Three Post-Super Bowl LI Observations

Super Bowl LI is in the books, and while you’ve already seen plenty of takes on the final game of the 2016 NFL season, three particular things stood out from this former beat reporter’s point of view.

How is James White not the Super Bowl MVP?

There’s no denying how brilliant Tom Brady was in the second half last night, but no quarterback does it alone, contrary to popular belief. In fact, consider why the Patriots struggled on offense in the first half –- dropped passes, an offensive line that struggled to keep the Falcons’ speedy defensive front seven at bay and the complete disappearance of LeGarrette Blount. The lack of a running game may not have been a total shock considering Atlanta saw the fifth-fewest rushing attempts in the regular season because opponents took advantage of its poor pass coverage. However, the Falcons did allow 4.5 yards per rush, which meant that Blount could have seen some daylight once New England figured out how to contain blitzes, right? That didn’t happen at all.

Yet, in comes the fourth-round pick from Wisconsin back in 2014, stepping in with a dream day for the ages. White had the most receptions in Super Bowl history (14), 110 receiving yards and three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving).

The thing about the Super Bowl MVP is that you could pretty much pencil in the winner before the game even starts: 28 of the 51 winners were quarterbacks, four times more than running backs (seven). It’s not that the signal callers haven’t had brilliant games, but even in some of the most impressive performances by quarterbacks, there was always a single player who helped kick up those passing totals with brilliant catches and tremendous YAC numbers, or a superb ground game. Think of Super Bowl XXIX where Jerry Rice and Ricky Watters helped Steve Young put on the best offensive display in the game’s history. Look at Super Bowl XXXIV with Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk being incredible to help Kurt Warner win the honors. Whereas there were some absurd plays from Julian Edelman and key grabs by Danny Amendola, it was White who filled the role of Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen — Swiss Army Knives for past Patriots teams — with aplomb.

If you don’t believe that, well Brady himself said it earlier this morning at the press conference, going further by saying that White deserved the MVP honors. Give him the truck, Tom!

EAT. THE. CLOCK.

Here’s the thing that makes Bill Belichick and the Patriots a franchise successful. It’s not just taking chances on players who burned bridges elsewhere (looking at you, Malcolm Floyd) or making free agent splashes (remember Adalius Thomas?). It’s not just what’s considered innovative coaching, though Belichick has a history of making in-game decisions few others would make. And believe it or not, the Patriots aren’t just drafting random people off the street as to even be on any of the 32 NFL rosters, you have some semblance of talent and intellect.

It’s that New England takes what we now have to consider an old school approach to clock management.

The lengthy drive that got the Patriots going in the third quarter was fascinating because it was almost a throwback to the kind of NFL football most of us grew up on. It was 13 plays (seven passes, six runs), 75 yards and took 6:25 off of the clock. While they effectively abandoned the run later, they went to the offensive plays that have always worked: intermediate throws that picked up 3-6 yards at a time. They never roll out multiple receivers for the sake of getting a whole lot of speed on the field to go deep, but to give Brady every option possible depending on the coverage. New England forced Atlanta to use its speed not to rush the quarterback, but to try and keep up with the receivers. And on that initial touchdown drive, it kept that speed-based defense winded. The subsequent drive resulted in a field goal, but it kept softening up the Falcons’ secondary (10 pass plays on a 12-play drive). In two possessions, New England took nearly 12 minutes away from Atlanta.

For the football geeks, this worked because the Patriots stuck to the tenets of their modified Erhardt-Perkins offense, one that’s been working for multiple NFL champions since the 1970s.

On the flip side, somehow, the Falcons forgot that it had a top rushing tandem in the league. It’s not that they don’t have the personnel to employ similar tactics that the Patriots had: Taylor Gabriel had an outstanding season as the No. 2 receiver behind Julio Jones while Mohamed Sanu gave them a third wideout to test secondaries. Yet, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman should have had more touches to help the Falcons eat the clock, especially late.

In fairness, the long drives by New England took so much time that there was no guarantee that the Falcons would have had enough in their own right to kill the clock. Yet, even then, the Falcons left plenty of time on the play clock a few too many times in the second half. Those are the times when tantalizing with deep throws and acrobatic catches won’t win games.

Offenses used to let the play clock wind down to the last possible second when they had substantial leads. They’d hand the ball off to a running back or fullback to work the heart of the defensive line. They’d throw short if they could catch a defender slipping. They’d create anxiety with linebackers and defensive ends by trying to draw encroachment penalties. Somewhere in this pass-happy league, coaches forgot that clock killing still helps them win games. And in this case, it could have won a championship.

If you didn’t already know, parity is dead and buried (or “the AFC East is hideous”)

Some of us only think of history in tweet form, so take it away, WPVI (Philadelphia) sportscaster Jeff Skversky!

That’s 13 out of 32 teams (about 41 percent of the league) over the 51 years since the NFL/AFL merger. Look, for as much as we rightfully get frustrated about the lack of parity in other leagues, notably the NBA, this has to be frustrating in a league where essentially all things are equal, especially financial resources. For those who love to debate the merits of market sizes and resources, consider how this is a league where smaller metro areas like Green Bay and Pittsburgh have teams that are bigger national draws than most of the largest markets in the country, including New York, Los Angeles and (sorry, Bears fans) Chicago.

Let’s add something else to it. Since the Patriots won their first title in Super Bowl XXXVI over the then-St. Louis Rams, there have only been two Super Bowls that did not involve Brady, Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and Denver or Ben Roethlisberger for Pittsburgh: Oakland’s loss to Tampa Bay after the 2002 season and Baltimore’s win over San Francisco four years ago. Going further, you have to go back to Super Bowl XXXIV (34, after the 1999 season) and the Rams’ win over the Tennessee Titans to find a different AFC champion. But who preceded those Titans in the prior two seasons? The Steelers and Patriots!

Yes, the NFL had changed greatly over all of that time from the four consecutive appearances from the Buffalo Bills in the early 90s to the etched-in-stone dominance of New England in current times. Yet the Aughts gave us legitimate parity — 14 different franchises played for the Lombardi between 2001 and 2010, but only four had Super Bowl appearances in the previous decade. Six of those teams – Baltimore, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Seattle, New Orleans and Arizona – had played in the Super Bowl for the first time. Four other franchises – Philadelphia, Chicago, the Colts (Baltimore/Indianapolis) and Raiders (Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland) – endured title game droughts of at least 18 seasons ended in the 2000s.

In contrast, the 2010s have given the illusion of parity. Yes, ten different franchises have played in the final game of the season since 2011. However, six teams played in the 2000s – New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Seattle, Baltimore and Carolina. Three teams broke dry spells between Super Bowl appearances – San Francisco (18 seasons), Denver (15) and Green Bay (14) – yet, in the Broncos’ case, it sure as hell felt like an extension of the Colts thanks to the addition of Peyton Manning.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that if the Patriots wind up back here again next season, it’s largely because not only are they that damn good, but the AFC East is the worst division in the history of professional sports. (The AFC South is a close second.)

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