The New Game of Football: How Quarterbacks are Changing Defenses
When Larry Fitzgerald contorted to make an incredible grab in Super Bowl 43, turned up-field, and ran the ball to the house scoring with 2:37 left on the clock, I remember exactly what my first thought was – “What an amazing play! Does he realize he just lost his team the Super Bowl?”
Stay with me.
There was no doubt in my mind that the Cardinals left entirely too much time for Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to respond. There are some quarterbacks that you just can’t give any time at the end of the game to beat you or else they will, every time. It doesn’t really matter how the game has been going to that point, because the best of the best at the QB position will elevate their game and get the winning points. Not only that but they will make it look easy. This has been the trend in the NFL since the start of the millenia, and by the time the Cards played the Steelers in Super Bowl 43 it was already a fact.
That’s why every Patriots fan in the world had to feel some anxiety when the Giants got the ball back with too much time left on the clock. It didn’t matter that they only had 15 points in 3 1/2 quarters of football. It didn’t matter they were starting at their own 12-yard line. All that mattered, really, was that Eli Manning had climbed into that elite class of QB’s at some point this season; the type of QB that you just can’t give the ball to at the end of the game or else he will beat you - no doubt about it.
Actually, the only question going into that final Giants’ drive was how much time they were going to leave the Patriots to respond after they regained the lead. In this way I think the Manningham catch was less meaningful than people are making it seem. Without that catch the Giants probably take a lot more time off the clock and end up launching a potential game winning field goal with just a few ticks. Because of that catch, the Giants actually drove the field too fast and gave the Patriots a chance to respond, however small that chance was.
Knowing this, was there anything the Patriots could have done differently to avoid this situation at the end of the game? I can’t question the decision to challenge the big catch by Manningham, thereby burning a timeout. And I don’t think there was anything wrong with letting the Giants score the TD near the end of the game to try to save some time for the team to respond. The only thing I can see the Patriots did wrong was trying to shorten the game in the first place.
After stopping the Giants on their first drive of the 4th quarter, the Patriots got the ball back on their own 8-yard line with 9:24 remaining. Completing a 9-minute final drive against the Giants defense is pretty much out of the question, so is completing a 92-yard touchdown drive. So why, then, is it that the Pats seemed to go into clock-killing mode? It would seem like this would have been the perfect time for the hurry-up. If they drove the field for points then they were up more than a field goal and they would then force the Giants to score a TD to beat them. Even if that happened there would likely still be time left on the clock to respond with a field goal of their own.
However, if their drive happen to stall, they could punt the ball and still leave enough time left on the clock for their own offense to respond if the Giants scored on their ensuing drive. Still with me? Instead they seemed to take as much time as possible while driving the ball to mid-field. When they gave the Giants the ball back with only 3:46 left in the game it seemed like they needed to come up with a stop on defense or risk not having any time to respond on offense. Maybe they really weren’t trying to kill the clock, or maybe they just didn’t trust their hurry-up offense against the Giants pass rush?
Either way, it is hard for me the believe that Bill Belichick had complete confidence in his defense to get a stop at the end of the game, considering his defense’s performance in recent seasons. Am I saying the Patriots shouldn’t have punted on 4th and 11 at mid-field to give the Giants the ball back? Not necessarily; I am just saying that anything is better than giving Eli the ball back with less than 4 minutes to go.
Many fans I’ve spoken with since Sunday night haven’t agreed with my opinion on this topic. All I can offer as a rebuttal is that every time a big-time QB has the ball in a big game, trailing by one score or less in the dying minutes, that QB has come though every time that I can remember – aside from Super Bowl 44. in SB44, Peyton Manning threw an interception in the closing minutes with his team behind, and if it wasn’t for the INT ending the game there was little doubt as to whether the Saints could have ever stopped the Colts on 4 straight downs. In every other situation as long as the QB was given enough time to respond, he has. That’s just the way it is in the NFL these days. QB’s rule the game, and only one or two defenses every year can ever be trusted to get a stop. Coaches need to adjust accordingly and start thinking outside the box, unless they are happy to keep losing conventionally.
…and that’s the last word.