By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Are we OK to talk about the game now? Are we good?
I want to be as sensitive as possible, as I understand emotions are always raw in a region after a Super Bowl loss. But eventually we do need to get down to the nitty-gritty of what happened in Super Bowl LII, and I figure after a 72-hour window, we’re in the safe period.
And how’s this — let’s start things off on a positive note. Let’s open with a little discussion about Robert James Gronkowski. The man is simply unbelievable.
He caught nine passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns. In just 13 career postseason games, he now has a total of 68 receptions for 972 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s tied with John Stallworth for second all time in touchdowns, though Stallworth played in five more games. He has five more postseason touchdowns than any other tight end in history. He has more postseason receptions than any other tight end. And he added to his all-time lead in postseason receiving yards by a tight end.
And it’s not just about volume stats. It’s about the way the man can take over a game.
I remarked in the midst of The Rob Gronkowski Drive on Sunday night that the only comparison is LeBron James. There’s just nobody in sports with the size, speed, raw power, and athleticism of those two men. The difference is that the sport of basketball has rules that make it almost impossible to stop a player who is so big, fast and strong. Football has rules that encourage teams to stop players like that. But Gronkowski still dominates.
It was most evident, of course, when the second half began with Gronkowski catching four passes for 68 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter. He started it with a 15-yard out against a zone defense, for a gain of 25. He then ran a fade route up the right seam, with Corey Graham living inside his shoulder pads, and went up to snatch a high pass out of the air for another 24 yards. Three plays later on third-and-6, Gronkowski was split out wide left in man coverage against Graham. Gronkowski ran to the sticks, stuck his foot in the ground, turned around, boxed out Graham, made the catch and then took Graham for a sleigh ride to turn it into a gain of 14 yards. Two plays later, Gronkowski found himself in man coverage with Ronald Darby. Gronkowski ran to the goal line, faked an outside route to get Darby crossed up, then broke to the inside. Brady delivered a bullet, and Gronkowski showed great hands in catching the pass in traffic for a touchdown.
His second touchdown came on a goal line fade against Darby, who was all over Gronkowski but still had no chance as the tight end displayed elite pass catching ability in the back of the end zone. The ball was placed where only Gronkowski could get it, and sure enough, he did.
He can just do it all, against any defense, against any defender. He can make NFL defensive backs look like Pop Warner players. He can also make you believe that he might actually pull this one down:
It’s crazy to believe anyone would even have a remote chance at that ball, but Gronkowski made you believe.
It was truly a wild scene in U.S. Bank Stadium, that final play. The Eagles fans were roaring all night. The Patriots fans were loud as well. It was constant bedlam inside that building, and the noise never let up. Until that final play.
Brady looked like he might be getting sacked, which raised the volume of the Eagles fans. He escaped, and he reared back and fired for the end zone from his own 44-yard line. The ball arced toward the goal line. Everyone in attendance looked up, then looked down, then looked back up, then down again. The trajectory was on target. It might happen.
And for the first time all night, when that ball came down, the place fell silent. Absolutely silent. Pin-drop silent. For a good second or two, nobody knew what happened. They just had to wait for the reaction on the field.
Finally, when the Eagles ran wild, it was clear that Gronkowski had not pulled off the impossible. But there may not be another player alive who you’d bet on to make that play.
Now, there’s speculation that Gronkowski might walk away from the sport. Considering all of his injuries — back, knee, forearm, lung, ankle, and most recently, concussion — you can certainly understand why a 28-year-old with the world at his fingertips would consider retiring and preserving his body the best he can, not unlike Calvin Johnson or Barry Sanders. It would be impossible to fault him for looking out for himself.
But from a football entertainment standpoint, it would be a tremendous loss. There’s just nobody quite like this guy, and there won’t be for a very long time. If Sunday night was his final game, that’d be a shame. But what a way to go.
All right. Time for as many leftover thoughts as you can handle from the Eagles’ 41-33 Super Bowl victory over the Patriots.
–I’m just going to hit you with my biggest regret of Super Bowl week. It is a doozy. On Thursday, at the Patriots’ final media availability of the week, I saw Eric Rowe and I thought of asking a question along the lines of this: “You ended up covering Julio Jones quite a bit in last year’s Super Bowl. Is the Super Bowl a situation where you don’t know exactly how your role is going to shake out until the game begins and matchups start to settle?” I was also going to ask that question, or something similar to it, to Malcolm Butler, given his out-of-nowhere role in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks. The idea was a story about the mind-set of a defensive back heading into a Super Bowl. Simple enough.
But then I thought that it would not make for a very good story in the lead-up to the game. So I didn’t ask those questions. And I didn’t get their answers.
Maybe they wouldn’t have been excellent answers, and maybe I wouldn’t have been able to make a worthwhile story out of it before the game. But I think their comments probably would have provided some value after the fact.
Lesson learned. Sorry I didn’t get that for you all. Now excuse me as I bury myself under the crushing weight of regret.
(I ended up pursuing a story on the D line, which didn’t end up materializing either. Truly a fumblerooski on my part. If it’s any consolation, I’ll only regret it forever.)
–I promise not to get too bogged down on the Butler absence, but I just couldn’t get over the fact that on at least one play, the Patriots employed Jordan Richards to cover Zach Ertz. For two weeks, Patriots players and coaches were asked how they’d handle the talented tight end. They all said it’d be difficult. Belichick laughed during his Wednesday press conference when asked for specifics about how he planned on handling Ertz.
But maybe Belichick should have just responded with, “I’m putting Richards on him.” Nobody would have believed him.
Because, lo and behold, this is what ends up happening:
That’s an easy — EASY! — 19-yard gain on a third-and-7. There was a slight push-off from Ertz, but it came after Richards initiated contact himself. And Ertz shouldn’t be strong enough to shove you all the way out of the camera frame.
That third-down conversion ended up leading to a Philadelphia touchdown three plays later.
Richards’ coverage on Corey Clement’s 55-yard catch-and-run was somehow worse. First, he failed to slow down Clement when attempting to bump him at the line of scrimmage. Clement swatted away Richards’ attempted bump:
Clement then used that poor bump to burn past Richards, creating almost five full yards of separation:
Nick Foles actually slightly underthrew the ball, which gave Richards a chance to make a tackle on Clement to limit the gain to just 15 yards. But Richards left his feet to lunge at Clement with one arm outstretched. It did not work:
That is the anatomy of a much-too-easy 55-yard gain. That drive ended with the trick play to Foles. And it allowed Philadelphia to hit halftime with a 10-point lead instead of a three-point lead.
It’s not Richards’ fault, per se. He is what he is. But the man has just not been used for any significant role on defense in his career but then was given that task in the Super Bowl. That’s madness. These were not NFL plays by Richards.
–The touchdown to end that drive was a wild one. I for one didn’t expect LeGarrette Blount to turn this …
… into this:
There was a double-team on James Harrison to prevent him from setting an edge. Brent Celek put a great block on Patrick Chung. Elandon Roberts overpursued the running lane. And Blount showed outstanding patience to let it all develop. Neither Devin McCourty nor Duron Harmon could beat him to the goal line or bring him down.
Of all the ways you figured the Patriots might get beaten, you’d never think it was going to be like that.
–There’s obviously been a lot of grumbling about some missed calls. On the six men on the line of scrimmage for the Foles trick play, I kind of go both ways. On the one hand, no advantage was gained by Alshon Jeffery lined up a yard-and-a-half behind the line of scrimmage when he needed to be up on the line. Also, he checked with the official at the line of scrimmage and apparently got the OK. On the other hand, part of successfully executing trick plays is a great attention to detail. And lining up incorrectly can and has in the past cost teams some big plays. But overall, I wouldn’t go too crazy about that one.
If you want to be upset about any call, it would be Celek’s illegal pick on McCourty on the fourth-and-1 conversion to Ertz. Contact like this is illegal when it occurs more than one yard downfield. Celek contacted McCourty more than two yards downfield, and it played a significant role in springing Ertz free:
The contact was pretty heavy.
And resulted in Foles having a massive window to fit his fourth-down pass:
It was, for sure, an illegal pick. At fourth-and-6, Pederson likely would have punted.
But I also tend to believe that when you make plays in the NFL, these calls tend to go your way. Likewise, when your defense is getting torched all night, a tight end being wide open perhaps doesn’t seem out of place to the officials. And the Patriots still had ample opportunity to prevent the Eagles from gaining 47 more yards to score the game-winning touchdown. But it was nevertheless a fairly significant missed penalty.
–I didn’t really understand why anyone in the world would believe that Ertz’s touchdown should have been overturned. It was a no-brainer. He caught the ball and took three steps before extending the ball across the goal line. He was a runner. Once the ball crossed the plane, it was a touchdown. Get your Jesse James comparisons out of my face; James didn’t take any steps.
I understand some confusion on Clement’s touchdown catch, but I lean toward the call that was made and upheld. Just because he was moving/adjusting the football does not mean he was bobbling it. When a ball travels 40 yards and is caught by a man who is running, there tends to be some inertia involved with the ball and some limbs and even some phalanges. Yeah, there was that one instance of separation, but the man made an incredibly athletic play. Rules should not discourage athleticism. And there’s enough gray area in that “rule” for the call on the field — whatever it was — to stand. In that case, they called touchdown, and it stuck. If they had ruled incomplete, that likely would have stuck too. It was just that close.
–Side note: The throw from Foles on that Clement touchdown was gorgeous.
–We’ve got one more defensive failure to break down. Third-and-6, Eagles backed up at their own 19-yard line, in a three-point game. If the Patriots could have just forced a punt in this situation, they’d have taken over with decent field position with the chance to tie with a field goal or take a lead with a touchdown.
And they were gifted that stop. The Eagles gave it to them. Foles threw behind Nelson Agholor, who had to come to a stop to make the catch as Johnson Bademosi closed in. It was an easy play for Bademosi to make the tackle — or at least wrap up Agholor until help came — and the Eagles were going to be punting.
But Bademosi just ran right through Agholor, who didn’t even really do anything to shake the tackle. He just stood up, and Bademosi slid right on by.
Agholor turned it into a 17-yard gain. Instead of punting from their own 22-yard line, the Eagles drove the field and scored a touchdown.
Combine that play with the touchdown to Jeffery allowed by Rowe (the one where Rowe looked like Willie Mays in center field, minus the catch), and there will never be any way for Belichick to ever convince anybody that benching Butler was the right football decision. Never.
–That being said, the defensive miscues didn’t discriminate against only backups. Devin McCourty tripped over his own feet while trying to cover Ertz 1-on-1 on what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
Duron Harmon got stiff-armed to the moon. Trey Flowers couldn’t get to Foles. The front seven allowed 147 rushing yards from Blount and Ajayi. Nobody recorded a single sack.
Aside from Gilmore, there aren’t many members of that defense who can feel good at all about what went down in Minneapolis.
–There’s (rightly) been a lot of focus on the defensive breakdowns of the Patriots, but I do look at one third-down stop and can’t help but note how razor-thin the difference between winning and losing can be. It was a third-and-1 in the fourth quarter, with 6:30 left in the game and the Eagles trailing by a point. Foles took a shotgun snap and faked a handoff to Blount. Kyle Van Noy burst through the middle of the Philadelphia line and extended his arms to pressure Foles, as Torrey Smith crossed right to left behind the line of scrimmage. Pressured, Foles floated a pass off his back foot to Smith, but James Harrison sniffed out the play and was tight with Smith in the left flat. McCourty flew to the catch area and squared up Smith. McCourty hauled him down, and Harrison came over the top for good measure.
It was perfect team defense, executed to perfection. The Patriots got their stop, and were going to get the football back, with the chance for a putaway score to win the Super Bowl.
But then … the Eagles went for it. And Ertz gained this much yardage:
And the Eagles went on to win.
We can sit here all day and night for the next six months discussing all of those breakdowns. But if Doug Pederson had decided to punt on fourth-and-1 near midfield, we’d all be talking about that gutsy third-down stop.
–After the game, there are two curtained-off areas with maybe seven or eight podiums (the same ones from media day) where players talk to the media. Matthew Slater was sitting at one, checking his phone, with nobody talking to him, when I approached. I had to ask him about that very poor attempt at a reverse on a kick return when there was just a minute left in the game.
“We didn’t execute that play well enough. I mean, you saw it,” Slater said. “The kick placement made it tough on us. That’s heads-up football by them in that situation, instead of kicking a touchback, they kick it in play and run some time off. We weren’t able to get the leverage that we wanted, and [Bryan] Braman and those guys made a great play.”
It really was a rare case of the opposing team outsmarting the Patriots on special teams. The Eagles kicked it short of the end zone to force the Patriots to drain precious seconds off the clock. The Patriots did the Eagles a favor by running a real mess of a reverse with Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. It was doomed from the start.
Lewis caught the ball at his own 7-yard line, and with a traditional return, he could have easily advanced the ball to the 20 or 25-yard line without draining too much time.
Instead, he broke to his right, with Burkhead running back toward the goal line to take the lateral. The pitch itself was OK, but Johnson Bademosi never got a hand on Corey Clement, who disrupted Burkhead immediately upon catching the pitch. Slater got caught going too far upfield and couldn’t make a block on Jaylen Watkins, who swarmed Burkhead at the 9-yard line. Braman easily worked through a Dwayne Allen block, and he cleaned up the play with the finishing tackle.
Maybe it wasn’t a bad call. But the execution was as bad as it possibly could have been.
–Speaking of special teams, after Stephen Gostkowski’s missed PAT, the kicker laid the boom on Kenjon Barner.
Boom! Gotta love kicker rage.
–Sports: Where we probably reach grand conclusions about why teams won and lost, when really we’re talking about an oblong ball bouncing around off a bunch of helmets.
–For as bad as the Patriots’ defense was, boy did the Philadelphia defense fall on its face for almost the entire night. Of course, they made the strip sack to win the game, which was the difference-maker. But man oh man. That was not the defense that ranked fourth in points and yards allowed this year.
On the Patriots’ third offensive play, Tom Brady had his choice of either a wide open Chris Hogan or a wide open Danny Amendola, both running crossing routes about seven yards apart:
Brady went with Hogan, who was closer to him and turned it into a 28-yard gain.
Josh McDaniels dialed up the same play in the fourth quarter. This time, Hogan was covered by two men. Amendola was covered by zero men. It went for 30 yards:
That one came just one snap after the Eagles allowed Danny Amendola — Brady’s best third-down target — to run a simple out on third-and-3 to gain seven yards:
There was also the breakdown to end all breakdowns.
If Brady could have gotten his feet set on that one, it would have been a 79-yard walk-in touchdown. As it was, it went for an easy 50.
The Eagles also fell for a double play-fake screen pass to Rex Burkhead, which went for 46 yards for no discernible reason.
I came away underwhelmed by the vaunted Eagles defense. And then they went ahead and took the ball from Brady to win the game.
–There were some plays that Brady made, though, that were just incredible. His best throw of the night, in my opinion, was the deep ball to Hogan, who put a double move on Jalen Mills up the right sideline. With his pocket collapsing, Brady heaved a ball with his feet straddling his own 25-yard line. He perfectly hit Hogan in stride 42 yards up the field, at the Philly 33-yard line:
Brady was remarkable. Now granted, people might see the 505 yards and get a little carried away. It must be noted that 25 yards came on the Amendola pass to nowhere before halftime, and another 27 yards were basically free on the final drive when the Eagles didn’t cover Gronkowski in the flat. But still, call it 450 yards. That’s ridiculous. He did all he could to win his sixth Super Bowl.
–We’re still going to nitpick though, right? His decision to run for four yards instead of throwing the ball away before halftime was very un-Brady-like, and it cost the Patriots at least 12 seconds. That was weird. Also, on the fateful strip stack, Brady bypassed an open James White in favor of looking for something to develop deep:
In fairness to Brady, his offensive line largely held up against the four-man rush of the Eagles all night, so he had good reason to believe he’d have more time on that snap.
Looking downfield instead of taking the easy gain kind of became a theme, when Brady overlooked an uncovered Gronkowski in that same spot on the field for two straight plays on the Patriots’ desperation drive. On second-and-10, Brady opted to go with a Derek Jeter-style jump-throw across his body to James White instead of getting it quickly and easily to Gronkowski for a gain of 10 or more:
The low-percentage pass skipped incomplete.
On third-and-10, Brady again ignored a wide-open Gronkowski in favor of looking down the field. He almost took a sack in the end zone before stepping up and basically throwing it away over the middle.
The Patriots converted the ensuing fourth-and-10, thanks to a really gutsy sliding catch over the middle by Amendola, but on a drive where time meant everything, that extra time looking deep cost the Patriots about 15-20 seconds. And after Brady spiked the ball following Amendola’s catch, Brady finally decided to hit Gronkowski in the right flat for those easy gains. They picked up 27 yards on two plays. They probably could have used those earlier. It likely would have helped.
OK. Nitpicking complete. Despite the few glitches, that was an otherworldly performance. It’s incredible to see that guy doing what he’s doing at 40 years old. It’s a storyline that gets beaten into the ground, but it’s still quite incredible.
–The MVP Curse lives on. In case you weren’t aware, an NFL MVP has not won the Super Bowl since Kurt Warner in 1999. I don’t think it’s pure happenstance; I think typically to put up MVP type numbers, you have to be relied upon too heavily by your team. And so having an MVP might actually be a sign that a team has some big weaknesses. (Cue the thinking man emoji.)
But that wasn’t really the case this year. If Malcolm Butler plays defense, the “curse” is probably over. Brady certainly couldn’t have done much more himself.
In addition to the lack of Super Bowls for MVP, Brady also failed to become the first player to lead the league in passing and also win a Super Bowl in the same year.
Sports are weird sometimes.
–I know when we’re watching football, we’re not supposed to be humans. But I couldn’t help but feel badly for Brandin Cooks. All week long, he seemed on edge, like he was dying to just get to Sunday. When he took the field, he looked as jacked up as he had been all year. He obviously made a poor choice in trying to leap over Rodney McLeod, but at least the effort level was where it needed to be.
And on the play when he got knocked out, that was simply tough to watch. Everybody in the stadium except for Cooks himself knew that hit from Malcolm Jenkins was coming.
The helmet-to-helmet collision was brutal to see. Unfortunately in the sport of football, such hits are legal when you’re the ball carrier, and so the world got to witness a man lying in a lifeless heap in the middle of a field on a night when he hoped to have the greatest night of his playing career. Maybe 10, 15 years ago, we’d all celebrate the ferocity of that hit. But we’ve come so far in everything we know about brain trauma that nowadays it’s just uncomfortable to watch.
–Didn’t really second-guess it at the time, but Belichick deciding to kick the short field goal instead of going for it after that Cooks run looks bad compared to how Pederson managed the game. That’s not a hindsight situation just because Joe Cardona’s snap was off the mark and Ryan Allen couldn’t get the ball down in a timely manner for Gostkowski. It’s just … when you have Brady, Gronkowski, Amendola, Cooks, White, Lewis, Hogan, and you’ve got James Develin to help lead the way on a run … don’t you like your chances to get a yard? And if you somehow come up short, don’t you like your defense to not allow a 92-yard drive?
–I knew going in to the game that the Eagles were good enough to win the game. I didn’t think they were going to score 41 points, but sports are crazy. I believe that’s been covered.
But I picked the Patriots to win a close game, because ultimately I envisioned a scenario where it was a one-possession game in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. I put my eggs in the Belichick-Brady basket. There’s no way that Foles-Pederson-Jim Schwartz-Frank Reich were going to outmatch the Patriots’ brain trust. Impossible.
But that is why they play the game, and that’s what makes sports so great. You can’t predict any of it.
I was also struck, in interacting a bit with players from both the Patriots and the Eagles after the game, that the Patriots were not absolutely decimated by the loss. From player to player, they sounded the same as they do when they lose to the Panthers in Week 4. We didn’t play well enough, they made more plays than we did, hats off to them, we gotta play better. On the other side, the Eagles were out of their minds with excitement and pure glee. This game meant everything in the world to those players, and it was ultimately a desire play from Brandon Graham that came to decide the game.
You just can’t manufacture those feelings, and you also can’t necessarily fault the Patriots for not feeling the extreme urgency that accompanies this game for players who aren’t often in that spot. When you’re there three times in four years, that sense softens a bit. When you’re playing for a franchise that has never won before, it’s just going to be different.
It speaks to just how challenging it is to repeat as champions in the NFL. You need the perfect blend of experienced veterans and hungry newcomers. (In the case of the Patriots, you also need Malcolm Butler on the field. But that’s neither here nor there.) You need to be very talented, yes, but there’s more to it than that.
Repeating is just difficult. And though the feeling in the immediate aftermath was that the Patriots were a complete mess and this game marked the beginning of the end, that hysteria should be gone by now. Realistically, there’s equal or more reason to believe the Patriots will be right back in that spot next February. Perhaps with Sunday’s dose of humility having been served unceremoniously by the Eagles, next year’s team will have the necessary motivation to be able to finish the job.