Friday, 9 February 2018

SUPER BOWL LII: A FRIDAY MORNING TIGHT END SPECIAL

It was a great Super Bowl, but you knew that already. Back in the day, when I was writing Friday Morning Tight End, I would do a wrap-up of the Super Bowl, analysing why I picked it right or wrong (more often wrong). But now as my nfluk.com column is simply predictions, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the game with you here.

I did get the Super Bowl pick wrong, though if you read my column last week you'll see I tried very hard to pick the Eagles. In the end I switched to the Pats, and seriously, with two minutes left and New England down five I didn't really doubt they'd pull off another comeback, and I'd be right both on picking them outright and picking the Eagles plus 5.5 points as a best bet.

This season my picks were better than last year's in the regular season: 173-83 or 67.6%. It took a while for the season to fall into place, but between weeks 7 and 16, before the black hole that is week 17, I went 114-35. 173 right would have placed me sixth on the list at nfl pickwatch, ahead of everybody at ESPN, NFL Network, CBC or MMQB. Last year I improved in the playoffs to 10-1; this year I slipped to 6-5. That left me overall at 179-88 on the season (67%) compared with 178-87-2 (67.2%) in 2016. At least I'm consistent! However in the 13 seasons I have picked every one of the 267 games a year for nfluk, I have been only 5-8 picking the Super Bowl! I'm like the Vikings or the Bills.

Once again, I was lucky enough to be in the BBC booth with Mark Chapman, Osi Umeniyora, and Jason Bell. I wish you could hear the conversations as the game goes on, because it's both fun and instructive. I usually forget which things I said on air and which ones just to to guys, but early on I remarked that this was like watching Texas Tech play Baylor: a wide open offensive shootout. The absorption of college spread and option concepts into the NFL game is fully upon us when you can see both teams going empty on multiple downs. And interestingly, the one thing about the game that seemed most predictable, that the Eagles' front four would bedevil the Pats' O line, didn't come true, but what was fascinating was the way Jim Schwartz covered the Pats. Man coverage on Rob Gronkowski usually fell to Corey Graham, who was signed as a free agent after Buffalo released him; he'd played with Ronald Darby and for Schwartz in Buffalo, but you may remember him for his interception for the Ravens in the Super Bowl win over Denver. Graham is one of many sharp free-agent acquisitions by Eagles' GM Howie Roseman. I've often thought the relative failure of the Chip Kelly era in Philly was due less to lack of coaching skill and more to lack of acumen in the front office, from which he had forced Roseman out. When you looked at the 'how they were built' charts for the two Super Bowl teams, you saw a very close parallel in the way both the Eagles and Pats had rebuilt in the past two seasons, with astute and mostly bargain free agency signings.

Graham's coverage was Gronkowski wasn't simple. When Gronk attacked the middle of the field, the Eagles were often showing a cover-two look, but it would quickly morph into something like a cover-1 robber: one safety stepping up to take away the lead to Gronk, the other playing coverage deep. Also putting Graham on Gronk also left Malcolm Jenkins free to shadow the running backs: note James White's receiving role was severely limited. Tactically, that more than made up for the Pats' ability to neutralise the Eagles' front four.

Offensively, the audacity of the Philly Special play call was probably the signature moment of the game. I had no doubt Doug Pederson would go for it on fourth and goal at the one, and couldn't understand why Cris Collinsworth was making it seem such a strange call. Remember the Eagles in the last minute of the first half against Minnesota; remember too the Jags kneeling out that final minute with a four-point lead over the Pats. You don't beat New England by being conservative. That they scored running a similar play to the pass Tom Brady could not catch was indeed audacious. It also reminded me of the Brady-Wes Welker miss in the second loss to the Giants: a completion to the wide open receiver seals the game for the Pats. It seemed like a bad omen. After the Super Bowl ex-supervisor of refs Mike Pereira came alive from the Fox COMMAND CENTER, probably to reinforce the idea NBC had no former ref to give commentary on referring decisions: he said the Eagles were definitely in an illegal formation on the Philly special, but that it was a 'judgement call'. Now the story in the game was that Jeffrey checked to make sure he was on the line, and the line judge told them he was, even though he was two yards back.

The problem is not the receiver and the line of scrimmage, the problem is the officials allow players to align with the player inside them. I have complained about this with Andy Reid teams in particular, but the Eagles and their tackles too. If for example the tackle aligns his inside front toe with the guard's outside heel, the tackle can be two yards off the line of scrimmage. I believe the line judge saw Jeffrey aligned with Lane Johnson's back leg and thus told him he was OK, even though he was almost two and half yards off the line of scrimmage. It made no difference on this play, actually, as no one assumed Johnson was eligible. But allowing tackles to line up so far off the line of scrimmage gives them at least a one step advantage over pass rushers, and shouldn't be allowed.
The key to the Patriots' bend-but-don't-break defense is being able to get stops on third downs: knowing what the offense needs to do and likes to do in those situations is a key. But the Eagles were a team living on third and longs and converting them regularly—not just against the Pats and not just with Nick Foles at QB. This is where they beat the Pats, beating them at situational football.

At one point in the second half, I said to the guys 'all it is going to take is one stop', and of course the Eagles got that stop on the Brandon Graham strip sack. But part of the reason we were in that situation was that the Pats had, in effect, been stopped twice on successive drives in the first half. First when Brandin Cooks couldn't convert a third and two on his sweep and Rodney McLeod power-bombed him. The Pats then missed the short field goal on fourth and one at the eight. I wasn't surprised Bill Belichick eschewed going for it, and decided to tie the game at three, but the bad snap killed them, and the Eagles' willing to go for it on fourth and one would stand in contrast.

I was reminded or haunted by the Giants another time. Maybe it was standing next to Osi in the booth. The Eagles launched their only punt on the next drive, and the Pats then failed on third and fourth and five at the Eagles' 35. Perhaps bothered by the previous miss of the chippie, Belichick eschewed a 52 yard field goal, which reminded me of his passing from a similar distance in the 2007 loss to the Giants; Gostkowski had mis-hit a kickoff previously and it was as if he were being punished. The fourth down pass to Gronk went incomplete, but I wondered even if taking a delay penalty and punting might have been preferable.

The Pats missed their chance for a stop early in the second half when Johnson Bademosi couldn't tackle Nelson Agholor on a crossing route on third down and six. This was the effect of Belichick's benching Malcolm Butler. The knock-on effect wasn't just Eric Rowe starting outside: I'm not sure Butler would have made a better play on the TD to Alshon Jeffrey. But it took Rowe and his long arms out of the middle of the field, and it left the Pats in big nickle on third downs, with Patrick Chung having to cover wideouts. When they went to dime it brought safety Jordan Richards in, and he's so awful in coverage (Clement's 55 yard catch being an example) Bademosi eventually took his spot. What no one noted was that New England's number four corner, Jonathan Jones, was on IR: Jones is their quickest DB, and his absence pushed Bademosi into that fourth spot. Butler's benching pushed Bademosi up higher. There was a point when I thought whatever Butler was being punished for, he was clearly upset, and he was on the sidelines, and it might have been a moment to tell him to make up for his mistakes on the field.

Again, I flashed back to a previous Super Bowl, when Butler made that great play on Jerome Kearse and Kearse made the great catch which preceded Butler's goal-line pick. If you recall Duron Harmon's pick in this game, think back and you'll see Harmon jump over Kearse while the ball was still loose--not making a play on the receiver. This time, in almost the same spot on the field, the ball popped up, and Harmon made the play. 

I was also puzzled by the absence of Dwight Allen. I saw him on only one offensive play, going in motion in order to pass block, but I wondered, especially after Cooks' concussion, if two tight ends might have been an option (not that the Pats' offense was misfiring). I'd also thought we'd see more two and three tight end sets from the Eagles, but of course with Butler out, the wide receivers got more play. And I would not be surprised if the success of the Pats' offense was a major factor in their last minute 180 on keeping Josh McDaniels around.

If there were one play Brady might want back, it would be on first down from the 9 after the failed kickoff reverse. Chris Hogan was open on the sidelines 30 yards up field, and Brady just misfired on the pass. A completion stops the clock and puts them near the 40. It was interesting to watch New England give up on Gostkowski's short kickoffs, because the Eagles were getting returns out to the 25, and settle for touchbacks. New England had taken the touchbacks previously: the reverse was not well executed, partly because the coverage got to Lewis so quickly there wasn't room for a good lateral. Just as the Eagles' offense took away the third-down advantage from the Pats, they won the battle of special teams as well. The fact that the Patriots ran up 600 yards and 33 points on the league's best or second-best defense was a win for their offense, but they lost two of the other three phases.

It was also strange that the two TD catches that were reviewed took so long to be decided (although the second one did add precious time for the Eagles' D line to catch their breath!). Corey Clement's catch (a perfectly thrown ball from Foles) was to me a catch, but the way he let the ball slide across his belly from right hand to left is precisely the loss of 'control' while 'going to the ground' that the league had ruled incomplete all season long. This is frustrating, but you could just see the replay official thinking, or being reminded, not to take yet another TD away from a Patriots' opponent, because the league clearly fixes games for the Pats, as the Brady suspension proved last year. I think much of the problem would be solved if the league would simply change the definition from 'control' to 'possession': you can lose control of the ball but still maintain possession of it, which was exactly what Clement had done.

Why the Ertz TD was reviewed at such length was a puzzle. How man steps with the ball, or movements of it, do you have to make before the league considers you transformed into a runner? Again, the rule and interpretation could be simplified: by going back to the old catch rule of possession with both feet down. Sure that would lead to more fumbles, and half the time the NFL has no idea who actually recovered the fumble before the pile began, and sure that could lead to fewer scores, but really, less is more, and as we know the NFL feels more is always better, so less is thus better. Got it?

Anyway, a pass interference call on the Hail Mary would have made things really interesting, right?

BTW, if you'd like to see more football columns during the off-season, let me know, OK? Thanks for reading, watching, and supporting. It's appreciated.

6 comments :

Mark Gill said...

Thanks for a great piece, Mike, and all your analysis on TV and radio this season. FMTE is sorely missed so this was a treat! Would love to read more in the off-season.

rogueactuary said...

Yes I too would like to see more American Football on this blog! Clearly this is the most original insight I will read about this Superbowl!

Pete said...

Great as ever Mike. More is more when it comes to FMTE.

Michael Leyshon said...

Great analysis Mike. Would welcome more. Thanks.

Matt said...

As always great content Mike would love to read more NFL in the blog all year round.

Alan said...

Would love to read more NFL thoughts on here thanks Mike