Sunday, February 1, 2015

7 instant reactions to the Super Bowl

Before the game I was reminiscing about the 2007 Patriots season that really cemented them as the league's heel. They were busted with "spy-gate" early in the year which immediately drew the attention and ire of a league that had been enduring beatings at the hands of Brady and Belichick all decade-long.

Then the Patriots responded to that negative attention by going into "F-you" mode for the season. They won their first two games 38-14 and started blowing out every opponent on the schedule with Tom Brady eviscerating opponents with his new favorite target, Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss. They finished the regular season undefeated and headed towards the perfect 19-0 season that had been deemed impossible in the salary cap era.

However, by the end of the year they were losing steam and were finally done in by that improbable helmet catch from David Tyree. Thinking back to that season, I thought "that's when the Patriots became everyone's least favorite team" and "I doubt we see anything that dramatic tonight."

Well, we came pretty close.

Here are 7 instant reactions to one of the better Super Bowls and season finishes of the last several years.

1. The Seahawks were lucky to be in position to win that game

That catch that gave Seattle the ball inside the 10 yard was a great play by the receiver, but it was highly improbable. Had the safety realized the ball was live it could have just as easily been the game-ending interception. Credit to Seattle for being close at the end and there can be little doubt that a failure to run the dang ball on the goal line cost them the victory...but it would have been a cruel twist of fate for the Patriots to lose another Super Bowl on another improbable catch.

2. Credit the Seahawks for great roster building that allowed Chris Matthews to impact that game

When you build your team around a system, on offense and defense, rather than just trying to get the best "value picks" you end up with a system that can maximize everyone on the roster rather than the hodgepodge mixes that most teams build.

Drafting based on player value is the wrong way to build a team. It just is. It's not fantasy football and it isn't money-ball. Players depend on context in every sport but they particularly do in a sport that has 22 players on the field at all times. Teamwork matters, system matters, and chemistry matters.

It's because the Seahawks have a strong system and identity on offense and defense that they can plug in players off the street and find success.

3. There's no reason the Seahawks can't sustain their success

People assume that you can't maintain a great team in the modern salary cap era and it's been suggested in a few places that the Seahawks "struck gold" with their early drafts and won't be so lucky in the future.

These are probably the same people who ridiculed their 2012 draft when it happened and who wouldn't have guessed that Brady and Belichick would dominate for this long.

The fact that Seattle was able to pull in Chris Matthews off the street and have him get 100 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl is because they are fitting players into a strong existing system.

Does anyone really believe that Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, and Earl Thomas would have been this dominant if they were asked to perform in a different defensive system? The answer is no, they would not be this dominant. Carroll's Under front/Cover 3 defense is consistent from down to down and asks players to thrive in specialized roles. Each player has a chance to develop chemistry with their teammates and expertise in their techniques because they maintain simplicity and division of labor.

They aren't just grabbing "value" picks in free agency and the draft, they are getting players who will see their production multiplied by being plugged into a system.

4. Russell Wilson and the dual-threat QB

Wilson's ability to extend plays with his feet and then throw the ball downfield is absolutely brutal. The Patriots had a great plan to stop him but it failed at times for two reasons.

First, it's exhausting to contain a quarterback like that and chase him down and it's exhausting to cover receivers for all that time. You know what it's hard to do when you're exhausted? Tackle Marshawn Lynch.

Secondly, as long as he avoids negative plays like sacks or turnovers the big plays he generates are back breaking. If you can consistently get big plays you don't have to perform as efficiently as touchdown Tom. Wilson averaged 11.8 yards per pass, which is why the Seahawks nearly won that game despite Lynch's slow start.

4. The unique brand of Belichick-ball

Most teams try to play to their strengths on the football field and overwhelm an opponent by maximizing their own positive match-ups. That's why they draft based on value, hoping to score the best collection of match-up wins.

Belichick builds his team and makes his plans around the goal of attacking your weaknesses. He's practicing maneuver warfare in a sport where most teams follow 2nd generation tactics.

Belichick is a defensive coach but he attacks opponents both on offense and defense. The Patriots use motion, bunch formations, move their players to different positions, and attack every vulnerable spot on the field relentlessly. I'd guess that after Tharold Simon had to come in at cornerback that Brady threw for at least 150 of his 328 yards to receivers being covered by him.

The Patriots' results suggest Belichick's style is superior, for those that can match it.

5. Opposing teams are poorly equipped to match the Seahawks success or Belichick-ball

Why? Because sports are dominated today by "money-ball" executives that want to find market inefficiencies with numbers and draft boards, win without spending a ton of money, and be heralded as geniuses.

Here are the real market inefficiencies in football: Don't depend on having and maximizing the best match-ups to win a football game but instead build a system and attack your opponents.

6.. The game has been changed by the Patriots' accomplishment

Most defenses are designed with two primary aims: To stop the running game and to control an opponent's passing attack and force them to beat you by dinking and dunking their way down the field.

The Patriot offense managed to become so efficient at the quick passing game to the flats that they were able to do it, possess the ball for 33:46, score points in the red zone, and win the football game despite not getting many big passing plays or running the football well. They won the Super Bowl relying heavily on throws that modern defenses are designed to concede.

Not everyone is going to manage to immediately match the Patriots' proficiency in this style of offense but the game is changed when top defenses can be beaten all day in the flats.

7. White man football?

The topic that no one wants to talk about...the Patriots are one of the whitest teams in the league. Their quarterback is white, their entire OL is white, two of their top three receivers are white, their tight end and fullback are white, only the running backs and receiver Brandon Lafell are black.

So what does that matter?

Well, white players often struggle to compete with black players in contests of pure athleticism. People of West African descent just grow more fast-twitch muscle fiber, it's a genetic advantage. However, executing a quick passing game that requires quick thinking, short-area quickness, and coordination? I don't know that white athletes have any real advantages over black players in achieving these tactics, but they do have much more impetus to do so since a player like Julian Edelman can't match what a player like Dez Bryant brings to the field.

What matters is that this is a strategy that white players can thrive in, so you can be sure that they will attempt to do so.

This will probably be most pronounced at the high school level, where rural white towns have traditionally relied on "three yards and a cloud of dust" option run attacks. If those towns instead start to install quick passing attacks like the Patriots' system will the league become flooded by white slot receivers? How many Julian Edelmans are out there waiting to be developed?

It'll be interesting to see how the game's demographics or tactics change in response to the Patriots' success, unless you are made terribly uncomfortable by discussions of race and ethnic differences. In that event, it's unlikely that you'd find different communities within the US adapting to try and find success in the nation's most popular sport to be anything other than deeply unsettling.

It'll also be interesting to see if there is backlash against the Patriots' unusually high composition of the nation's other favorite modern villain, the white male.

Overall this was a fantastic game between two of the smartest franchises in the game. I can't understand people who don't enjoy watching Richard Sherman and the Legion of Boom dominate games with their mix of physicality and nuanced defensive play, or people who don't appreciate Tom's brilliance in the pocket or the way the Patriots constantly manufacture tiny advantages that ultimately set up their team for success.