Tagged: Football

Is Isaiah Going to Get the Malcolm Butler Treatment from the Celtics?

This week, after losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and with neither of the two games at TD Garden being at all competitive, the Boston Celtics announced that their start point guard, Isaiah Thomas, was out for the season. Then, the Celtics won Game 3 in Cleveland, and without their best player. Naturally, the narrative of “are the Celtics better off without Isaiah?” swirled around the Boston Sports Media for days. It was maybe the dumbest take, but also quite possibly the most predictable take ever.

I get how we got here. This is Boston. There are two radio stations and two TV stations devoted to the local sports teams, and the Celtics are the only one of the four currently in the playoffs. In addition to being a primary talking point for hosts and callers alike on WEEI and The Sports Hub alike, you have writers at The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, national outlets with Boston roots like Barstool Sports and The Ringer, and probably hundreds of aspiring and trying millennials like me all trying to be read and be heard. On some level, the “better off without” opinion had legs, not because it was valid, not because anyone really believed it, but because the infrastructure of the Boston Sports Media needed it to happen. There were too many hours in the day for no one to say it, so people couldn’t stop saying it.

This is also the market that produced Bill Simmons, author of The Ewing Theory, which attempts to explain the phenomenon where a team loses their superstar who has never won a title, and the complementary pieces surrounding that star step up in their absence, and the team outperforms expectations. It was a theory Simmons first developed with a friend when Patrick Ewing was in college, and they noticed his Georgetown teammates seemed to play better when he was on the bench in foul trouble, and the theory was tested at the professional level when Ewing got hurt in the 1999 NBA Playoffs, and without him, his New York Knicks reached the NBA Finals as the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The ultimate Ewing Theory case is that of Drew Bledsoe, whom Simmons mentioned as a possible Ewing Theory candidate in a 2001 column, months before the Patriots’ franchise quarterback was wrecked by Mo Lewis, replaced by a second year QB out of Michigan named Tom Brady, and so began the Pats’ transformation to downtrodden perennial punchline to the model franchise in North American professional sports.

Of course the very existence of the theory causes people to anticipate a case before anything actually happens. The most prominent example of that was also Boston-centric, when Rajon Rondo got hurt in 2013, and the Celtics rallied around the loss and made the playoffs anyway, and it inspired Simmons’ “Ewing Theory Revisited” column. But as fun as a theory like is to think about, the reality is always much more nuanced, a huge reason I have become disillusioned with the sports media culture I am simultaneously trying to break into. Not everything is a hot take, and trying to find the hot take in every story only lowers the common denominator, and brings everybody down. Yes, the Knicks advanced farther in a lower seed after Ewing got hurt, but the 1999 NBA season was strange, compressed, and shortened by a lockout. The Knicks were probably a better team than they were in the regular season, and could have made noise in the power vacuum that was the East after the dismantling of the Chicago Bulls, who had dominated the conference for the bulk of the 1990s. Also, there is no way the Knicks were better off in the Finals without Patrick Ewing, going up against a San Antonio Spurs team that had both Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

Obviously, the Celtics are not better off without Isaiah. The guy was awesome for them this season, was the biggest reason (aside from Toronto’s injuries and Cleveland’s indifference to regular season results) that the Celtics finished atop the East after 82 games, and there is no way they get past the Washington Wizards in the second round (let alone Chicago in the first) without him. The Celtics were on the road, forced to play a different lineup, and caught LeBron James on a rare off night. That’s all it was. One game where the depleted Celtics held LeBron to 11 points and still needed needed a last-second three by Avery Bradley to win. That should not and does not wipe away all the great work Isaiah Thomas did for the Celtics this year.

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As idiotic as the narrative was this week, it does serve as a cynical preview for the way things will likely go in Boston with Isaiah Thomas going forward. It took one win on the road in a series the Celtics were never going to win for fans and media to turn on the most beloved player the Celtics have had since Larry Bird. What is going to happen when the Celtics draft another point guard? They have the top pick in the 2017 Draft, and the consensus top two prospects, Markelle Fultz of Washington and Lonzo Ball of UCLA, are both point guards? What happens if they sign Utah Jazz All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward to a max contract this summer? As great as Isaiah has been for the Celtics, next summer, he will be a free agent, and will the Celtics be willing to make a 29 year old point guard who is under six feet and is already showing wear and tear from the beating one takes as a short guy in a big guy’s league one of the highest paid players in the NBA? I have a feeling this will not end well.

It may be a different sport with very different roster sizes and pay structures, but I have a feeling the way the New England Patriots have handled cornerback and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler this offseason as something of a precursor to what could happen with IT and the Celtics. Butler became an instant household name when he made The Interception of the Century in the end zone against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Last offseason, the most important players on New England’s defense were Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Butler, and all were set to be free agents at some level this offseason, and the team needed to address that. Jones was traded to the Arizona Cardinals last spring, Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns in the middle of the season. Hightower signed an extension with the Patriots after the Super Bowl, but Butler’s future remains murky. First it seemed like Butler, a restricted free agent, would get traded to the New Orleans Saints, but the trade never happened. To further complicate things, the Patriots paid big money to free agent corner Stephon Gilmore without ever playing a down for New England, while Butler had established himself as one of the NFL’s best with the Pats, playing a key role on a team that has won two of the last three Super Bowls, but the Patriots hold all the cards, and they may very well make Malcolm wait for the big payday many fans and media members alike feel like he has already earned.

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This is a similar situation to Isaiah with the Celtics. Thomas has been the good soldier, and consistently Boston’s best player since he arrived here on a very affordable contract (he is still playing on the four-year, $27 million deal he signed with the Phoenix Suns in 2014), while the team went out and paid Al Horford, tried to pay Kevin Durant, and may very well pay Gordon Hayward, all while being very deep at the point guard and possibly using yet another lottery pick on yet another point guard at next month’s draft. Isaiah made the Celtics respectable after the Nee Big Three left town, and just as he is playing his best basketball, the Celtics may already be figuring out his succession plan.

Both Thomas and Butler had to scratch and claw to become the players they became. While Thomas was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler went undrafted coming out of West Alabama. But Bill Belichick saw something in him, coached him up to be ready for the most pivotal moment of the most important game of the season, and was confident enough in his own coaching and Butler’s development to let Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in free agency, confident that the Patriots’ secondary would be just fine. As much of a success story as Butler has been, Bill Belichick is confident in his ability to find the next Malcolm Butler if things between the player and the team go south, and Danny Ainge, like Belichick, is someone always thinking steps ahead.

Bill Belichick and Danny Ainge could not, as two professional sports executives who have been in Boston over a decade, carry themselves any more differently. Belichick is the gruff, ratty sweatshirt clad football coach who seems to go out of his way to be as terse with the media as possible, while Ainge is the clean-cut former NBA guard and MLB third baseman who regularly gets interviewed on the radio during the season. Ainge plays nice, but at his core, he’s a cold, calculating genius not unlike Belichick. Even when he’s tweeting praises of Isaiah, I have a hard time believing he isn’t weighing options should Isaiah not be in the Celtics’ long-term plans. Ainge built a team whose season lasted longer than any team other than the two teams everyone knew would be in the Finals the minute Durant announced he was going to Golden State last July, he did not have to give anything up at the trade deadline either of the last two years to get that far, and he has the ability to add a potentially franchise-altering player at the top of the draft. Like Belichick with Butler, Danny Ainge holds all the cards.

This turn of events says more about the over-reactionary nature of Boston Sports Media than it does about the future about the Celtics, but as predictable as it all was, it sheds some light on the things to come.

What’s Washington Doing?

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One of my biggest regrets as a writer is the two years or so I took off from writing about sports on the Internet from the spring of 2011 to the spring of 2013. On the one hand, I absolutely needed to reset and refocus as a writer, and I had other things going on and some perspective would have done me a lot of good. If I continued writing the way I had been, in the style I had been, on the blog I had been, I would have burnt out sooner or later, and I would not be writing here for you today in 2017. On the other hand, there is no written evidence, no previous article I wrote that I can link to, that can prove how right I was about Kirk Cousins.

We sports writers, amateur and professional alike, we sports enthusiasts who call and email talk radio shows and fill Reddit threads with opinions and analysis, we love making predictions, and we love being able to go back and prove we were right when our opinion in the moment was not the consensus or the prevailing opinion. Now that Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has been franchised for the second straight year, and now that he is set to be one of the most interesting and in-demand assets in the NFL, I wish I had been maintaining a blog in the spring of 2012, when the Redskins took two quarterbacks, so I could have written that Cousins was a real NFL QB, that having a guy like Cousins drafted alongside Robert Griffin III would not end well for Washington, and the overlooked Cousins would be itching to prove himself. Five years later, the Washington football team that had two rookie quarterbacks may very well lose them both, with nothing but a couple of one-and-done playoff appearances to show for it.

Last offseason, the Redskins placed the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins, rather than signing him to a contract extension, after a 2015 season in which he won the starting job away from Griffin for good and led Washington to an NFC East division title. The Skins cut RGIII (who signed with the Cleveland Browns and subsequently got injured in the first game of the regular season), but were not ready to commit to Cousins long-term. That line of thinking is entirely defensible on its own. Cousins had one good season as a starter under his belt, and it would be reasonable for a team to want to see more before committing top dollar and many years to a relatively unproven player, but then Cousins had another good season in 2016. Sure, the Redskins struggled down the stretch and missed the playoffs, but they had also not put in place a backup plan.

The only quarterback to play on the franchise tag twice was Drew Brees with the San Diego Chargers, who eventually walked in free agency and signed with the New Orleans Saints, where he has been such a great face of the franchise that I often forget he was in San Diego and get caught off guard when scrolling through Google Images for pictures for articles I am writing. The difference between what the Chargers were doing a decade ago with Brees and what the Redskins are doing now with Cousins is that San Diego drafted Philip Rivers during that time (well, actually they drafted Eli Manning, but traded him for Rivers when the Mannings made it clear Eli did not want to be in San Diego), and gave Rivers a couple years in the system to develop before Brees left to go get paid by the Saints. I thought back in 2012 that Cousins, like Brees, would leave Washington to go get paid by another franchise, and eventually be synonymous with that second franchise the way Brees is with New Orleans, but I thought that would be because of the flashes he showed backing up RGIII, not because he proved himself as the starter in Washington like he ended up doing.

Rather than sign him to an extension, the Redskins placed a second franchise tag on Cousins. If they do not sign him to an extension, Cousins will most certainly leave Washington. Why would he stay with an organization that has been so hesitant to believe in him? That has forced him to bet on himself season after season? Cousins has been well compensated by the Redskins, thanks to the franchise tag, yet they are still finding ways to alienate their franchise QB. Why would he stay in Washington when there are two NFL franchises now coached by former offensive coordinators of his (Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, and Sean McVay in Los Angeles), who would take him over their current quarterback situations, even if it means waiting another year.

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The Rams and 49ers should not be the only teams interested in Cousins’ services. He has a lot going for him, even compared to the other highly regarded NFL quarterbacks being talked about as trade chips right now. Cousins is eight years younger, and far less injury-prone, than Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, and has a far greater sample size for teams to look at than New England Patriots backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo (who started five quarters during Tom Brady’s suspension before getting hurt), but no matter what happens, I cannot shake the feeling that the Redskins will mess this up. That’s what they are known for in the Dan Snyder Era.

Since Snyder bought the team in 1999, the Redskins have had a high amount of turnover at the head coach and quarterback positions, not as high as the Cleveland Browns, but certainly not a model for consistency and continuity in professional sports, either. Head coach Jay Gruden is going into his fourth year of a five year contract the same year that Kirk Cousins is poised to play on a second straight franchise season. Why would Cousins want to sign an extension with a team that might be on the verge of turning over its coaching staff yet again? By Snyder’s own reputation, they are due.

When they quarterback draft class of 2012 was in college, Cousins was the one I saw the most on TV. I knew about Andrew Luck at Stanford and Robert Griffin III at Baylor, as they were the Heisman favorites all season, but for whatever reason, Cousins’ Michigan State team was on TV all the time in Massachusetts, it seemed, and I was in the habit of watching a lot more college football than I have in the years since (spoiler alert: I was in college, living in the dorms), so I was impressed with Cousins’ play at the time, and was particularly baffled when Washington decided to trade up in the draft to #2 overall to take Griffin, and then also take Cousins in the 4th round. How could that possibly end well?

While I prided myself on picking up on Cousins getting overlooked, and that driving him to improve the way he did, I was, of course, also guilty of overlooking Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, who was taken by the Seattle Seahawks the round before Cousins, and who has played in two Super Bowls and has had the best career of the four quarterbacks to this point. As disappointed as I am in not having proof that I was bullish on Cousins in 2012, I am also thankful I don’t have written proof like that about how wrong I was about Russell Wilson. I guess it was all for the best I took those two years off and I am here now to write about it.

Keeping the Band Together

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Good football teams lose their coaching talent as the seasons go on. It’s a part of life. But the New England Patriots are able to hold things together remarkably well despite winning two of the last three Super Bowls. And even when they do lose their assistants to greener pastures of head coaching jobs elsewhere, the infrastructure with Bill Belichick at the top of the football operation must be trusted until further notice.

Before the Super Bowl was even played and regardless of the big game’s outcome Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was going to be the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and even though the hire was not officially announced, everybody knew it. Kyle is Mike Shanahan’s son, he is 39 years old, and he has been one of the rising coaching stars on the offensive side of the ball. In his various stops, he has gotten quarterbacks of varying talent levels to realize their potential. Working under his dad in Washington, Robert Griffin III was the rookie of the year ahead of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, in Cleveland, former Tom Brady backup Brian Hoyer looked like a competent NFL starter before getting hurt, and in Atlanta, Pro Bowl QB Matt Ryan won the MVP and did not trail in the Super Bowl until the moment the game ended. Given his reputation, it is fair to assume that San Francisco’s next starting QB whether they stick with Colin Kaepernick, or they trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, or they make a less exciting stopgap signing like Matt Schaub or Brian Hoyer, or start from scratch with a kid from the draft, that QB will enjoy an uptick in production from this past year.

Regardless of the second guessing of Shanahan’s overly aggressive play calling in the second half that gave the Patriots enough clock to work with to make their historic comeback, there is a lot of hope surrounding the downtrodden 49ers and also a lot of uncertainty for the Falcons because of Shanahan. Before Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons were a good offense and Matt Ryan was a good quarterback, but with him they were a great offense with an MVP quarterback. When the Patriots experienced a period of significant turnover after their Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Philadelphia Eagles, when offensive coordinator Charlie Weis took the head coaching job at Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left New England to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Belichick promoted from within, making Eric Mangini the defensive coordinator and assuming the offensive coordinator duties himself, even though he is best known as a defensive mastermind, before eventually handing over the keys to Brady’s offense to Josh McDaniels when McDaniels was ready for the responsibility. Years later, when Dean Pees left the Patriots, Belichick assumed defensive coordinator duties until he felt Matt Patricia was ready for it.

Most coaches are not Bill Belichick, however, and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, a defensive coach, did not go this way. Instead the Falcons hired former Washington and USC head coach Steve Sarkisian to run their offense in 2017. Sarkisian was most recently the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama for one game, replacing Lane Kiffin for the National Championship Game against Clemson, which Alabama lost. Sark may not be the best college head coach ever, but he does have a good reputation as an offensive play caller. The problem for Atlanta is that they are bringing in a new voice with a new philosophy when they thing they were doing was working perfectly fine. It is hard to come back from losing the Super Bowl. Most teams struggle in the following year, and the 2016 Carolina Panthers are a perfect example, and changing more than you have to certainly cannot help.

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The Patriots could have just as easily been the team that lost the Super Bowl instead of the Falcons, and the last two years both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have gotten head coaching interviews. McDaniels, in fact, was in direct competition with Shanahan for the Niners job. McDaniels, who first joined the Patriots as a personnel assistant in 2001, left to become head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2009, got fired, worked for the St. Louis Rams for a season before getting his old job back in New England when offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien left to take the head coaching job at Penn State in 2012, has been careful in his pursuit for his second head coaching job to say the least. Many coaches get a second chance if they fail as a head coach once, but if you fail twice, the odds of a third head coaching job are very slim.

Two years ago, Chip Kelly was still believed to be a football genius, but a bad third season in Philadelphia followed by the awful football situation he inherited in San Francisco leaves his future as an NFL head coach very much in doubt. McDaniels wants both a good quarterback situation and a good ownership situation, as those are the two factors the best determine head coaching success. If the Colts job opened up, Andrew Luck is a very good quarterback, but Jim Irsay is not a great owner to work for. Bill Belichick even failed on the first try in Cleveland, and when he was given a second chance with the New York Jets, he famously resigned as “HC of the NYJ” after a day when the more appealing offer came from the New England Patriots. McDaniels has the luxury of waiting, as he is still only 40, and being Tom Brady’s offensive coordinator and working for Bill Belichick is by no means a bad gig.

The Patriots did lose a key member of the coaching staff, as tight ends coach Brian Daboll was hired by Nick Saban to replace Sarkisian as offensive coordinator at Alabama, of all things. Daboll, like McDaniels, left New England before, but they were the only two prominent assistants to come back for a second stint, unlike Weis, Crennel, Pees, O’Brien, or Rob Ryan. With McDaniels staying put in New England, Bama was Daboll’s best opportunity to be an offensive coordinator again, and it’s a winning program. The more head coaching jobs McDaniels turns down, the more likely it seems that he sees himself as Belichick’s eventual successor as HC of NE.

When McDaniels first came back to the Patriots, I wanted nothing to do with him as a candidate to be the Pats’ next head coach. His terrible two seasons in Denver that included the (even then) head-scratching decision to draft Tim Tebow in the 1st round was still fresh in my memory, and I thought he was just another Belichick assistant who was doomed to be a bad head coach. But as the years go by, and it becomes more and more apparent that the operation Bill Belichick has built is superior to every other in the game of football (I mean, seriously, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a model of consistency and continuity and have had the same number of head coaches since Watergate as the 49ers had in Barack Obama’s second term, and even they are nothing more than the Generals to New England’s Globetrotters, going 0-3 in AFC Championship Games against Belichick and Brady with none of those games being particularly competitive.), and the list of coaches I would rather have than Josh McDaniels to come in and try to tinker with it dwindles every year. At this point, I would have to think about Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, and that’s about it. I would rather have McDaniels than just about anyone else.

For now, the Patriots are going about their business, doing their jobs, but Brady will be 40 next season, and Belichick is probably closer to his last game as a head coach than his first, so as effective Belichick and Brady still are, a little continuity on the coaching staff certainly goes a long way.

A Comeback for the Ages

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I was prepared to write about the New England Patriots’ disappointing seventh trip to the Super Bowl in the Belichick and Brady Era. I was prepared to apologize to Patriots fans for the blog post I wrote about Matt Ryan a few weeks ago, when the not yet crowned MVP was going to face off against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, and I used this opportunity to take some less than subtle jabs against Boston College football, New England’s most prominent college football program that nobody cares about unless they went there. I was prepared to write about how the Atlanta Falcons not only deserved to win because they played against the Patriots the way the Patriots normally play against everyone else, not making mistakes and making their opponent pay for any mistake they might make, but also because it was the will of the country, as comedians and fans all across social media framed this games as “Trump’s America vs. Black America.” The angle in which I was mentally approaching writing about Super Bowl LI changed more dramatically and more times than any other game I have ever written about including the Bruins thrilling Game 7 comeback against the Maple Leafs in 2013. The second half of this game threw superstition out the window, and it took a few days to fully process what happened.

I watched the game with my dad and my brother, and by the middle of the third quarter, the hope was that they could just make the score respectable, as it was 28-3 with the Patriots slowly driving down the field. This part of the game was not even tense anymore. That’s how far out of it the Patriots seemed to be. We instead turned to the 2017 season, talking about key free agents: Dont’a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler topping that list. We talked about the possibility of trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, to load up on draft picks for Brady’s final years and focus on coaching up Jacoby Brissett.

I floated out the idea that Bill Simmons mentioned in a column a couple weeks ago about the possibility of Belichick trading Rob Gronkowski before Gronk’s body breaks down for good, and about the Belichick dream scenario of sending Gronk and Jimmy G both to the Cleveland Browns for the 2017 #1, #2, and a boatload of 3rd and 4th round picks. My dad had not heard that theory before, and said throughout the rest of the game and (spoiler alert) trophy presentation that he really hopes they keep Gronk. As someone who has spent money on exactly one athlete’s jersey for himself, and that athlete is Rob Gronkowski, I agreed, but am also well aware of Belichick’s history or trading or cutting star players a year too early rather than a year too late from Drew Bledsoe to Lawyer Milloy to Willie McGinest to Mike Vrablel to Richard Seymour to Randy Moss to Logan Mankins to Vince Wilfork. That strategy, while painful in the short term for sentimental fans like us, is undeniably a key part of why the Patriots have been so consistently competitive this century, so you take the good with the bad.

Next thing we knew, the Patriots were right back in it. Hightower had a key strip sack, the Patriots made up for a missed extra point and a botched onside kick by scoring two more touchdowns and making two straight two-point conversions. The Falcons defense was gassed, and their offense was cold, with the exception of Julio Jones, who was inexplicably only targeted four times in the games, catching it all four times, each time more impressive than the one before. Atlanta’s aggressive offensive strategy, allowing Ryan to get sacked for big losses without eating away enough at the play clock or the game clock certainly played into their demise, but when the narrative becomes solely that the Falcons choked, the level at which the Patriots executed gets lost.

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On Hightower’s strip sack, for instance, he was able to get to Ryan because Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman blew his blocking assignment. On any given play in a football game there are 22 players with an assignment, and success or failure is determined not only by the obvious variables like the quality of the quarterback’s throw or the hand and footwork of the intended receiver, but also the defensive coverage assignments and offensive blocking assignments. In the second half down by a lot, the Patriots were still playing like they thought they could win, and Hightower, who is older than me by a month and has two BCS National Championship rings with Alabama and two Super Bowl rings with New England to show off as he heads into free agency, executed on every play waiting for someone on Atlanta to slip up, and capitalized when Freeman did.

It really was a tale of two halves, because in the first half, the Falcons were the ones taking advantage when the Patriots slipped up. The first quarter ended scoreless, but New England’s offense seemed to be moving the ball better than Atlanta’s, and were marching toward what looked like the first score of the game early in the second quarter when LeGarrette Blount fumbled the football, and the Falcons recovered, and quickly marched the other way to score. It was Atlanta that recorded a pick-six on Brady, and went up 21-3 at the half. The Falcons had adopted the DNA of the Patriots, which made sense considering the presence of longtime Belichick underlings Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli in their front office. This was a new kind of Super Bowl experience for a Patriots fan who has seen his team play in the Super Bowl eight times since first grade. I had seen thrilling victories and devastating defeats, but never a blowout. I was not born yet when the Pats got destroyed by the iconic 1985 Chicago Bears team in Super Bowl XX, and every Patriots Super Bowl since had been at least competitive at the half, regardless of the eventual outcome. I honestly had not even considered the possibility of getting blown out by Atlanta, but could not help but respect the way they were doing it, as I would have been rooting for the Falcons in the Super Bowl against any other AFC team this year.

After trading possessions to start the third quarter, the Falcons scored another TD, making it 28-3, and I Facebook messaged my friend “At least Gaga was good” as if Lady Gaga’s halftime performance would be the only redeeming thing about this Super Bowl. It would be a solid hour before Hightower’s strip sack, and a little longer before it really felt like the Patriots were actually back in it, but that whole time, the Patriots were still executing like they had a chance to win, which is a credit to the players and the coaching staff. Peyton Manning would not have orchestrated a comeback like this, and I can say that with confidence because of the way he folded in 2014 in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Moments like this are what have always separated Tom Brady from his peers, and put him alone with Joe Montana in the GOAT discussion. 

By the time the game made it to overtime, there was no way the Patriots would lose. Special teams captain called “heads” for the coin toss, as he always does, but unless Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (who has since been hired as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers) finally figured out to just feed the ball to Julio Jones like he’s LeBron in crunch time, which he did not do all game, the Patriots would have stopped a cold, suddenly not ready for the moment offense and gotten the ball back and scored. Even if the Falcons managed to stop the Pats on 4th and Goal, they would have had to take the ball out from the one, and the Pats defense would have gotten the ball back and only needed a field goal to win.

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For years, I have been saying that I would love to see a Super Bowl go into overtime, just not in a year when the Patriots are in it for stress management purposes. But when it got to the point that my team was in the first ever overtime Super Bowl, all the stress was gone. They had all the momentum, and they were the team that had been there before. Instead it became a question of who would be the one to make the Super Bowl ending score. It was almost Martellus Bennett, who got interfered with near the goal line on one play and was targeted with a end zone throw that could have been Atlanta’s version of the Malcolm Butler interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Instead it was James White, who did not have a rushing touchdown in the regular season, and who was inactive for the Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago who punched it in, breaking the plane of the end zone just enough to end the game, putting the Patriots ahead in a game they never led.

This game also proved the validity of some of the other football philosophies Bill Belichick & Co. have employed for years. The Falcons had greater elite, high-end talent, while the Patriots place a greater value on depth. While both teams have elite QBs, Matt Ryan has more elite weapons at his disposal in Jones, Freeman, Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. Brady has Rob Gronkowski, the greatest player in the history of the tight end position, but did not have him most of the season, including the playoffs, and the Patriots went undefeated without him because Brady makes guys like Julian Edelman (whose insane late-game catch was indefensibly not mentioned until now), Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Martellus Bennett. Patriots players are notoriously frustrating to use in fantasy football because you never know, for example, which running back will be getting the bulk of the carries. If LeGarrette Blount struggles early (as he did), then Dion Lewis or James White could have a big game, and game to game, that is tough to predict. The same is true on defense, where Belichick traded Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in the offseason and Jamie Collins to the Browns during the season, and got better. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would rather have a deep rotation of guys who can play than a small handful of elite players, who could just as easily get hurt or get tired (the way Atlanta’s defense had to play twice as many snaps as their offense did in the Super Bowl) and not be there for them when they are needed most. It’s frustrating to watch your team consistently trade down at the draft, going for quantity over quality, but it is hard to argue with that method when they are in seven of the last 16 Super Bowls.

Ultimately, coming back from 28-3, and winning the first OT Super Bowl was the perfect way to end the nonsense of the last two years with Deflategate. The thing I am most excited about is that the Patriots were accused of a stupid thing that should not have been a big deal at all, and they reacted by winning two of the last three Super Bowls, the commissioner tried to bury them like he did the New Orleans Saints by fining the team, taking away draft picks, and suspending the greatest player of this generation for twice as many games as he suspended a guy who knocked his fiance unconscious on camera, and the team responded by winning everything anyway. There is nothing better than that. Nothing.

The Curious Case of Matt Ryan

In the post I wrote recapping the weekend’s NFL playoff games, I focused heavily on the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers, incorporated their opponents, the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, and also felt the need to talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers, as they are the ones who will be coming into Foxboro to play against my Patriots next weekend. I mentioned the Atlanta Falcons, but did not even mention their quarterback, Matt Ryan, by name as I gushed over how good Tom Brady (who had an uncharacteristically bad game) and Aaron Rodgers (who has replaced Donald Trump, at least temporarily, as the protagonist of my nightmares). It was as I was writing that post that I realized how many thoughts I had about Matt Ryan, and how that deserved to be its own post, separate from the weekend that was for Brady and Rodgers.

There are four teams left in the NFL, and all four have quality quarterbacks, but Matt Ryan is not thought of the way the other three are. If Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisburger, and Aaron Rodgers never play in another football game, they are guaranteed to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio one day, and that is definitely not true of Matt Ryan. Ryan has the most to gain of the four by winning next Sunday.

In 2008, the same year that the Packers decided to make a backup QB named Aaron Rodgers their starter and trade away veteran superstar Brett Favre to the New York Jets, the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan out of Boston College with the third overall pick, and gave him an equally unenviable task of being the franchise QB for a team that had lost direction when Michael Vick went to prison, just as Vick was getting out of jail and getting his second chance in Philadelphia. For those who only remember the washed-up journeyman backup version of Vick we saw in recent years, pre-prison Michael Vick was must-watch television, even when the Falcons were bad, and a player so skilled that video game versions of him were borderline unfair to play against. Making Atlanta move on from Vick was no easy task, but Ryan came out of college with a decent amount of hype in his own right.

In his rookie year, Atlanta made the playoffs, but lost in the first round to the eventual NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals. In the years since, Ryan was one of a crop of QBs like Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, and Sam Bradford who were pretty good, but not great, and with the exception of Flacco winning the Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, experienced minimal playoff success, if any.

Personally, I never really got the hype of Matt Ryan. He had a good career at Boston College, but I often find myself forgetting that he played college football in Boston, and I saw it. His final year at BC was my senior year of high school, the same year the Patriots went undefeated in the regular season. You would think BC would have a bigger fan base than it does, being one of only two big-time college football programs in Massachusetts, but Boston is a pro sports town, and there are so many other colleges in the area, nobody has a major incentive to root for BC unless they went there. Last year, BC played Notre Dame at Fenway Park, and Notre Dame was the home team. Boston College dominated the ACC for much of the 2007 season, but they were very much an afterthought with the Patriots reaching the Super Bowl, the Red Sox winning the World Series, and the Celtics winning their 17th NBA Title in the spring of 2008. The same thing happened a couple years later with current Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. He was one of the most sought after draft prospects in the entire country, but his college career was largely ignored by the local football fans.

Ryan was nicknamed “Matty Ice” while he was at BC, and the nickname never quite fit his game. He never had a moment in his career where he marched the Falcons down the field for a tying or go-ahead score at the end of a playoff game, like Tom Brady did in two of his first three career playoff games, as if to suggest he had ice water rather than blood running through his veins. In his NFL career, he gets called Matty Ice ironically, but that can change if he out-duels Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. Rodgers also has a lot to gain by winning this weekend. He has only made one Super Bowl, and that was six years ago, despite being the most talented quarterback in the NFL during that stretch. But people also recognize what Rodgers has to work with, and how incredible he was the last six weeks of the regular season, not to mention through the first two rounds of the playoffs. If the Packers were to lose, the brilliance of Rodgers against the Giants and Cowboys will not be forgotten, and the loss would be chalked up to being on the road against another talented team with another QB having an MVP-type season.

On the other hand, Matt Ryan has a chance to finally show us that he belongs in the discussion with Brady, Rodgers, and Roethlisburger. Right now, it is not enough that he convincingly won a division that also contains Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Jameis Winston. Matt Ryan has had good regular seasons before. As long as he has been in the NFL, I have been waiting for him to get it done in January in order to take him seriously. We are almost a decade removed from that (over)hyped Boston College season, and I still have not seen it, but if he proves me wrong, I will admit it. LeBron won me over last summer, and I admitted it. Show me what you got, Matty Ice.

 

Two Kinds of Greatness

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My readers may have noticed over the years that even though the NFL is a juggernaut of a league, and even though my favorite team in said league is the most consistently competitive, I write about the Patriots less than I do the Red Sox, Bruins, or Celtics. This is partly due to my disillusionment with the NFL. Since Roger Goodell took over a decade ago, football, which was my favorite sport as a kid and the mechanism with which I impressed a bunch of strangers in my college dorm suite as a freshman at UMass Dartmouth with my knowledge of every NFL roster in 2008, has fallen out of favor with me due to their disregard for player safety and livelihood, and bad priorities when it comes to real world issues like domestic violence.

It is also partly due to my inherent superstition. As an aspiring sports writer, I want to be objective. I want to be able to be critical, to see the bigger picture, with regard to the team and the rest of the league. It’s much easier to be critical of the Bruins or the Celtics because in the years I have been following them, they have never had the best player in the league, let alone all time, nor the best coach in the league, let alone of all time. Ever since this run began for the New England Patriots in 2002–with the Tuck Rule, and the Steelers booking their flight to New Orleans for the Super Bowl before they played the AFC Championship Game, and Ty Law’s momentum-swinging pick-six, and Tom Brady’s drive down the field to set up one more game-winning kick for Adam Vinatieri (seriously, I watch the America’s Game documentary on the Super Bowl XXXVI team at least once a year and it never gets old)–the Patriots have been the standard bearers of the NFL, and Brady and Bill Belichick have been consistently making their case for greatest QB and greatest coach of all time, and as someone with a rooting interest in that happening, I do not want that to end.

Now it’s 2017, and before the start of next season, Brady will turn 40, and Belichick will turn 65. Any rational, reasonable Patriots fan has to think there are fewer of these days ahead of them than behind them, or if this run does continue, it would eventually be with someone like Jacoby Brissett at quarterback and someone like Matt Patricia as head coach. If this year is then end, it’s been an incredible run.

The numbers are staggering. With their upcoming game next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brady and Belichick have been to 11 AFC Championship Games in 16 seasons, including each of the last six. Brady and Belichick have more 10 win seasons together than the Detroit Lions have in their 80 plus year history. Bill Belichick has not had a losing season since Bill Clinton was president.

The Pats’ divisional round game against the Houston Texans was not pretty, but they still won by a larger margin than the historically high spread Vegas set for this playoff game. In some respects, the game was only tight, and only had Patriots fans worried because of the standard of excellence we have set for the team. This Houston team is littered with ex-Patriots from Bill O’Brien to Romeo Crennel to Mike Vrabel to Larry Izzo to Vince Wilfork, but with a quarterback as not-ready-for-primetime as Brock Osweiler, none of that institutional knowledge could make a difference. Sure, they fared better than they did in the regular season, when they were shut out 27-0 without even having to deal with New England’s first or second choice QB, but even with Brady throwing as many interceptions in that game as he did the whole season, and Dion Lewis putting the ball on the ground twice (Houston recovered one, New England kept the other), it was still a two-score game at the end. Even when they are bad, they are better than most, and that is special.

Next week, the Patriots will have their hands full with a better Steelers team, but the Steelers seem to find new and creative ways to generate bulletin board material for Belichick. In 2002, it was the confidence and the audacity to book a flight to New Orleans before even playing the game, but now they’re broadcasting their true feelings about the NFL’s scheduling policy, albeit inadvertently, on Facebook Live, complete with Mike Tomlin simultaneously warning the players to not do anything stupid on social media. The Steelers, like the Patriots, are one of the NFL’s model franchises, and have been since the 1970s. When the San Francisco 49ers hire their next coach, they will have had more head coaches in four years than the Steelers have had since Watergate. But things like this, broadcasting their own trivial locker room talk to the world through Antonio Brown’s phone, is what keeps them a notch below the Patriots in the Belichick Era.

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My biggest takeaway from the Divisional Round Weekend is just how scary good Aaron Rodgers is right now. I already knew that, but the end of yesterday’s game in Dallas reinforced that. This is a quarterback who has not been afforded the luxury of playing for a coach of Bill Belichick’s caliber. Mike McCarthy is a solid NFL coach, but had the Green Bay Packers not run the table, as Rodgers declared they would after starting the season 4-6, the Packers may very well be waiting for the Patriots’ season to end to introduce Josh McDaniels as their new head coach. Rodgers is the most talented person to play the QB position ever, and has not had the kind of running game Elway, Aikman, or Peyton Manning had in their best years, nor the superstar receivers of any other superstar QB. He is doing it all himself and making the players and coaches around him better in a way I have never seen, and oh, by the way, he regularly completes Hail Mary passes.

All of that I knew going into the Packers’ Divisional Round match up against the Dallas Cowboys, but then after rookie QB Dak Prescott rallied back to tie the game for Dallas, Rodgers had just enough time to get Green Bay into field goal range, with an incredible throw downfield to Jared Cook, who made a great dance move to keep his toes in bounds. Just like that, the Packers were kicking a field goal and getting ready to face the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome next week in the NFC Championship Game.

Some may say Brady has nothing left to prove to anyone. He won more games than Peyton Manning in 30 fewer games, he played in more Super Bowls than any other QB and won as many as Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. But the NFL dragged his name through the mud over air pressure in a football and suspended him for as many games as they suspended Greg Hardy for something that should have put him in prison. And already, despite only playing in one Super Bowl, talk of Aaron Rodgers being the greatest ever is picking up steam. The thing that makes Tom Brady great is that at age 39, when he should not have to prove anything to anyone in the game of football, he is burning to prove the haters wrong just as intensely as he was when he was picked 199th overall. Brady is at his best when he is overlooked, and that is what makes him the best.

What’s Next for Denver?

The Denver Broncos are not going back to the playoffs this January after they kicked off 2016 by winning Super Bowl 50. Looking back on the Golden Anniversary Super Bowl not even a full year later, the Big Game of 2016, much like everything about that year, already feels really weird and out of character with the rest of reality. That Super Bowl was the Super Weird Bowl. The Carolina Panthers got there after going 15-1 in the regular season, and Cam Newton was the league’s MVP, and they lost. I would say Peyton Manning was a shell of his former self, but that would be unfair to other shells of former selves. In an era when offense reigns supreme and scoring records are broken they way every meaningful baseball was getting broken in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was a stifling defense that ruled the day, in spite of Manning’s poor play. Perhaps the weirdest about this Super Bowl is the fact that neither the Carolina Panthers nor the Denver Broncos made the playoffs the following year.

Carolina’s struggles can be explained a little more easily. The defense took some steps backward with Jared Allen retiring, Josh Norman signing with Washington, and Luke Kuechly missing time due to injury. Also, Cam Newton gets hit like no other quarterback does. People seem to think that since he is so big and so strong that he can get wrecked like QBs did before the NFL cared about player safety. Repeating the kind of results the Panthers got in 2015 was never going to be easy, but I am not ready to write them off for the rest of the decade.

The Broncos’ struggles in 2016 can also be easily identified, but are harder to justify when you realize that they could have been avoided. Denver was lucky to get as far as they did–not just lucky to win the Super Bowl, but lucky to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, and lucky to beat the Steelers in the Divisional Round–with a so-far-past-his-prime-he-should-have-changed-his-name-to-not-confuse-people-Peyton Manning under center and shouting “Omaha,” but incapable of throwing the ball downfield at all. Attempting to do the same thing a second straight year, not measurably upgrading a quarterback position that could not get much worse, and expecting to get the same kind of game in and game out dominating defensive performance in an offense-driven modern NFL is playing with some serious fire. But that’s exactly what the Broncos did.

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Broncos president John Elway has earned a significant amount of trust with Broncos fans, having led the team to seven Super Bowls (five as a quarterback, two as an executive), and winning a championship can buy you goodwill for at least a year or two, no matter how badly the year that follow go (the only time I know of when a fan base turned on a team’s management less than a year after winning a title was the Red Sox in 2014, and some of my posts on this blog are reflective of that), but he is pushing it with the way the Broncos went into the 2016 season. By replacing the retired Manning not with Brock Osweiler (who signed a free agent contract with the Houston Texans), but with Trevor Siemian, a 2015 7th round draft pick out of Northwestern, Elway placed lofty expectations on a Denver defense. The 2016 NFL Draft produced multiple quarterbacks that won games as rookies despite being picked outside the top two. I cannot help but wonder what Denver’s record would have been had Elway taken a chance on Dak Prescott or Jacoby Brissett, who appear poised to be the replacements to Tony Romo in Dallas and Tom Brady in New England, respectively.

While able to throw out incredible talent in pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, as well as with Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib in the defensive backfield, that defense deserves a better offense. The Broncos have been irresponsible in the way they built their offense, particularly the quarterback position, the same way the New Orleans Saints have squandered Drew Brees’ offensive brilliance for most of his prime by not building a good defense for him. That said, if for some stupid reason, the NFL decided to cut down to 31 franchises and merge two existing teams for the 2017 season, if the Saints’ offense merged with the Broncos’ defense, they would be the prohibitive favorites to win Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.

The Broncos need to do something about the QB position, but right now, that is not even their most pressing matter. This week, head coach Gary Kubiak resigned due to health concerns after just two years on the job. Kubiak played his entire NFL career for the Broncos, as Elway’s backup, and served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for Denver when they won those two Super Bowls in the late 1990s. In his first year back in Denver, he led the Broncos to their third Super Bowl victory, and less than a year later he is retiring. Denver should, in theory, have no trouble finding a replacement, given how good their defense is and the fact that there should be more NFL quarterbacks available this offseason than most years, from Romo to Jimmy Garoppolo to Tyrod Taylor to Sam Bradford to Kirk Cousins. 

The issue with Denver as a coaching spot may very well be John Elway’s ego. He is a top five or top ten quarterback in the Super Bowl Era and has enjoyed a good deal of success as an executive, but he is also the guy who ran Tim Tebow out of Denver when after getting the Broncos to the playoffs, and clashed with John Fox, who like Kubiak, left the Broncos a year after getting them to the Super Bowl, but not for health reasons. Sure, he brought in Peyton Manning, one of the handful of quarterbacks higher up than him on the all time list, but when Manning was at a point of desperation in his career, coming off a potentially career ending neck injury, and the coach he brought in to replace Fox was literally his former backup. I would not be surprised if Elway went with either defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was previously Denver’s head coach in 1993 and 1994, or one of the Shanahans, whom Elway has a working relationship with from his playing days, but I do not know how many coaching prospects from outside Elway’s past work history would want to take this job. One person who will not be considered is New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, this year’s most sought after offensive-minded coach, whose only head coaching job was in Denver, and who was run out of town in his second season.

Regardless of what happens with the coaching vacancy, the Broncos need a quarterback, and if they do not get one, John Elway could be torn down as a fool just as quickly as he was built up as a genius.