Super Bowl XLVI: You CAN spell “elite” without T-O-M
Everyone knows by now, after it was drilled into us over two weeks of Super Bowl hype, that you can’t spell elite without E-L-I. But has it occurred to you that you can spell elite without T-O-M?
No, I’m not snarkily suggesting that Tom Brady is anything but a great quarterback. The guy has three Super Bowl rings, earned while he was winning the first 10 playoff games he started. But since then the Patriots supuhstah is 6-6 in the postseason, including Sunday night’s 21-17 loss to Eli Manning and the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.
And yet the man is coated with Teflon. Criticism simply does not stick to Brady.
The story of XLVI can be simplified to two sets of names: Eli and Mario, Tom and Wes. Though there were plays made (and missed) by lots of guys all night long, the game pretty much came down to a pair of pass plays involving those four men that occurred about 20 seconds apart in the fourth quarter. One pair connected, and the other didn’t.
There was 4:02 left and New England, leading by 17-15, faced second and 11 at the Giants 44 when Brady threw a pass in the general direction of Welker, who was wide open near the 20. And, well, I’ll let NBC play-by-play man Al Michaels describe what happened: “It’s incomplete! Just a little bit behind Welker, who tried to reach up behind him and couldn’t haul it in.”
I used the Michaels call there because it was about the only honest critique of the play that I’ve heard. In the aftermath, pretty much all we’ve been fed is that Welker dropped the ball, both literally and figuratively. It’s true that if Wes had managed to make the catch, the Patriots would have had a first down at the 20 with less than 4 minutes left and the Giants down to one timeout. New England could have moved the ball not an inch farther and still been in position to kick a field goal that would have made it a 5-point game with not much more than 2 minutes on the clock.
So, yes, it was a big play, the kind that a big-time receiver like Welker usually makes. However, he shouldn’t have had to make a twisting, leaping try. He was wide open and Brady was well protected in the pocket, with plenty of time to hit his receiver in stride rather than throwing the ball behind him. But other than that “just a little bit behind” call by Michaels, I’ve heard hardly a word of criticism directed at Brady and lots of it heaped upon Welker. (Even from Brady’s wife, supermodel-turned-NFL-analyst Giselle Bundchen, who after the game responded to some razzing from Giants fans by saying, “My husband cannot f—ing throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time!”)
We didn’t hear criticism for the quarterback, either, after Brady handed the Giants their first points of the game, intentionally grounding the ball while in his end zone on New England’s first offensive play, making it 2-0, which soon became 9-0 after New York drove 78 yards for a touchdown following the free kick. We didn’t hear a bad word about Brady early in the fourth quarter, either, when he was nursing that 17-15 lead, had first down near midfield and, after being flushed from the pocket, heaved one downfield for a blanketed Rob Gronkowski. Predictably, the 6-foot-6-inch tight end with the high ankle sprain was unable to outmaneuver 6-3 Chase Blackburn for the jump ball, and the Giants linebacker came away with the interception. Brady would have been better off throwing the ball away.
On one of the endless highlight shows on NFL Network or ESPN or somewhere, an anchor described that miscue by laying blame on the receiver who “couldn’t get open.” Just like Welker later couldn’t make the twisting catch that shouldn’t have had to be a twisting catch. Just like on the first play of the Patriots’ desperate final drive, when Brady threw one for Deion Branch, running across the middle near the 40 yard line, wide open, with 57 seconds left. The Michaels call: “And it’s dropped by Branch.” The pass was behind the receiver and was tipped by a defender. Yet it was Branch’s drop?
Brady’s fourth-quarter passes were no less impressive than his postgame rap, though. Welker manned up and fell on his sword, saying, “It hit me right in the hands. It’s a play I never drop, I always make, and in the most critical situation, I let the team down.” As for Brady, he addressed a question about Welker and the “drop” thusly: “He’s a hell of a player. I’ll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can.” Nice of you to support a teammate under fire, Tom, but you didn’t exactly throw the ball “to him.” It would have been nice for Brady to acknowledge that his pass was off target.
This is not meant to pile on Brady, who played a good game overall, at one point setting a Super Bowl record with 16 straight completions (none of which, by the way, he caught himself). This is more a commentary on how fans and media — and even athletes themselves, and their wives — buy into the established narrative about a player and tell his story from that perspective no matter what has actually happened on the field. Brady is known as one of the greatest ever, so when passes fall to the turf it must be the receivers’ fault. Imagine if those bad throws have come from the arm of Eli. Imagine how much fun the TV pundits and nitwits would have had with the “elite” thing.
Unfortunately for them, Eli didn’t feed their storyline. He was on the money all night, especially when the game hung in the balance. When the Giants took possession two plays after the Welker “drop,” Manning and company had 88 yards of green between them and the end zone and 3:46 to get there. Seven seconds later, they were at midfield. That’s because on the first play, Eli had stepped up amid pocket pressure and heaved a ball down the left sideline that dropped perfectly into the hands of Mario Manningham, who held on and got two feet down before being piledriven out of bounds.
Even though the ball was just at the 50 at that point, you just knew the Giants were going the distance. And sure enough, with Eli completing 6 of 7 passes for 74 yards on the drive, the team from the swamps of Jersey took the lead on a 6-yard run by Ahmad Bradshaw with 57 seconds left.
Bradshaw’s run was actually a mistake, though, since Manning had told him in the huddle that if he gets near the end zone on the second-and-goal play he should fall down at the 1, which would have forced the Patriots to call their final timeout and allow the Giants to run the clock down under 30 seconds before kicking a chip-shot field goal to win it. But Bradshaw, riding the forward momentum that had propelled him through the line, was unable to stop and fell into the end zone. I think that was the better play for him to make. Take the touchdown and the lead. For one thing, there’s no guarantee you’re going to hit even a short field goal. (Right, Baltimore Ravens?) Even though the quick score gave Brady 57 seconds — not less than 30, as would have been the case if the Giants had played fore the field goal — to try to win the game, he needed to get the Patriots into the end zone, not merely close enough for a field goal try. Bradshaw did the right thing … even if he didn’t mean to.
So on this night, Eli Manning’s one mistake — calling for the lay-down — turned out OK. And Tom Brady’s mistake was heaped upon someone else. What a life it is to be a Super Bowl quarterback.
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