Eli Manning is all grown up. Sure, he finished his 2011 season on Sunday by winning the Super Bowl and taking home the game’s MVP trophy after completing an instant classic of a fourth-quarter drive, just as he did at the end of the 2007 campaign. The differences between the process enlisted by Old Eli and New Eli, though, are stark. The old Eli Manning struggled through an uneven regular season before raising his game to unforeseen heights during a shocking playoff run. The new Eli Manning? He’s been playing at an excellent level all year and rose to something even higher during the playoffs. In 2007, while Manning may have been playing the position traditionally associated with leadership, he wasn’t anywhere close to the best player on his team. He did not lead his team to a title; he was dragged, kicking and screaming, by a dominant defense. Four years later, Eli Manning stood at the helm and dragged a flagging defense to a second World Championship. This, so much more than 2007, was Eli’s title.
The numbers don’t lie. In each of his two Super Bowl runs, Manning has followed a four-year stretch with a playoff performance that dramatically improves upon his established level of play. Notably, during his two title runs, Manning has been able to essentially avoid interceptions while becoming a much more accurate quarterback than the guy he had previously been.
Forget about the numbers, though. Consider the excuses that we could come up with when trying to analyze Manning’s performance from four years ago, and how few of them actually apply now. The famous “Helmet Catch” from 2008 was one of the most memorable and exciting plays in NFL history, but it was a dangerous throw and a miraculous catch as opposed to some sort of perfectly executed decision. Manning’s throw down the sidelines to Mario Manningham also required a brilliant catch, but the play worked because Eli hit Manningham with an even more impressive pass. The Helmet Catch, somewhat infamously, was preceded by a terrible Manning decision that saw him launch a would-be season-ending interception to the sidelines, only for Asante Samuel to let the clinching pick go through his fingertips. There was no such play this time around. The Helmet Catch oozed luck and good fortune. Manning-to-Manningham oozed a different class of skills.
Those Giants were also a different team, something we discussed in the Super Bowl preview. That team was built around running the ball and playing tough defense, two things it did with aplomb. Those Giants averaged 4.6 yards per carry, good for fourth in the league, and had an offensive line that was so good it garnered MVP discussion the following year. It created a play-action passing attack and provided easy reads for its limited quarterback. These Giants averaged a league-low 3.5 yards per pop and looked shambolic at times over the past two weeks. Eli was able to throw the ball in spite of them, not because of them.
The defense from 2007 was above average before raising its game in the playoffs, notably dominating the Patriots on the line of scrimmage and sacking Tom Brady five times. This year’s defense was below average by most any metric, including a 25th-place finish in points allowed. To put that into context, Eli Manning just won the Super Bowl with a defense that allowed more points per drive this season than the Rams did. They were able to get pressure on Brady during the final two drives of the fourth quarter, and forced a safety on Brady’s first pass attempt, but both the safety and two sacks appeared to be coverage-caused pressure. Either way, most of the crutches Eli might have relied upon to boost his production in 2007 don’t seem to stand up very well in 2011.
Eli’s big win also started the chatter about his legacy and eventual case for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. That’s where we pull the brakes. Winning two Super Bowl MVPs is a remarkable achievement, one pulled off by just four other players. Of those four, three (Joe Montana, Bart Starr, and Terry Bradshaw) are in the Hall of Fame, and the fourth (Tom Brady) will be voted in at the first moment of eligibility. So he’s off to a good start. You’ll probably hear that Manning has won two Super Bowls before finishing his age 30 season, just as Joe Montana did in San Francisco. That’s true. On the other hand, remember how we noted Manning’s improvement from 2008 to 2011? Those were his age 27 through age 30 seasons, and over that time frame, he was 13th in the league in cumulative completion percentage, eighth in yards per attempt, and 10th in passer rating. Montana, during those same seasons in his career, was first in completion percentage, third in yards per attempt, and second in passer rating.1 For Manning to take the next leap forward from very good quarterback and playoff hero to elite, surefire Hall of Famer, he has to continue to play at the new level of ability he established during the two Super Bowl runs. If he can do that, even for a few years, there’s no way the Hall of Fame will be able to keep Manning out.
That’s all gristle for another day, anyway. Right now, it’s time for Eli Manning to celebrate a title all his own. He’s finally led his team to a Super Bowl victory.
Extremely Lucky? Incredibly Close
Super Bowl XLVI ended up being quite interesting, even if it wasn’t always all that pretty. It felt like a game that was constantly teasing to become a classic shootout, always one play-action fake and a long look downfield away from suddenly morphing into a track meet. Both teams attempted to take away the deep pass by sacrificing yards underneath, which turned the game into a chess match of pick plays, sweeps, and passes into the flats for small, consistent gains. Outside of the Manningham catch, the longest play of the game was a 21-yard reception by Chad Ochocinco on a two-man route, one of the rare occasions where the Patriots did go with the play-action and provided Tom Brady with maximum protection. On that play, Brady had eight blockers; most of the time he had five as part of an empty backfield look that was designed to stretch the Giants horizontally and create an open receiver before the pass rush had a chance to get home.
As frustratingly cliched and simplistic as it is, this game came down to two big plays and a smattering of luck. When Wes Welker got open up the seam for a huge play with 4:06 left in the fourth, a catch might have sealed the game for the Patriots. If Welker went on to score a touchdown, the Pats would have led by 10 points with four minutes (and one Giants timeout) to go. Only the Cowboys can blow that kind of lead to the Giants. Even if Welker were tackled and the Patriots stopped, they would have been able to kick a field goal and go up six points with about two minutes to go. Instead, the pass didn’t go quite as planned. While Welker was open, Brady had to throw the ball away from the safety in the middle of the field to keep Welker from getting creamed. In attempting to do so, he overthrew the pass and forced Welker to make an awkward turn for the ball. Welker still could have made the catch, but it was far more difficult than it needed to be. The receiver has tried to take responsibility for the play, but it’s likely more on Brady than it is on Welker. Welker dropped his game-changing bomb, and when the Giants were backed up on their 12-yard line two plays later, Manningham got free up the left sideline and caught his. Flip the success on those two plays and the Patriots win.
Those plays aren’t lucky, of course, but what happened with the game’s two fumbles was. Fumbles from Hakeem Nicks and Ahmad Bradshaw bounced dangerously on the Lucas Oil turf, but the Giants were able to get to each ball and fall on it before the Patriots could recover. The Bradshaw fumble would have been particularly devastating, as it would have given the Patriots the ball on the Giants’ 11-yard line early in the fourth quarter with the chance to go up two scores. A third Giants fumble was recovered by the Patriots, but came on a play where New England had 12 men on the field, which returned the ball to the Giants and wiped the fumble off the books.
Now, angry Giants fans, let us clarify what “luck” means in this context. The Giants were not lucky to win Super Bowl XLVI because they fumbled twice and fell on both of them. They played a very good football game against a great football team, but it’s pretty clear that this game was close enough that either team could have won without the other team feeling like they had something stolen from them. In tight games like this one, the reality is that the difference between winning and losing often comes down to the bounce of a football or some arbitrary fluke of timing, like who gets the ball last in a shootout or (under the old rules) won a coin toss at the beginning of overtime. That doesn’t mean that the Giants were lucky to win! It means that the two teams were so close that an act of randomness was important enough to dramatically shift the game in their favor.
If Bradshaw’s bouncing fumble was picked up by the Patriots and returned for a touchdown as part of what eventually became a Patriots win, would the Giants be any less talented of a football team? Would they have deserved to win any more or any less? Of course not. There’s no shame in getting the breaks. Someone’s got to get them, and they’re incredibly valuable. The Giants recovered eight of the 10 fumbles that hit the ground during their four playoff games, and had they failed to recover either of the Kyle Williams muffed punts or the Bradshaw fumble on Sunday, they might not have won the Super Bowl.
A third factor, of course, were the effects of Rob Gronkowski’s high ankle sprain. After two weeks of talk about how Gronkowski was 100 percent, he was just the latest victim of that dreaded injury, struggling through a game where he was clearly a shell of his normal self. Gronkowski caught just two passes for a total of 26 yards, and according to ESPN Stats and Information, he played a season-low 72.6 percent of Patriots plays. He was the intended receiver on the lone turnover of the game, a bomb where Gronkowski was one-on-one against Giants middle linebacker Chase Blackburn. That would normally be a huge mismatch for the Patriots, but Brady underthrew his pass and Gronkowski wasn’t able to make a creditable play on the football in the air, allowing Blackburn to pick off the pass.2 Of course, Gronkowski was also unable to come up with a deflection off of the Hail Mary on the final pass of the game, and while it’s not clear that he would have been able to do so with a healthy ankle, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have had a better shot at it.
It didn’t take an injured Gronkowski, some friendly bounces of the ball, and a win in the biggest two-play exchange of the game to get the Giants to win this Super Bowl. They might have been able to beat a healthy Gronkowski, get past a long completion to Welker, and even survive a lost Bradshaw fumble. They only play each Super Bowl once, though, and in the game that played out on Sunday, those tiny differences qualified as the margin of victory.
Thank You for Not Coaching
In the World Series, two of baseball’s worst in-game tacticians engaged in something resembling a comic slapfight of idiocy. Not so in the Super Bowl. Despite the huge stakes and the veteran nature of each coach, both Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick were aggressive in trying to improve their respective teams’ chances of winning, even if it meant doing something that most coaches would never consider. In fact, while he’ll never admit it, Coughlin may have deliberately broken the rules and been absolutely, positively right to do so.
Let’s skip to the fourth quarter and take on the game’s three big coaching decisions in chronological order. We’ll start with Bill Belichick’s decision to throw the red challenge flag out on Mario Manningham’s enormous catch for 38 yards with 3:46 left, a play that finished virtually right in front of Belichick on the Patriots’ sideline. Neither Belichick nor his video people likely got a chance to review a replay before throwing the challenge flag, which is normally a sign of a terrible challenge, but this was a situation where throwing the flag made total sense. It was a low-risk, high-reward challenge.
Why is that? Well, the reward is obvious: If Manningham happened to step out of bounds, the Patriots wipe the game’s biggest play off the books and send the Giants back to their 12-yard line. It’s an enormous shift in field position, particularly in a game where big plays had been so hard to find. If you believe in the power of momentum, a replay review would calm down the Giants-friendly crowd and give the Patriots a chance to recover from the shock of the play, even if the challenge ended up unsuccessful. The risk of losing a challenge is basically nil, since the Patriots had two challenges left with just under two minutes of game time to go before they lost them. The risk here is that you lose one of your three timeouts, and as it turned out, the Patriots ended up wishing they had that timeout when they were trying to stop the Giants near the goal line. Had the Patriots been able to stop the Giants short on three consecutive plays after the two-minute warning, they could have held Big Blue to a field goal attempt and still had plenty of time to try a drive for the win with Brady. That’s why it’s low-risk and not no-risk. Every decision like this in a close game carries a certain amount of risk and reward; a good coach considers risk without being unnecessarily averse to it. Bill Belichick, as you might suspect, is a good coach.
Next, Belichick sullied all that is right about the game of football by allowing the Giants to score on an Ahmad Bradshaw run with 1:04 left in the fourth quarter, giving the Giants a four-point lead while allowing his team to get the ball back in an attempt to drive for the winning touchdown with some reasonable amount of time. Bradshaw now-famously realized what was going on mid-play and tried to delay himself from scoring, but let’s review the decision-making heading into the play. What should each team have done?
Win Probability charts aren’t perfect because they don’t adjust for the teams involved, but they’re the best tool for answering a question like this. Here, the Giants-Patriots WP chart on advancednflstats.com notes that the Giants had an 89 percent chance of winning the game when Hakeem Nicks picked up a first down on the New England 7-yard line with 1:09 left. From there, the Giants could have chosen to kneel three times, force the Patriots to use their final timeout, and then attempt a game-winning field goal with seconds on the clock without ever giving the ball back to the Patriots. The model might even be underestimating their chances; history suggests that an average field goal kicker will convert a 24-yard field goal about 96 percent of the time, and the Giants were playing on turf with the options to both move the ball onto Lawrence Tynes’ desired hash mark while falling on the ball and trying again in the case of a bad snap. And if you think Tynes is a terrible kicker, note that he’s 56-of-57 on kicks from 20 to 29 yards during his career.
Instead, when Bradshaw scored the most mournful game-winning Super Bowl touchdown in history, the Win Probability analysis suggests that the Giants’ odds of winning decreased to 85 percent. That’s right: Bill Belichick was likely correct to allow the Giants to score, and the Giants should have taken a knee and decided to kick the chip shot field goal instead.3 If you use the 96 percent win expectancy that we’re suggesting instead of the model’s 89 percent, it’s patently obvious that the Giants should have kneeled and kicked.
Instead, they scored and got to sweat out an exciting final minute of football before the confetti shower began. They might even have exploited a funny little loophole in the rule book. With 17 seconds left, Tom Brady took a snap and desperately searched around for an open receiver. He eventually launched a pass to a well-covered Aaron Hernandez that fell incomplete, but not before eight seconds had passed and a flag had fallen to the ground. The penalty? The Giants had 12 men on the field, a five-yarder that would allow the Patriots to replay the down from their own 49-yard line, but not reclaim the time on the clock.
In a situation where a team needs a touchdown with 20 seconds or so left in the game, time can be far more important than yards. Trading eight seconds for five yards there is a decision the defense will take every time, and even if the Patriots had the ability to get off a free play, the Giants had 12 men on the field and were more likely to stop such a play from succeeding. It’s brilliant. It’s illegal. But was it on purpose?
Normally, we wouldn’t accuse a coach of employing such a strategy. Tom Coughlin certainly doesn’t have a reputation for stretching the rules. But fellow Grantland contributor Chris Brown pointed out that there’s a precedent for such behavior: Buddy Ryan’s “Polish Defense” tactic, a move he employed near the goal line. Take it away, playbook:
THREE EXTRA LINEBACKERS GO INTO THE GAME.
Situation: The opponent is inside the 5 yard line going in to score. There is less than 15 seconds left. We want to stop their offense from scoring and in the process, we want to run the clock down to where they have enough time for just one play. So, we will stop them, get penalized half the distance to the goal, but leave them with enough time to run one play. We will then go back to our regular goal line defense and stop them to win the game.
Chris’ post also notes that Ryan later placed 14 men onto the field for a last-minute punt while considering the same sort of strategy, and actually got away with it when the referees failed to recognize the extra men and didn’t throw a flag.
It’s easy to see how this might work for the Giants. By taking eight seconds off the clock, they force the Patriots into a situation where they essentially will have to throw a Hail Mary on the next play (or, in the worst case, two plays later). In fact, just as Ryan lamented not having 15 men on the field for the punt, the Giants probably should have run 13 men4 onto the field for the play, ensuring that a completion was almost certainly not forthcoming before taking their lumps.
In reality, the Giants probably just screwed up and put 12 men on the field amid all the excitement and drama of the final series. But don’t be surprised if an NFL team remembers this situation next season, refers back to Ryan’s mantra, and throws 14 players on the field for a key defensive snap inside 30 seconds. The NFL would be smart to close this loophole in the rules and turn the defensive 12-men penalty into a true free play, allowing the offense to either take the result of the play or the option of accepting a five-yard penalty with the time run off from the play added back onto the clock.