Monday, February 8, 2010

It's More Fun When It's Personal

(photo: NY Times)

I’m still trying to figure out what last night did to the legacy of ONE OF THE GREATEST QUARTERBACKS TO PLAY THE GAME, but I’m less confused as to what it meant for one of the most incredible teams to take the field. As such, I’ll start with the positive, and we’ll sift through the issues of individual defeats versus careers and legacies versus achievements and the role of blame in all of this tomorrow.

The measure of a great team isn’t its ability to play to its strengths, but its ability to play to its opponent’s weakness. There wasn’t any doubt going into Sunday night that the Colts had the most talented players in the Super Bowl, and there wasn’t any doubt watching the game for the first half. Peyton Manning threw an excellent first half (like I said, we’ll get to this later…), Wayne and Clark were giving their individual matchups fits, and Dwight Freeney even had an important sack on his injured ankle.

Then, the kick. Sorry, The Kick. If we had The Catch in 2007, we have to give this one credit for being just as unexpected and wildly successful, and certainly better executed. The Kick was everything that made the Saints win. It was unexpected, and yet perfectly situated to the game they were playing (read Peter King’s Monday Morning QB to understand how the Colts’ special teams habits played a role in the decision). It took an entire team operating on the same page, and forced the Colts to rely on their weakest link (enjoy the UFL, Hank Baskett). Perhaps most importantly, by the time the Colts realized what was happening, it was already too late to control the damage, as the ensuing panicked scrum revealed.

For the entire second half, the Colts looked lost. Manning saw blitzes when he expected coverage, and looked boggled whenever the Saints sat back and let their speedy backfield (aided by world-class athlete at MLB Jon Vilma) take away his easy checkdowns. Where the first half had been a game of simply slowing down the attack, the second half saw the Saints shifting seamlessly between three defensive game plans (standard four man front, all out attack, and everybody dropping into zones), preventing Manning from ever getting his offense into a set rhythm. What we all saw as choking was simply a quarterback with a need for process and repetition being denied both, and the culmination of the confusion was Tracy Porter bursting through the Colts offense with the football, waving it in the air and dashing into the end zone to put the final nail in the coffin for the Colts. Certainly, the Saints had the talent to attack with the sort of all out blitz schemes Gregg Williams loves, but instead they let the Colts come to them, waiting prepared with the weapon that the Saints weren’t most comfortable with, but the one that, if they could make it work, would be most deadly.

The same can be said of the offense. Eight different receivers had catches, and seven of them had multiple receptions. The Colts, expecting an aerial assault, instead found themselves fighting a protracted land war against an offense that made short passes look as routine as handoffs. Devery Henderson, in particular, killed the Colts on in the short rage, averaging 9 yards per catch, but more often making the sort of 4-6 yard grabs that number two receivers eventually drop. When the Colts did shift the defense down to Henderson, Colston crushed them over the top (seven catches for an 11.9 yard average). When they dropped back, Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas brutalized them on flats and circles (93 receiving yards, 10 catches, and a TD between them…Thomas was always safe, but Bush may have earned a contract to stick around with that and his 25 yards on 5 rushes). And when everything seemed most bottled up, when the options were finally processed into the Tampa 2 matrix, it was Jeremy Shockey (what were those picks you got again, Giants?) with the 2 yard dagger. Watch that route (another beautiful first move by Shockey, I might add) and the Colts defense just looks bewildered, unable to match up because they simply don't recognize the attack (odd, for a team that uses Dallas Clark so similarly). Shockey lining up at WR might as well have been The Kick all over again; in every aspect of the game (their kicker drilled three 44+ yarders like they were chip shots), the Saints executed a second half game plan designed to hit the Colts in every place that their methodical, bend don’t break, process the game style of play would suffer the most damage.

All of this, of course, would have been impossible without Drew Brees Brees was the reason the Saints could attack the Colts the way they did. At the root of their southpaw game plan was the need for Brees to be surgical, quick, and near perfect with his passing. He was all three (32/39, 288 yards for a perfectly suited 7.4 YPA and 2 TDs). His trademark speediest reaction time under center let him pick the appropriate target in the blink of an eye, and was the biggest reason why the Colts had that deer in the headlights look on the field. Watching him cry and kiss his son after the game, I wondered if Drew Brees had been angrier than we all thought. I’ve made no secret of how I didn’t care for Brees’s team chants reminiscent of a frat party, or the smug talk of destiny (seriously, the Sean Payton-Drew Brees marriage has to have rocketed up the list of perfect Coach-QB matches, right?). Then again, watching Brees finally relax, I remembered that we’re talking about a guy who was told to go away by his team in the prime of his early career, having amassed Pro Bowl caliber stats, and was only offered a sure starter’s gig by a rookie head coach taking over a loser New Orleans Sains team that had one foot in San Antonio. That sort of disrespect has to go somewhere, right? Manning, Brady, and the rest of the elite quarterbacks in the league never had to deal with that, so maybe I was too quick to view Brees’s outward intensity as unbecoming of his status; maybe he just had a bigger fire to let burn. So while watching Manning rid himself of the burden of chasing a legacy would have been nice, Brees’s victory should be no less satisfying to anyone who has watched him play. Because behind all of the talk about lifting a city and carrying a team of destiny, this meant something to Drew Brees. I wonder if his son will look back and realize that this was the moment when all the team chants and rituals, the indignation that had been bottled and channeled into various team-oriented outlets, and Drew Brees’s sense that he was meant, even destined to be great, all paid off. For all of the doubts we expected to see Manning kill, maybe the ones Brees finally overcame were the truly pressing ones, gnawing not at history but at the man himself, and maybe his freedom is the most satisfying ending after all.

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