Wednesday, 31 January 2018


One of the most interesting side stories in Super Bowl LII is the overlap of players between the two teams, interesting enough for me to write this piece and send it to a website where I have written before, who forwarded it their live sports department, who lost it for a couple of days, then let me know there was no space for it. So I offer it here, as an IT Super Bowl Special. Note that it's written assuming most things need to be explained. Note too, on the topic of explanation, I will be covering the game for the BBC on Sunday....


In last year's amazing Super Bowl comeback victory by the New England Patriots, defensive end Chris Long made one of the game's biggest 'hidden' plays, drawing a holding penalty against Atlanta's Jake Matthews, which helped push the Falcons out of range for a field goal that might have made their lead unassailable. Last year running back LaGarrette Blount scored 18 touchdowns for the Patriots, leading the league, but after a fumble in the Super Bowl, he didn't see the field again.

This year both Long and Blount are returning to the Super Bowl, but with the Philadelphia Eagles, not the Patriots. Their quest to stop the seeming inevitability of another Patriots trophy gives them a chance to do what only five other players have ever done: win Super Bowl rings in consecutive years, but with two different teams.

Oddly enough, three of those five players did it while having to beat their previous team along the way. Ken Norton, Jr, son of the heavyweight boxing champ, actually won three in a row: with Dallas in 1992 and 1993, after which he moved to San Francisco to win with the 49ers in 1994. His teammate that year was 'Neon' Deion Sanders; in 1995 Sanders won with the Cowboys.

Brandon Browner became the only player to get his second ring while beating the team with which he got his first. Though with an asterisk.  Browner got a ring with Seattle Seahawks, although he missed the second half of the 2013 season and the playoffs. The next year he was with the Patriots when they beat Seattle 28-24 in the Super Bowl; his awareness of his old team's plays helped Malcolm Butler make the game-saving interception in that one.

No one remembers Derrick Martin, a reserve defensive back who collected rings with Green Bay in 2010 and the New York Giants in 2011. Even fewer remember Russ Hochstein, another three-ring player. Hochstein, a backup lineman, played in only one game with Tampa Bay in 2002 and was released before they won the Super Bowl, but received a ring anyway. He was signed by the Patriots, where he wound up starting briefly and winning rings for the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Former Tampa defensive star Warren Sapp guaranteed the Patriots would lose a Super Bowl because Hochstein was starting, saying he had no talent. The Pats and Hochstein won anyway.

The presence Long and Blount on the Eagles' roster highlights a Venn diagram of convergence between the teams. Long made two key plays for the Eagles' in their conference championship win over Minnesota: hitting quarterback Case Keenum to force an intercepted pass which was returned for a touchdown, and then recovering a Keenum fumble which led to another score. Long had played in New England on a year-year contract, after a long career of frustration with the Rams; he sought a new challenge with the Eagles. In effect, he played this year simply for that challenge; he donated his base salary for the season to educational charities.

Long's pass rush ability was orchestrated by Eagles' defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, known for his aggressive blitzing, a defensive strategy almost opposite of New England's 'bend but don't break' containment. But Schwartz got his first job in the NFL with Patriots' coach Bill Belichick, when Belichick was coaching the Cleveland Browns and hired the young Schwartz as a scout. Then Schwartz got his first coaching job in Baltimore under Belichick disciple Ozzie Newsome. Another ex-Pat in the Eagles' defense is linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, whose ability to play on special teams (kicking plays) is the core of his value.

Blount wasn't offered a new contract by the Patriots, and signed with the Eagles as the power-running part of a committee of rushers. His role diminished in mid-season when Philadelphia traded for London-born running back Jay Ajayi, who'd fallen out of favour in Miami and was thus available relatively cheaply. But the combination of the two allows the Eagles to batter and wear down opposing defenses.

It's not all one-way traffic, however. The Patriots' leading rusher is Dion Lewis, who came into the league with the Eagles, but was released after a series of injuries, and eventually signed by New England off the street when no other team was interested. The star of the Patriots' comeback victory in their conference final against Jacksonville was Danny Amendola, a slot receiver who was signed by the Eagles after Dallas released him, and then claimed by the Rams where he had five seasons before New England signed him to replace Wes Welker, which is exactly what Amendola had done in college at Texas Tech. New England's offensive coordinator is Josh McDaniels; McDaniels had coached Amendola in his one year as offensive coordinator with the Rams.

On defense, cornerback Eric Rowe will match up against his old team after being acquired in a trade last season. Rowe's price was the same as what the Eagles paid for Ajayi, a fourth-round pick in the draft of college players, so you could say everything evens out. And a key defensive player for the Pats, safety Patrick Chung, left New England for Philadelphia in 2013, to play for his old college coach, Chip Kelly with the Eagles. After one season, Chung was released, and resigned with the Pats, where he's been a starter ever since.

In today's NFL, where salary caps put pressures on the huge 53 man rosters, and free agency can price out a team's star players, building a roster in creative fashion can help perpetuate success. This is what the Patriots have been known for in the Belichick-Tom Brady era; that the Eagles are showing the same sort of acumen makes the cross-over of talent between the teams no surprise, and helps explain why the two are in the Super Bowl.

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