Friday Morning Tight End - Super Bowl XLVIII

STORMS OVER HACKENSACK

One of the most telling things I've noticed in my 37 years in Britain is that there is no American equivalent to the British 'it'll be all right on the night'. But you have to admit Roger Goodell and the Lords of the Gridiron came pretty close when they awarded the Super Bowl to New Jersey (or New York-New Jersey as NFL geography has it) at night in February. But to their credit the league revealed they do have contingency plans for REALLY bad weather (if travel to the game became impossible or being in the stadium were dangerous). The fact that they'd done the advance planning set off another panic, as well as boosting ratings for the Weather Channel.

It was Ben Franklin who said 'everyone talks about the weather but no one can do anything about it'. And he wasn't even English. George Mikes pointed out that on the Continent, no one dares talk about the weather, lest they be labelled a bore or a fool. In Britain, it's the only thing acceptable for conversation with someone not a close or intimate friend. But nothing is worse that a herd of American sports writers and talking heads talking weather.  I mean, what does Warren Sapp know about a cold front, as opposed to an under front? Ask Michael Strahan! (We'll talk Pro Bowl bitchiness later).

Obviously, no Super Bowl has been played outdoors in the north—in fact, can you name the northernmost city to host the game outdoors? Give up? It's Palo Alto, California. Now normally, I'm old school, and I like the elements being a factor in football. Always having the championship in a warm weather city and/or a domed stadium gives an advantage to the teams built to win on turf, or in fine weather, much the same as the advantage southern colleges used to have when there were just half a dozen Bowl games and they were all played in the South.

Obviously, Championship games have been played in New York before, but that was in the days when the season was over in December, and games were played in the afternoon. The so-called Greatest Game Ever Played, the 1958 NFL title game, was played at Yankee Stadium on December 28, 1958. The weather was cold, but not awful. But two classic other of the games played in New York were classics, and oddly enough, I have a connection to both of them, or at least my father did.

On December 9, 1934 the New York football Giants beat the Chicago Bears 30-13 at the Polo Grounds (home of the baseball Giants) in what is now known as the 'Sneakers Game'.

Freezing rain the night before had left the field like an ice-rink. At halftime, trailing 10-3, coach Steve Owen managed to get nine pairs of sneakers from the basketball team at Manhattan College, and with the better traction, the Giants rallied to win. The star of the game, with TD runs of 11 and 42 yards, and two field goals, was Hall of Famer Ken Strong, who played at West Haven (Connecticut) High School, where my dad also played, and where the team today plays at Ken Strong Stadium. I have a photo of my dad playing in West Haven's Thanksgiving Day game in 1944, against New Haven's Hillhouse, in front of some 25,000 people at the Yale Bowl.

My dad played only one year of college football after the war, but one game was against Arnold College and Andy Robustelli. Robustelli was from Stamford, Connecticut, and while playing for the Giants he owned a sporting goods store there. On December 30, 1956 the NFL championship again matched the Giants and the Bears, again on an icy field, but this time at Yankee Stadium. Robustelli had the foresight to bring a full set of sneakers from his store. The Giants wore them from the opening kickoff, and defeated the Bears 47-7.

The 1958 Championship is the first game I can remember watching on TV, and we drove up to an uncle's house on snowy roads to see it. I grew up thinking football was meant to be played in any conditions, and I've played in some pretty awful storms. But then the football season ran from September through November, with a couple of college games in early December, the NFL title, and a few Bowls culminating in the four big ones on New Year's Day. I have to admit I enjoy the extended NFL playoffs, but I'm not sure night football in February in the Northeast is a fair test. But I sometimes wonder, unlike the NFL, if there are times when more actually is not better.

SUPER BOWL 48: THE ELITE UNITS

One of the things the extended wild carding of the playoff does is make it harder to actually match up the two 'best' teams in the Super Bowl. The two top seeds haven't met since 2009 (Saints-Colts), and there have been precious few times when the top-ranked offense and the top-ranked defense have met head to head. I mean, there are lots of ways to claim statistically which a team is the best on either side of the ball – but anyway you figure it, there's no argument about Denver's offense or Seattle's D this season.

It's never that simple, however, because so much depends on the strengths on the other side of the ball. The Colts-Bears game in Super Bowl 41 had a similar match-up, but the Colts' defense, helped by Bob Sanders' return from injury, was playing its best ball of the season, and was probably no worse than middle of the pack, while the Bears' offense, with Rex Grossman (Interceptaurus Rex) returning to take over from Kyle Orton, was certainly bottom of the pack. The Raiders-Bucs match up in Super Bowl 37 has another huge caveat—Oakland's offense had been put together by John Gruden, who was now coaching Tampa, and his successor, Bill Callahan, hadn't bothered to change very much at all. By the way, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics, the Seahawks' defense is the best in the NFL since that Bucs' crew, and they are the two best pass defenses ever.

There are other games, like Super Bowl 13, where the Cowboys were the top scoring team, and the Steelers had the league's stingiest D, but of course those Steelers also had a potent offense. The same is true of Super Bowl 19. The Niners' D shut down Dan Marino and the league's best offense, but with Joe Montana those Niners weren't exactly incompetent with the ball. My favourite is the very first Super Bowl, because the Packers were tops in both offense and defense in the NFL, while the Chiefs were the same in the AFL.

In general, when you match up great units, it isn't uncommon for the opposite matchup to be crucial. Not necessarily in terms of making the plays that win the game, but making the plays that keep your other unit in position to win it for you. Think back to the Scott Norwood game. The Giants' D, through game-planning, won the battle against the Bills' offense, but Buffalo's D (helped by the Giants' ball-control game plan) kept their team in the game, and they were in position to win it at the end.

Of course the best match-up on the field is the Denver receiving corps against the Seahawks' secondary. Because the Broncos have four legitimate threats, you almost have to play in nickle—the Pats last week went mostly with a 4-2-5 alignment, with Aqib Talib supposed to contain Demaryius Thomas, Alfonzo Dennard on Decker, and Kyle Arrington on Wes Welker, with linebackers and safeties on Julius Thomas. Early, Manning went to Decker, but when Talib went out and Dennard switched, so did Peyton. They got burned, and as soon as they tried to double Thomas, they were stretched too thin (even so, consider that blooper pass Manning threw that Arrington never saw and rookie Logan Ryan hesitated on. It was a pick six).

You can assume Richard Sherman plays press man on Demaryius. Then the question is whether Seattle stick with their standard set or go sub package with a third corner. If they do, and bring Kam Chancellor up, it will be hard for Peyton to run, but the question is whether Chancellor or a linebacker (Wagner, Wright, or Smith) covers Julius. But remember, Chancellor can help out on inside crosses and the many pick routes the Broncos run, while Earl Thomas covers loads of ground as the single high safety, and Peyton will have to consider where he is on any deeper pass.

Will the Broncos show something new? Virgil Green or Jacob Tamme as second tight ends can catch the ball, and one thing I didn't see was anything like a draw last week. Monte Ball, who I loved doing Big 10 games last season, gives the Broncos a good one-two running punch, and both their backs can catch out of the backfield. Manning isn't going to get the same kind of give from Seattle he got from New England on passing downs. He's probably going to have to win this game in the air. Maybe trying to let his wideouts win the deep one-on-one matchups will work, but I think the underneath and the backfield is more likely.

THE CAROUSEL, PART THREE

There is a reason they now have seatbelts on carousels. Of course that's health and safety, lawyers and lawsuits, but metaphorically you could say everyone in the NFL was bobbing up and down happily (well, everyone except Cleveland) until Jerry Jones came along.

This week, while most of the NFL world watched 1,532 reporters all ask Richard Sherman the same question, the Cowboys Jerrymandered their coaching staff. Last year it was head coach Jason Garrett forced to give up play calling in favour of line coach turned offensive coordinator Bill Callahan. Now Callahan will remain as offensive coordinator, in charge of the run game, but cede play-calling to Scott Linehan, who will bear the title Passing Game Coordinator. Which is different than offense. Garrett may now be re-titled Forehead Coach, because he's going to be slapping it so much. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Monte Kiffin is promoted sideways, on a 30 degree downward slope, to the position of Assistant Head Coach, Defense, and D line coach Rod Marinelli becomes defensive coordinator. The system will be the same, but Marinelli will be more hands-on with the players, one imagines. Marinelli was Kiffin's D line coach in Tampa, so it all turns full circle, which is after all what carousels are all about. And perhaps it would be better if Dallas were to retitle Garrett Assistant Head Coach, Offense, and give Jerry another title that reflects the real power structure.

Other moves raise interesting internal questions. I've talked before about favouring a moratorium on hiring new coaches, period, until after the Super Bowl. This won't happen because everyone in the NFL wants MORE coaching NOW, and is afraid if they let a few days go by in January someone's going to out work them and win the next Super Bowl. Of course the best teams don't need new coaches, except that they also should be the ones more likely to lose coaches to promotions elsewhere, and the current rush to hire is precisely because it's harder to assemble a staff after 8 teams have been through the pickings. Cleveland appeared to be waiting for someone at the Super Bowl, but blinked, and got Mike Pettine, who's now grabbed a few of the Buffalo staff to go with him with promotions.

Buffalo then turned around and hired Jim Schwarz as their new defensive coordinator, a move which on the surface seems strange, since the Bills had committed to a 3-4 defense (there was a rumour Wade Phillips might be coming back) and Schwarz has always played a 4-3. Watch and see what they do with Jerry Hughes, who was far more effective rushing from a linebacker spot than he'd ever been as a DE in Indy. Similarly, the Ravens hired Gary Kubiak as their offensive coordinator, supposedly without John Harbaugh's input. On the face of it, Kubiak's zone blocking play-action offense is ill-suited to the Ravens big power-blocking line, but you can see where Harbaugh might enjoy the idea of more chop-blocking. I also wonder about Bill Musgrave's hire as QB coach in Philly; as a coordinator he's almost always been with power running teams, and his record developing young QBs is mixed. He is an Oregon guy, but well ahead of Chip Kelly's time there—perhaps there's a hidden affinity there. Musgrave replaces Bill Lazor who moves to Miami as offensive coordinator after Joe Philbin was forced to fire his long time buddy (going back to Worcester Academy) Mike Sherman. Yes, their offense had problems, but they seemed to do better working with a patchwork line than you might have thought. Will the hire of Dennis Hickey as GM (he was the 30th caller to the Dolphins' office and answered a trivia question correctly) it's hard to tell exactly who's in charge of what in Miami, which may be why a number of people said no thanks to the GM job. And finally, to no one's huge surprise, the Rams fired Tim Walton and rehired Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator, the job he was supposed to have before he was suspended for his role in the New Orleans bounty affair. Williams, of course, first rose in the coaching ranks as DC to Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, and in fact spent last year as a consultant to the Titans. Heads will roll in the NFC West next season.

SUPER BOWL 48: THE OTHER MATCHUP

When the positions are switched to match the Seattle offense against the Denver D, a lot depends on whether Pot Roast Knighton can dominate the way he did against New England. He closed off the inside, and sometimes blew up outside plays (like the two point conversion) and with Marshawn Lynch running, they will need him to do that again. Russell Wilson looked shaky under pressure: he made a couple of big plays, which was really all they needed from him, but without the 12th Man, of which I am getting sorely sick of hearing about, as well as hearing, Seattle is a weaker team. Both teams were 6-2 on the road, but the Seahawks were nearly beaten in Carolina.

I wrote against the Pats that Denver's defensive weak spot is the back 7, but New England wasn't equipped to exploit that. The same is true in the Super Bowl; you don't feel a need to double Seattle's receivers, and although Zach Miller is a useful tight end (and Luke Wilson a surprise rookie) they won't test the Broncos' linebackers the way Julius Thomas will. Safety is where Denver is particularly vulnerable, so look for Seattle to try to exploit the downfield ball: their most effective passing comes when Wilson can keep plays alive and thus allow his receivers to find open spaces in a confused secondary. Seattle's offensive line hasn't looked great; at times they seem to be strategically switching players to get matchups, but where they are best is in the power run game, using two tight ends, fullback motion, and trapping. I wouldn't be surprised if they set up more designed runs, or options for Wilson, because they know they old cliché as well as anyone: you want to keep Peyton off the field. The Broncos did that to Tom Brady, forcing him to be perfect when his team finally got the ball, and Brady wasn't. I think the Seahawks' might be able to do that to Manning.

THE HALL OF FAME

If I had a vote, here's how it would look, more or less in order: Walter Jones, Derrick Brooks, Aeneas Williams, Tim Brown, Will Shields. If Steve Atwater or Don Coryell had made it to the final list, I would have voted for one of them as my fifth pick. I have no doubt that Michael Strahan and Marvin Harrison will get in, probably this year but definitely soon, and I have no problem with that. I'd like to see Brown in before Harrison, and a new crop of receivers from the stat-heavy passing era we now inhabit, take up all the places. I'm not agreeing with Warren Sapp, who seems to think that because Strahan played left defensive end, he was a weaker pass rusher (because he was usually working against the second best tackle on the offense), but I've argued before that it makes good sense to put a premier rusher on the quarterback's sighted side. Maybe with Sapp it's just any D lineman who isn't, uh, Warren Sapp. But I'd wait on Strahan because he will get in and because I hold a lingering resentment of his being handed his sack record by Brett Favre.

I'd also vote yes to both senior candidates Ray Guy and Claude Humphrey. Maybe Ray Guy isn't the best punter ever, but he was the first punter we ever talked about as a player, though Don Chandler as a punter/placekicker ought to get a look. I also think place-kicker Jim Bakken deserves attention. Humphrey is your classic outstanding player on mostly bad teams.

I see Tony Dungy as a Hall of Famer too, but I do wish coaches went into a separate vote, because I'd vote for Coryell ahead of Dungy, and Jimmy Johnson's an interesting case as well. I also think Paul Tagliabue should be recognised, though there seems to be a strong bloc of voters against him, and George Young is deserving too, but again I don't think they should be competing for votes with players. I have a hard time figuring how Eddie DeBartolo made the final ballot, except I understand how popular he was. But he cheated on the salary cap system when he ran the 49ers, which only came out when he was tried for cheating in the battle to get a casino licence in Lousiana. On the other hand it was Eddie Jr. who talked his dad into hiring Bill Walsh, and who paid the big bucks (circumventing the cap) to keep the team successful for a long time. To me it's a good argument to keep owners in their own, call it VIP wing, of the Hall.

SUPER BOWL 48: THE PICK: Seahawks