Friday, February 8, 2008

Why New England lost

Yeah, I know, there are a lot of reasons: the Giants' methodical ball-control offense kept the Pats' high-flying attack off the field; their swarming defense produced three-and-outs and prevented Tom Brady from finding a rhythm; Eli Manning's historic two-minute drill; James Tyree's miraculous helmet catch; Steve Smith's clutch reception and first down; Plaxico Burress' finishing skills.

But for the sake of conversation, let's massively oversimplify things, apply some Palsgraf-style but-for causation, and boil the whole NFL season down to one play. Here's as good an explanation as any why New England's quest for a 19-0 season fell short.

During my summers home from college, I used to play basketball at the Deerfield Multiplex, where the chance to watch the Bulls practice during the NBA playoffs was a big draw. Once the Bulls got off the court, we'd get on.

The hoop crowd generally included a handful of sportswriters and pro athletes, and the courtside conversation was mostly about sports. Sitting on the wood floor between games one day, a columnist who'd played some college football explained to me the difference between wide receivers and cornerbacks.

The men who play the two positions are physically interchangeable in most ways: speedy, lean, explosive, good leapers, often former high school or college track stars. The difference, my colleague said, is that the guys in that talent pool who have good hands become wide receivers, and the guys who don't, play defensive back.

Catching passes is a rare skill, the argument goes, but knocking a ball to the ground, any fast guy can do. Since it's tougher to make a catch than to break a play up, the speedsters who can catch are made into WRs, and the fast guys with butterfingers become CBs.

While Eli Manning did play a decent game and engineer an exciting final drive, he hardly displayed the precision passing or game-management skills of, say, his older brother. He underthrew receivers, let the play clock expire for a penalty, and floated a few passes where players on either team could catch them.

His ugliest pass came early in the final drive, an attempt so far from a completion that a receiver probably blew a route. With 1:18 left in the fourth quarter, Manning threw a ball toward the right sideline nowhere near any teammate. The closest player, Asante Samuel of the Patriots, had a clean look at it, but the ball glanced off his fingertips and dropped harmlessly to the turf.

Samuel knew he'd muffed a game-ending pick. His anguished on-field reaction said it all: an interception would have sealed the deal. With a four-point lead and the ball, and 75 seconds left in the game, Brady would have taken a knee a few times and run out the clock. 

But it was not to be. Given new life, the Giants made the most of their opportunity. On the very next play, Manning pulled his Houdini act, somehow escaping a sack and hitting Tyree for his dramatic downfield catch.  Moments later, the winning touchdown. Thus did Samuel and New England let Super Bowl XLII slip away, and with it their bid for undefeated immortality.

I felt bad for Asante Samuel. His mistake was understandable: he's a DB, not a WR. If Samuel had the hands to catch passes, he'd be a wideout making big plays (and probably a lot more money). Of course, if he were that guy, he wouldn't have been in the defensive backfield in the first place.

Bottom line, he's not. And that is why his team lost.

1 comment:

Justin said...

How many times in the 70s and 80s did I think a similar thought: "Ben Bass never displays the mad skills of his older brother." Of course, back then we called you "Banjo."