Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Honor Intact


Clearly, this Super Bowl loss was a tough one. The Eagles undoubtedly gave the Patriots a spirited, if sloppy, tussle. The game suggested that, in a big spot, Philadelphia is the only team on the Patriots' level in the NFL. Those suggesting Pittsburgh and Indianapolis are still the second-best team in the NFL have to weigh the utter, total un-competitiveness of those two squads against New England in these play-offs- particularly in light of the Eagles’ dogged determination to hang around and steal this thing.

The problem with any close loss, or any tie after three quarters, is it enables never-ending navel gazing at the expense of the big picture. In each one-score game, you can forever point to a singular play- or a singular player- and say “if this had happened” or “if he had done this”- the outcome would have been different. It makes it effortless to assign causality to a larger outcome- and a comfortable crutch to those who don’t understand the nature of pro-football.

An example: Freddie Mitchell. Freddie was a great pre-game story: big mouth, funny, quotable. A nice story too- the one game all season where Fred-Ex was asked to step up and contribute, the Vikings play-off game, he did in big, splashy fashion. In the Super Bowl, he caught one ball- and a lot of people who don’t understand the NFL have labeled him as coming up small.

But you know, with TO back in the line up, with Westbrook, Smith and Greg Lewis the primary slot guys, and Pinkston simply having a good day- just how many balls were available to Freddie Mitchell? From which of those five guys are you willing to sacrifice touches? Freddie was on the field for what, fifteen snaps? Twenty snaps? And was he ever the first or second option?

Sure, it is fun and undemanding to trash Mitchell- even though he caught the one possession route he was asked to all day- and set a beautiful subtle pick- a real pro football play- resulting in a big play- as if he mattered. It might even be therapuetic. But it is also ignorant. Mitchell is gone from Philadelphia. The emergence of Greg Lewis at a third of his salary has made him expendable. Freddie will be a free agent for about five minutes- get his half a million up front- and will play in the NFL for eight years.

You might lay off McNabb a little too. Yes, he sprayed the ball around- and was awful ragged early. But you cannot tell me a guy who, until the last possession, went 30-for-48 for 357 yards and three scores- threw sixteen balls on third down and completed nine for first downs- all against a defense that knew he had to throw every single freaking play, was awful.

Seriously, did anyone besides me watch the game? Who picked Philadelphia up off the deck at 14-7 in the third quarter? Down ten points with five minutes to go, with America getting ready to flip the channel, Donovan again did what he does best. #5 turned a sure loss into a chance to win- again, against the best defense in the NFL. Or weren’t you paying attention? Donovan scored 21 points and rallied his team again and again. Peyton Manning couldn’t; and he’s the MVP of the league by the way. Ten less net yards on that final punt… fifty yards in fifty seconds is a very do-able exercise in the NFL- particularly for a quarterback who wins.

Perhaps a more serious student of pro-football might instead point to the real problems the Eagles had. For example, what Eagles’ unit struggled more than any other Sunday? It was pretty obvious- the interior of the Eagles’ offensive line. They couldn’t block the run or pick up the blitz the Patriots sent again and again through the middle. After a really nice campaign, back-up OG Artis Hicks probably played himself out of a solid-money starting contract somewhere. For two years now, the center Fraley has been essentially an inexpensive back-up the Eagles never got around to replacing- and boy, he looked it Sunday. What offensive problems Philadelphia experienced stemmed from these three interior offensive linemen- and their frequent inability to compete with the Patriots inside guys.

Seriously, Reid is not an idiot. He did not want to game plan 50 passes versus 17 rushes. But the Pats are allowed to be good at things too. As I pointed out pre-game on this very blog, it would be suicide to run right at these guys. Remember: Throw! Throw! Throw! Accordingly, Reid’s offensive game plan was first-rate- ignoring all that crap about "establishing the run" and such. Outside of Gibbs’ disciples, who seriously thinks Levens trying to manage thirty yards on ten carries Sunday would have been productive use of snaps?

Philadelphia not only had to throw it a lot- but generate the ball control offense from the passing game as well. Mission accomplished there too. The coaches got a solid 104 ball-control style yards from “the guy the Pats were sure to shut down” Westbrook- the almighty Dillon had 106 by the way- despite the fact Philadelphia could not traditionally rush the football. They scored 21 points and hung 370 yards on the best defense in football- so don’t tell me Reid is brainless. He almost overcame the Patriots' greatest strength- and probably could have scored 31 without the turnovers.

The game was decided by two crucial points. First, the Patriots had an edge at the quarterback position- evidenced by the fourth quarter turnovers at that position - that translated to a field goal advantage. Second, the Patriots used a superior red zone performance to compensate for their lackluster 220 yard net passing and 75 rushing yards from Dillon.

The Pats had barely 220 yards net passing- plus a turnover. Yes, their top back rushed 18 for 75 yards. If you take out one 25-yard carry on a drive in which they did not score, he rushed for 17 for 50- which candidly is more indicative of the Patriot's day rushing the football. If I told you those two facts that before the game, coupled with the Eagles scoring three touchdowns, you would have taken your chances.

However, the Patriots turned those mediocre offensive numbers into 24 points- which is frankly a lot for 325 or so yards of offense. So to me, the central game story is the Pats played their best offense in the red zone: five trips- three Touchdowns, one FG, one turnover.

In the end, games between two relatively even teams come down to four things: home field (not applicable here clearly), turnovers, quarterback play and execution in the scoring area. The Patriots have better players- and won those three significant areas of competition. The Eagles were able to hang around due to scoring first, the defense keeping the Patriots to an almost manageable offensive total, and a quarterback who would not let his team lie on the deck.

Disappointing perhaps, as a play or two here and there, the Eagles upset this team. But that is what it would have been- an upset. In 2005, the Patriots were clearly the best team in the NFL.