Note: I wrote this Thursday for the resumption of my off-season Friday Monthly Tight End column at nfluk.com. After filing, though, I was told that the off-season column wouldn't be needed for the website; though I will be back with my weekly picks of all the games once the season begins. It was a shame, because the column was timely, given last Saturday's Guardian article, Tuesday's European Champions League match,and my being on Talksport2's Tuesday NFL programme. So I'm posting it here, for you gridiron fans, and you non-gridiron fans...
Earlier this week, someone at @nfluk tweeted the following:
“This ManCity v AS Monaco game is nearly as good as SBLI.”(That's Super Bowl 51, to you uninitiated.)
Pretty much accurate, and totally innocuous, you'd think. I didn't see the tweet until after the match ended but I responded then that Monaco had turned into the Atlanta Falcons of the ECL: unable to change their high-speed all-out attack mode when they needed to. After I finished my radio show, I happened to look at the responses to the original tweet. I should not have been surprised that many of them were harsh attacks on America football, the old 'wearing pads' and 'action stopping' arguments I've been hearing for 40 years.
It's hard to understand such antipathy, apart from the fact that twitter is twitter, and British sport is tribal in nature, but I've always tried to appreciate sports for their own strong points, and frankly, that isn't hard to do. I've done it on air with guys like Martin Johnson, Brian Moore and Martin O'Neill, having constructive discussion about the ways sports can learn from each other. It's helped me gain a lot more insight into American football as well as rugby and football (or the sports the English call rugger and soccer).
Coincidentally, Nat Coombs and I discussed just that on Talksport's NFL show the same night. We'd actually been watching the Man City-Monaco match before the show aired, but we had already planned to talk about the concept of 'tactical periodisation', following an excellent Guardian article by Gerard Meagher about Eddie Jones and England rugby. It's a concept Jones borrowed from football, where its most celebrated adherent is Jose Mourinho, and Jones got it from Alberto Mendez, and then from Pep Guardiola. It's about integrating skills, fitness, and what they call 'tactical and mental awareness' (ie: the stuff English football mostly ignored for many decades, in favour of 'luck' and 'bottle') in specific and often high-speed training. As Jones put it, 'everything is done in preparation for the game and in order to be tactically aware'.
Doesn't that remind you of someone in the NFL? Wasn't that on display in the Super Bowl? Do you remember when I wrote on nfluk.com immediately after the Super Bowl about New England and 'situational football'?
The Patriots are famously one of the few teams who will alter their game plans, on both sides of the ball, week in and week out, trying to fine tune their skills to the opposition's.
We saw it in the Super Bowl, where the Falcons' offense seemed to be unstoppable for much of the game, but ground to a halt in the final quarter. When you look deeper you discover Atlanta converted only one of eight third downs in the game, and that was on a penalty. Their offense, for all its drive, was depending on big plays; they scored only three touchdowns; many of us figured if they were held under 30 the Pats could win. And at halftime, apparently, the Pats realised they were indeed moving the ball themselves, they just had to eliminate mistakes from their game, and force them from the others. Recall Wales missing touch on a crucial clearance from their own 22 against England: England had not one but three of their 'best footballers': Ford, Farrell and Daly already back for the kick; Daly scored the winning try untouched.
This combination of the players recognising the tactical situation and the preparation to take advantage of it is the epitome of what New England do, and many teams don't. Think of Gostkowski's coffin-corner kickoffs in the second half. Watch the 'Do Your Job' video about Super Bowl 49, where the Pats prepared for the pass play Butler intercepted. Or where Belichick preached situational football with your back to the goal, and you want to draw the defense offside, which they did, and avoided the safety while giving Brady room for the kneel.
Jones also talked about what he'd learned from the sport Aussies call soccer. The games are similar, he said, because 'you always want to move the ball into space.' This was a key in the Super Bowl. The Falcons game plan was aimed at taking away the space in the middle of the field where the Pats like to cross receivers. They varied their coverage, playing some 'robber' looks hidden behind their cover-one; one such was the pick six. But New England switched toward sidelines-heavy routes in the fourth quarter, counting on the extra half-step gained on lone defenders. Brady's pass to Amendola early in OT, a long-out thrown into space before Amendola had even made his cut, was one of the best throws of the season. It reminded me too that Bill Belichick had done something similar to Buffalo when the Giants beat them in the Super Bowl; in the second half he took away Jim Kelly's successful pass routes, and Kelly never was able to adjust.
Under Jones this season England has rallied to snatch wins over France and Wales. Part of this, of course, is due to their depth of talent; in the Pats' case the talent level may not be at as high a level, but the players execute their specific roles. They also rotate their big guys through, situationally more than just for rest. I was fascinated to hear Jones say that they have a system which measures the time it takes their players to get up off the ground; that explained to me why they would sub out some of their more successful guys, especially on the front row, in the second half. Much as I dislike the increasing computerization of modern sport, it is significant in rugby, which has gone from no substitutes to almost wholesale substitution in the time I've followed it. Substitution was once upon a time one of the things partisan critics said they hated about American sport in general (along with all-seater stadia, squad numbers, names of jerseys, football on Sundays or Monday nights instead of 3pm Saturday etc ad infinitum) but as I said, there is always something to be learned. And I'm always surprised when people can't learn it.