Super Bowl XLIX: A Matinee Idol Reborn, A New Hero & A Weasel for All Seasons
All he could do now was watch. For nearly 60 minutes Tom Brady had played a great game when it counted most. Coming back from two interceptions, one truly a disastrous one that snuffed out a scoring drive, he had led his New England Patriots back. Down 24-14 to the defending champion Seattle Seahawks at the outset of the fourth quarter. All hope appearing lost, the Patriots ground out two long touchdown drives. Now, with just over two minutes left, the Patriots were up 28-24. Having done his part, Brady was left watching the Jumbotron, hoping his team’s defense had one last good stop left in it.
This came as no surprise to anyone who had watched the Patriots’ 42-7 demolition of the Indianapolis Colts two weeks earlier in the AFC Championship Game. In the aftermath of that thumping, a scandal had enveloped the team. A Brady pass was intercepted in the second quarter. When the Colts player brought it back to his team’s sideline, it was found to be a bit deflated. Further inspection showed that 11 of the 12 balls supplied for the game by the Pats were underinflated (each team contributes a dozen balls so that there are no issues with getting a ball that is not in game shape). This flap quickly became known as Deflategate. In the first week of the fortnight leading up the the big game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Brady had both held highly defensive press conferences, each denying involvement in anything underhanded. The coach had even subtly indicated his quarterback would know more about it than did he.
For longtime NFL followers, Belichick’s involvement comes as no surprise. After a stellar career as the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator in the 1980s, where he was a major reason for Big Blue’s first two Super Bowl wins in that decade, he made five more trips to the Super Bowl, winning three with Brady as his signal-caller. At the same time he built up an undisputed reputation as one of the finest coaches in the League, he has also become known as one of its sneakiest. In addition to several suspected dirty tricks, he cost the Pats a draft choice and a monetary penalty in 2007 for Spygate (like politics, football loves tacking the suffix –gate on any sneaky behavior). This mini-scandal came about when it was discovered the Patriots were illegally filming the practices of teams they were scheduled to play. True to his personality, Belichick never explained, never apologized and kept moving on. Now, he had to craft the last-stand defense to hold on to his team’s fourth championship.
In the Seahawks, the Patriots faced a massive challenge to their supremacy over the NFL. While the Pats spent much of the 2014 season looking like the best team in football, the Seahawks suffered some early injuries. By November they trailed the surprising Arizona Cardinals in their division, the NFC West. That month also saw the reappearance of the dominating defense that smothered the opposition on the way to the team’s first championship after the 2013 season. Pete Carroll’s ‘Hawks came off as arrogant and obnoxious, a trait best illustrated by their famous defensive back Richard Sherman. While they may be no more beloved than the Patriots, they had earned the respect of all who saw them play. The one chink in their juggernaut appeared in the NFC Championship Game two weeks before. The Green Bay Packers (the only team to beat the Patriots since early in the season) took an early lead and, late in the game, were up 19-9. Quarterback Russell Wilson had not had any success against the Pack defense all day. Green Bay had played a conservative game (on two occasions settling for field goals early on when they had fourth and goal inside the Seahawk 5-yard line) and did not have a big a lead as they could have. The Seahawks took advantage, scoring a field goal and two touchdowns to stun the Packers. Although Green Bay kicked a last-second field goal to force the game into overtime, it was already over. Seattle took the opening drive back for an easy touchdown, escaping with an unearned but impressive 28-22 win. Now, the champs had the ball and a last chance to win a second Super Bowl.
The drive started spectacularly well for the Seahawks. Their running back Marshawn Lynch, distinguished mainly for being forced to attend Super Bowl press conferences at the threat of massive League fines (he candidly answered every question with some variation on the theme that he was there only because he had to be) ran for huge chunks of yardage. Then, an amazing play that electrified the crowd: Wilson threw a pass deep downfield to Jermaine Kearse. Two Patriots defensive backs fought Kearse for the ball; as they fell, the receiver was able to bat the ball up in the air twice before making a spectacular catch while flat on his back at the New England five-yard line. This looked like a dagger to the heart of the Patriots’ chances for a win. The next play did not resuscitate them: Lynch rushed down to the one. Only a furious gang tackle kept him from scoring. With one minute left on the scoreboard and one yard to pay dirt, the Seahawks looked to have an easy path to another championship.
To everyone watching the game, the choice looked obvious: keep handing the ball to Lynch. Beast Mode, as he is known, was the one problem for which the Pats had never found a suitable answer. Now, he had three shots to gain that last yard. The obvious apparently eluded Carroll and his offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Somehow they convinced themselves the best course of action would be to throw a pass on second down since the Patriots would expect a Lynch run. This moment was only the latest demonstration of a Carroll characteristic: thinking he’s much cleverer than he really is. Back during his career-resuscitating stint as head coach of USC, he regularly met with NFL owners in the off-season, only to deny he had any interest in a return to the pros. His acceptance of the Seahawks job came awfully close to the imposition of stiff penalties for recruiting violations on his school. Carroll continues to deny he had any knowledge they were coming. Now, he decided at a critical moment to roll the dice.
The play was sent in; there would be no audible at the line of scrimmage which might have allowed for a change if the Patriots defensed the play perfectly (Peyton Manning has made an art form out of changing the play at the line of scrimmage throughout his pro career). Malcolm Butler had noticed the play call at the outset. An undrafted rookie from an unknown school (West Alabama), Butler had won a spot on the Patriots’ roster with a toughness (he won the nickname “Scrap” for his play) and a dedication to watching videos of players and teams to learn their tendencies in any given situation. Thanks for his film study, he knew from the Seahawks formation before the play that a pass was coming.
Wilson threw to the designated receiver, Ricardo Lockette, in the middle of a traffic jam of players from both teams just in front of the Patriots goal line. Suddenly, charging in from behind, Butler slammed into Lockette, knocking him aside just as the ball arrived. His interception was a complete reversal of fortune that changed a seemingly preordained result. Brady, who could be seen jumping up and down on the sideline as he watched Butler’s pick, ran back on the field to down the ball one last time, running out the clock on his first championship in a decade.
In the aftermath of the game, Carroll took the blame for the pass call. Although he gallantly shielded Bevell from blame, the choice is one that will haunt both men, as well as their players and team’s fans, for years to come no matter how many more championships they may win. As with so many other events, Bill Belichick got a measure of credit because of something he may or may not have done intentionally. With Kearse’s miracle catch and Lynch’s rush down to the Patriots one, Belichick refused to use either of his team’s two remaining time outs. At the time it looked as though he was wasting time Brady would need to drive the team to a tying field goal or winning touchdown. Looked at in hindsight, it reflected both a confidence in his defense and an clever understanding that using a time out would have given Carroll time. Time to think and to realize the best play would have been Beast Mode rushing up the middle. He’s one of the all-time great football strategists. His four championships, tying him for the most Super Bowl wins with Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll in the 1970s, testify to that.
Another man who won his fourth Super Bowl on Sunday was Tom Brady. Winning three championships before reaching the age of 30 bred a certain level of contempt for him among many football fans. It was all coming too easy (the fact that he’s model-handsome and married supermodel Giselle Bundchen did not help in this regard). After winning Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005, there seemed no limit to how many more he would win. Ten years and two Super losses later, he finally got number four Sunday. This ties him with Terry Bradshaw (of Noll’s great Steeler teams) and Brady’s childhood hero Joe Montana with four rings. Like Montana, Brady (after this game) has won three Super Bowl Most Valuable Player awards. His 50 pass attempts led a mostly crisp offensive effort that stood up well to a furious Seattle pass rush. A Hall of Fame career has gained even greater luster with this championship. Love them or hate them, Belichick and Brady are a great team and their latest win shows that above all else. Along with the Seahawks, they provided the football world with a wonderful sendoff to a most trying season.
Even in the midst of such a thrilling game, some rain had to fall, even in the parched Arizona desert where the game was played. Enter our old friend, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell. These posts came about at least in part to address his mismanagement of various disciplinary problems with pro football players during the offseason. Any chance to show him up as the emptiest suit in American sports is one of life’s greatest pleasures. True to his childish, ineffectual form, Goodell’s press appearances before the Super Bowl were filled with defensiveness and claims to transparency that were obvious lies. His patronizing responses to an ESPN reporter who asked him about possible conflicts of interest in having the League investigate itself. This clown can in no way be counted on to solve any problems the NFL may have. His actions in Arizona are further blots on his less-than-spotless situation. For these reasons (and many more sure to come with appalling regularity) Roger Goodell is this site’s first winner of the NFL Weasel of the Year. An honor richly earned and one that indicts a sport. After all, whoever eventually replaces him (and the owners will finally recognize the PR nightmare he has become sooner or later) would probably one of the also-rans passed over for Goodell when he was hired. Still, his continuing downfall is a thing of beauty to watch. Sometimes it’s even more fun than the games. Wonder whether he’s sell used cars or Ginsu knives for his next job?
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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