Always before, old-school football would rise up in the Super Bowl and save the day for us codgers. The 1983 Washington Redskins set an NFL record with 541 points in the regular season, but managed only nine against the Raiders of Lester Hayes and Michael Haynes. The first installment of Buffalo’s hurry-up offense was grounded by the New York Giants, after which Bill Parcells exulted, “Power football, baby!” The St. Louis Rams and their Greatest Show on Turf were undone by Bill Belichick’s Patriots.
And now you’re saying: “The Super Bowl is Sunday. It still could happen.”
And here’s where this old-schooler concedes defeat and says: It won’t.
This champion will have the lowest-rated defense of any Super Bowl winner ever. The New England Patriots, still Belichick’s team, ranked 31st in the 32-team NFL. And the Giants, who are seen as the more traditional of the teams still standings, ranked 27th. As for running the ball, always the twin pillar of power football? The Pats ranked 20th in yards rushing; the Giants ranked dead last.
When Dirk Koetter was hired as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, he extolled the time-honored virtues of balance, saying, “It’s easy to say it’s a passing league and that defense doesn’t matter and running doesn’t matter, but look what happened last weekend.” He meant the upsets of the sling-it-every-down Packers and Saints by the Giants and 49ers. But then we check the results of the conference championship games, and we see that …
Both times, the better defense lost. The 31st-ranked Patriots beat the third-ranked Ravens. The 27th-ranked Giants beat the fourth-ranked 49ers.
The NFL, I’m saddened to report, has become the Arena league. No longer does good pitching, or the football equivalent thereof, stop good hitting. Rarely does anybody stop anybody else. This week I asked Todd Grantham, the Georgia defensive coordinator who spent a decade in the NFL, for his Super Bowl pick, halfway figuring he’d go with the slightly-better-on-D Giants, and he did credit the Giants for playing well down the stretch. Then he said, “But if [Tom] Brady’s on, it doesn’t matter.”
And here we must note the great disconnect in football: The NFL, the highest level, is all offense, but SEC football, essentially the sport’s Class AAA, has been overrun by defense to the extent that the giants Alabama and LSU worked 115 minutes plus an untimed overtime against each other before either managed a touchdown.
The reason, Grantham suggested, is the quarterback. By definition, there are no 10th-year seniors in the SEC. By definition, a college quarterback has to go to class to study things other than football. The NFL has grown so data-driven that every quarterback has seen every defensive alignment a hundred times (via video) before he lines up against it.
Grantham: “The two toughest jobs in the NFL are the quarterback and the defensive coordinator. The quarterback because everything is programmed — ‘If you see this, you do this’ — and the defensive coordinator because he’s got to counter that somehow.”
NFL rules, as we know, don’t favor the poor defensive coordinator. Offensive holding, which could be called on every down, is called maybe once a half. It’s a penalty to breathe on a receiver, and if you hit a quarterback really hard that’s a penalty and probably a fine. As Mike Nolan, just hired as the Falcons’ defensive coordinator, said (while surely gritting his teeth): “The NFL knows people like to see points scored.”
Some people, sure. But this person — who might not, let’s stipulate, be representative of the masses — prefers that points not come so cheap. When nobody stops anybody, all the offense has a dulling effect. (”Oh, look, there’s another touchdown. Big whoop.”) I’m not suggesting the NFL needs to return to the days when teams threw only on third down, but pro football usurped baseball’s claim as America’s Pastime because it fused power with precision. The power aspect, alas, has been lost.
And football, which is supposed to be the ultimate team game, has morphed into the NBA: Instead of LeBron versus Kobe, it’s Brady versus Manning, be it Eli or Peyton, or Brees versus Rodgers. At least in basketball there’s a chance LeBron and Kobe might guard one another; quarterbacks are never on the field at the same time.
But maybe they should be. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the NFL that a return to the one-platoon days wouldn’t cure. (Make pretty-boy Brady play free safety against the Giants and see how he likes it.)
Yeah, I’m kidding, but it’s a bad joke born of frustration. To borrow from Bobby Jones on Jack Nicklaus, NFL teams have come to play a game with which I’m not familiar. And I’m not sure that game is football at all.
By Mark Bradley