2) 96-yard drive. TD
3) Three-and-out. Garcon drop on 3rd-and-4
4) Three-and-out. Hart stuffed on 3rd-and-1
5) 76-yard drive. TD
6) 56-yard drive. Missed FG
7) Pick 6
8) 81-yard drive. Turned over on downs.

Except for the interception (and yes that's a big except) what exactly did Manning do to lose the game? For all the talk of how brilliant the Saints defense played in limiting Manning's offense to 17 points I saw nothing of the kind. Check out the stats. The Colts bettered the Saints in yards and first downs. Time of possession was even. Indy was far and away the better rushing team. Now New Orleans obviously made the biggest defensive play of the game but that was just a fantastic effort by Porter. A brilliant gamble. The Saints made the key third-down stop on the Colts' fourth drive, but that was a run. And they did forced Indy into the third-and-long where Manning unwisely went for it all prior to the missed FG drive. That's really it for the great defense we saw from New Orleans. Manning just didn't have many possessions to work with. He thus needed to score four or five times on his eight possessions but blunders by teammates (Garcon, Baskett), himself, and coaches (Stover's FG attempt) thwarted his chances.

One other factor having nothing to do with Manning: special teams. Other than Football Outsiders I've seen no one point to this as the true key to the game. But you've got one team kicking three long field goals and perfectly executing an onside kick, and another team missing a long field goal and botching an onside kick recovery. And don't forget about the field position. The Colts' best starting field position all day was their own 30. New Orleans beat that on four possessions. That wasn't all due to the return game obviously but the Colts didn't have one good kick return all day. Most critically they only started from their own 11 on the drive ending in the missed field goal. The offensive and defensive stats don't show the Colts to be second-best. Throw in special teams and we've got a different story.

So Manning has to get in line if we're looking to blame people for the loss (instead of crediting the Saints). The two missed third down plays in the second quarter. The dropped onside kick. The missed FG. If any of those things go the other way maybe Manning never needs to be in the position to throw that pick to Porter. But he did. So was does that one mistake mean when addressing Mannings legacy? Well, it wasn't a crazy choke job like what Favre pulled in the NFC Championship. Some blamed Reggie Wayne. Some blamed Manning. Some said it was just a great play by Porter. I don't know enough to say how bad of a play it was on Manning's part. But he telegraphed something, showed some tendency, that Porter picked up on at the very least. Manning only made one real mistake in the game but unfortunately for him that mistake made the difference.

But consider how when Kurt Warner announced his retirement a few weeks ago people were falling all over themselves to call him a Hall of Fame lock, an odd thing to say about a quarterback with a mere 5 seasons of great play. In his favor are Warner's performances in three Super Bowls; the three highest yardage totals in Super Bowl history. But Warner lost two of those games. And in each of those two losses Warner threw interceptions returned for touchdowns that cost his team the game. Nobody seems to be holding that against him.

Given the mistakes of his teammates Manning needed to play a near-perfect game to win. He didn't and so he deserves some blame. But plenty of quarterbacks have won Super Bowls while playing a lot worse than Manning did in Super Bowl XLIV. Let's cut him a little slack.

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