Sunday, February 1, 2015

Pre-Super Bowl Thoughts

Super Bowl XLIX is upon us, offering what is arguably the most compelling Super Bowl match-up in history.

This post will not (other than right now, I suppose) say anything about Deflategate. Nor will it say anything about the Seahawks' league-leading number of PED suspensions over the last half-decade, or about their love of committing penalties. Nor will it mention how irritating it is to see the media whining, small-mindedly and self-importantly, about Marshawn Lynch's introverted personality.

So, on to what really makes this Super Bowl so intriguing:

The RB's
It's fitting that Jerome Bettis was just chosen for the Hall of Fame, because this Super Bowl features two running backs who are throwbacks to the powerful, bulldozing style from days of yore. Anyone tasked with tackling Seattle's Marshawn Lynch or New England's LeGarrette Blount is likely to end up with a bruised sternum and cracked ribs.

Lynch is the best running back currently playing the game and his endurance should be the stuff of legend. Though he is but one person, he somehow manages to wear down entire opposing defenses by the middle of the third quarter.

Meanwhile, Blount is so big he looks like a Sherman tank, and if you think you can avoid getting bowled over by going down and taking him out at the knees, he is likely to leap over you when you go down -- then take off running while you are sprawled on the turf looking like a fool.

The CB's
On the other side of the ball, Seattle's Richard Sherman and New England's Darrelle Revis are the two best cornerbacks in the game, which is saying something when you consider that cornerback is arguably the hardest position to play.

Both of them are able to lock down receivers, no matter which receiver they are going against. And when it looks like they are beaten, they have an uncanny way of suddenly closing the gap or shifting position to prevent a pass from being completed. They are both highly intelligent, having graduated from universities with rigorous academic standards (Sherman from Stanford, Revis from Pitt) and neither of them shies away from taking leadership roles on their respective defenses. Fans should appreciate watching them play.

The QB's
In all of history, only 31 people have ever quarterbacked a team to a Super Bowl championship, and two of them will be facing off this evening.

There are two glaring similarities between Russell Wilson and Tom Brady: 1) they were not highly regarded coming out of college, and 2) they reached the pinnacle of success very early in their careers. Wilson was not drafted until the third round, after such non-luminaries as Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler, while Brady, incredibly, was not drafted until the sixth. Nonetheless, they became two of the three youngest quarterbacks ever to win a Super Bowl, with Brady leading New England over St. Louis at the age of 24 and Williams leading Seattle past Denver at the age of 25.

Then there are differences, most notably this: After Brady notched his first championship, people immediately thought of him as a leader who could accomplish great things because of himself -- yet after Williams notched his first, a large number of people still thought of him as a mediocre "game manager" who could not actively win games, but who could nonetheless get his team in the win column by sitting on his hands and letting his teammates do the work. (Those who have that opinion are, by the way, flat-out wrong.)

The Most Underrated Ever?
Wilson is only in his third year in the pros. He has gone up against teams led by Super Bowl winning QB's ten times -- and never lost. In this year's NFC Championship Game, he pulled out a win despite trailing by 12 points with four minutes remaining. His last three passes in that game were picture perfect, and the final one was an audible in overtime that resulted in the winning score.

None of which should be a surprise, because it is exactly the kind of stuff Wilson did in college, even if NFL scouts refused to watch because they didn't like his 5'10" height. This is not bland "game management." It is what we used to call "clutch" and still should call "clutch." If the Seahawks win today, Wilson will be in rarefied air no matter what his detractors think.

The Greatest Ever?
It is extremely rare for a quarterback to earn the title of "great" without the help of at least one receiver who also deserves that title, but Tom Brady has done just that over the course of a career that began 15 seasons ago.

Johnny Unitas had Ray Berry. Terry Bradshaw was doubly blessed because he had John Stallworth and Lynn Swann. Joe Montana was quadruply blessed because he had Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon for the first half of his career, followed by Jerry Rice and John Taylor for the second half. Troy Aikman had Michael Irvin. Peyton Manning had Marvin Harrison, then he had Reggie Wayne. Kurt Warner had Issac Bruce and Torry Holt when he was in St. Louis, then he had Larry Fitzgerald when he was in Arizona. Dan Marino had Mark Duper and Mark Clayton. Dan Fouts had Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow. Jim Kelly had Andre Reed. From 1983 through 1992, the Washington Redskins won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, only one of whom might possibly be considered great -- but there was one person in their passing attack who was indisputably great and was there for all three championships, and that was Art Monk.

Comparatively speaking, Tom Brady has had no one. Sure, Wes Welker has garnered a lot of talk and he is damn good, but at the end of the day he's a possession receiver who dropped the most important pass ever thrown to him. That leaves Rob Gronkowski, who has shown flashes of tight end brilliance but has spent most of his short career on injured reserve. Nonetheless, Brady has won more post-season games than any QB in history and thrown more post-season touchdowns than any QB in history. Today he will be starting his sixth Super Bowl, which is a record, and a victory would make him only the third QB (along with Montana and Bradshaw) with four Super Bowl championships.

In other words, if the Patriots win today, it will become extremely difficult for anyone to argue against Brady being the best ever. And I say this as someone who has long argued that Joe Montana is far and away the all-time number one.

This one is tough to call. Seattle's biggest defensive weakness is stopping a power running back, and today they will be going up against the bruiser who is LeGarrette Blount. However, New England's biggest defensive weakness is stopping the zone read, and it just so happens that Russell Wilson runs the zone read better than anyone else in the NFL.

Meanwhile, Seattle's secondary is in the conversation for one of the best of all time and is particularly good at taking away the short and medium passing routes across the center of the field. That could spell trouble for New England, whose biggest strength in the passing game happens to be those same short and medium routes -- and whose receivers generally lack the game-breaking speed to get open deep downfield where Seattle is most vulnerable.

So I tend to think the Seahawks will win in a close one, say 24-23, which would not make me mad. But I kind of want the see Brady get that fourth ring. We will see what happens...

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