NFL Playoffs Preview: Super Bowl

Well, I hit both conference championship picks to bring me to 7-3. I was too conservative on the scores; I was a little whiplashed from going 1-3… and the regular-season games suggested they would be close. They weren’t.

I don’t really have anything stunning to tell you about the Super Bowl, but I’ll run over the obvious:

Offense: Atlanta (540 points scored, #1) outscored New England (441 points, #3) by 99 points… but 71 points of that margin came in the first four games, when the Patriots were playing their backup quarterbacks. Atlanta scored 152; New England scored 81. That isn’t significant.

Defense: Atlanta (406 points, #27) is much worse than New England (250, #1), and that isn’t the result of injuries. Some Falcon fans have claimed the defense came together during the year, saying that Atlanta allowed 28.3 points a game in the 10 games before their bye week– but only 20.5 in the six games after it.

There are two problems with that logic. First, 20.4 points is still substantially higher than the 15.6 points New England allowed over the whole year. Second, the 123 points were allowed against Arizona (19), Kansas City (29), the Rams (14), San Francisco (13), Carolina, (16) and New Orleans (32), Except for the Chiefs, all losing teams– all with nothing to play for.

Also, those six teams scored 122 points. Based on the scoring averages going into each game, they were expected to score 135.6 points. The Falcons were a couple of points a game better than average.

Turnover Margin: They were both excellent; New England (+12, third) was a smidge better than Atlanta (+11, fourth). Again, the totals are colored by the Patriots needing to play with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brisett for the first four games. New England turned the ball over only 11 times– four coming in the first four games.

Playoff Experience: Big edge to New England, obviously. But not nearly as big as you might think. Coach Bill Belicheat has four Super Bowl wins– but he also has two losses. The only other championship coaches to have lost multiple Super Bowls are Don Shula (2-4), Tom Landry (2-3) and Mike Holmgren (1-2).

Not bad company to be in, but the Patriots were heavily favored in both losses, so obviously they could be upset again.

The coaches with the most Super Bowl losses, by the way, are Marv Levy, Dan Reeves and Bud Grant (all 0-4), with John Fox 0-2 and still active.

As long as I’ve mentioned almost everyone else who has won a Super Bowl and also lost one, I’ll complete the list: Joe Gibbs is 3-1 (he lost to Oakland), Bill Parcells 2-1 (the loss with New England) and Hank Stram, Dick Vermeil, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin and Pete Carroll all 1-1

The Patriots are more experienced than Atlanta, but only nine of the players who started in Super Bowl 110001 (they use Roman numerals, I use binary) two years ago– four on offense, three on defense and two kickers– will start tomorrow:

  • QB Tom Deflatey
  • WR Julian Edelman
  • OT Nate Solder
  • DE-LB Rob Ninkovich
  • LB Dont’a Hightower
  • S Devin McCourty
  • S Patrick Chung
  • K Stephen Gostkowski
  • P Ryan Allen

Not exactly Terrt Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster, et al, is it?. And that number isn’t due to injury, actually:

  • RT Sebastian Vollmer and TE Rob Gronkowski are on IR.
  • LB Jamie Collins was exiled to Cleveland due to bad behavior.
  • Six offensive players (RB LeGarrette Blount, James Develin and Brandon Bolden; WRs Danny Amendola and Matt Slater, OT Cameron Fleming) played in the last win– but got a combined 91 snaps on offense .
  • Three defensive players (DT Alan Branch, CB Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan) didn’t start, but played 42 defensive snaps.
  • CB Nate Ebner and OT Marcus Cannon played only on the kicking teams, seeing 24 snaps.

The Patriots do this sort of turnover every season. It is the reason New England is back in the Super Bowl, while their opponent from two years ago (Seattle) is not. Of the 24 starters (counting the two kickers) the Seahawks used two years ago, 14 were still starting. The Seahawks couldn’t keep up with Atlanta, because they were old.

Placing Bill Belicheat in the pantheon of great coaches will be a more difficult talk than it looks. If you grade coaches purely on titles, it’s pretty easy to put him there. But the subjective evidence that we use to make a case– talking about the the great teams filled with Hall of Fame players and their memorable wins– are surprisingly lacking.

The best way to illustrate it is to talk about a coach– Joe Gibbs– that almost nobody would suggest is the greatest of all time. He has three Super Bowl wins, plus a loss to Oakland in 1983, so the credentials are good. When you tell stories, you can talk about RB John Riggins, WR Art Monk, C Russ Grimm, and CB Darrell Green– all of whom are in the Hall of Fame. One can argue that T Joe Jacoby should be elected (four Pro Bowls, a starter on all three champs); QB Joe Theismann won an MVP award and had his career abruptly ended by an injury. Most people don’t remember the names of the players, but they remember “The Hawgs” and the smaller receivers who made up “The Fun Bunch.”

Admittedly they don’t shine as brightly as Vince Lombardi’s Packers, Bill Walsh’s 49ers, or the dominant teams of the 1970’s– Shula’s Dolphin, Landey’s Cowboys or Chuck Noll’s Steelers. But anecdotally, one can make a fine case for them.

Now do that for Belicheat. He’s got one more win than Gibbs, and another loss. He has QB Tom Brady… then who?

Let me jog your memory. Here are the names of the ten players with the most Pro Bowl appearances during his tenure:

  • 6: G Logan Mankins, WR Matt Slater (their kicking teams specialist)
  • 5: DT Richard Seymour, WR Wes Welker
  • 4: DT Vince Woolfork, TE Rob Gronkowski, K Stephen Gostkowski, CB Ty Law, CB Lawyer Milloy
  • 3: T Matt Light

You see the problem, I take it. Welker put up great numbers– but he never played on a team that won the championship. (Also, the minute he left town, Julian Edelman duplicated his production.) If Gronkowski can stay healthy, he’ll be inducted. But as of this writing, he was a member of only one winner,

Remember the great block Mankins made on a key play to win the conference championship? Me neither. Most people, if asked to remember a lineman from the team who won three championships in four years, would name Joe Andruzzi.

Seymour was an awfully good player, but he isn’t Joe Greene or Randy White. Most people would have difficulty separating him from Woolfork– and Mike Vrabel is probably the name people think of.

Ten years from now, Peter Queen is likely to be having a hissy-fit, because only 2-3 Patriots have been chosen. How can a team with 5-6 championships be slighted?

The reason the Hall of Fame won’t have more Patriots is very simple– unless Queen wants to bully his colleagues into picking people who don’t deserve it– is that the Patriots have been Brady and a cast of thousands. New England’s leaders in rushing in their four championship seasons? Antowain Smith in the first two, then Corey Dillon and finally Jonas Gray. In the two seasons they lost the Super Bowl, they used Lawrence Maroney and Benjarvus Green-Ellis.

The position of #1 back, in other years, has been filled by Kevin Faulk. Stevan Ridley and Sammy Morris. Now it’s Blount. Often New England is shuffling two or more players; sometimes it looks really ugly.

But New England had had five men rush for 1,000 yards since 2000 (the Browns have only four) and in most seasons, they have a couple of guys with 700+ yards. But they’ve used only four premium (rounds 1-3) picks since 2000 to do it. Maroney was the 21st pick in 2006; they’ve taken three #3s (J.R. Redmond in 2000, Vereen and Ridley in 2011),

And that’s the way the game is played now. The impact of the modern rules– meaning free agency and the salary cap– means you can’t assemble a team filled with Hall-of-Famers any longer.

Free agency permits players who are unhappy to leave a team– whether the coach or front office wants them to or not. A team can hold a player for a year or two by franchising them– trying to rebuild a relationship in that time. But a player who really dislikes his coach (Terry Bradshaw loathed Chuck Noll) or the system he plays in (Bob Griese wanted to throw more than Don Shula’s Dolphins did) can leave.

The salary cap has an even greater impact. The 53-man roster means your average salary, per player, needs to be just under 1.9% of the cap (right now, that’s about $2.8 million). Let’s say you decide to sign a player for $5.5 million (double the average). In order to stay on budget, you need to have two other players making $1.5.

That’s not a problem, since the minimum salary is $450,000. But the more people you pay well. you more you have to scrimp. If you pay your quarterback $14 million, that’s 9.5% of the total budget. If you give your best pass rusher the same amount, that’s 19% of the budget.

You need more than two stars to win, obviously. So you hand four more players $8.5 million (about 5.7%). Let’s say you pay it to your left tackle and your top receiver on offense– and the run-stuffing linebacker and the shutdown corner on defense.

You’ve just committed 41% of your budget to six players. The other 47 have to average less than 1%. And that assumes that you haven’t had to cut anyone and eat his salary– or have a player making a lot of money go on injured rseerve.

That’s why you couldn’t assemble a team like the Browns of the 50’s, the 60’s Packers, the Steel Curtain Steelers or Bill Walsh’s 49ers– you couldn’t afford it. The minute a star’s contract came up, you’d lose him.

A front office has two alternatives. The option most teams use is the one I just explained: lock a few guys up to high-paying, long-term contracts, and cut corners everywhere else. The majority of your starters will make below-average money for one of three reasons:

  • They’re on a rookie contract
  • You signed a free agent and back-loaded his deal. Alex Mack is making $4 million with Atlanta this year– it goes up to $9 million next year and $10.8 million the year after.
  • The player isn’t very good.

It leaves the team with weaknesses all over the roster. If the good players get hurt– as it did in Baltimore in 2015– the team doesn’t have any talent and it looking at 6-10.

Option two– the method the Patriots use– is to fill up almost every spot with talented players who come cheap for one of three reasons:

  • Players aged 21-24 (rookie contracts): Thanks to the last negotiations, which implemented a rookie scale, nobody makes good money on their first deal. If they play well, they get money when they hit free agency. But the Patriots will trade everyone (with one or two exceptions) or let them leave in exchange for a compensation pick.
  • Players 25-28 (bargain free agents): Many good players get drafted by a team that doesn’t know how to use them (or changes schemes when the coach gets fired). The player doesn’t put up big numbers, the team thinks it can do without them and nobody offers a big contract. The Patriots will get a few years of production cheaply, then trade them or let someone else pay them a lot of money (and take the pick).
  • Players 29-32 (veterans looking for a ring): Players who have already made their money– but have never played for a winner– sometimes sign a short-term deal with New England hoping to get a ring. They get a good player at a low price, and cut him in a year or two, when he’s over the hill.

This setup means that New England has at least a decent player at every position– for not much money. But it also means they have to retool after each season– you go, you stay, you come– and almost every decision they make has to be right.

New England’s salary structure is amazing. Remember how I said that any player who makes $5.5 million (3.8% of the total budget, twice the 1.9% average) causes salary cap issues? The Patriots have only five players over than line:

  • Brady, the Hall-of-Fame quarterback, makes $13.764,705 (the 27th highest-paid player in the NFL). He ties up only 9.1% of the cap
  • Solder, the left tackle, gets 6.9%.
  • Hightower, who just re-signed and made his first Pro Bowl, gets 5.1%
  • Jabaal Sheard gets 4.5%
  • Marcus Cannon (the other offensive tackle) gets 4.1%.

The five highest-paid players take up only 29.73% of the budget, The team facing them Sunday, Atlanta, has a more typical salary structure:

  • QB Matt Ryan is getting $23.75 million– the third-highest salary this year; nearly twice the amount Brady does. He consumes 15.3% of the cap.
  • WR Julio Jones also makes more than Brady ($15.9 million). That’s another 10.2%
  • DE Tyson Jackson (their big free agent signing in 2014) makes $6.35 million– 4.1% of the cap.

Nobody else is more than double the budget– but those three players alone count nearly as much against the cap (29.63%) as New England’s top 5. If you full out the top five (G Andy Levitre gets 3.46%; T Jake Matthews 2.89%), their five best players cost 35.98%..

Why isn’t Alex Mack in the top 5? They back-loaded his deal. He’s making $4.05 million this year– it goes up to $9.05 million next year, then $10.8. At the end of this season, Atlanta will have to cut or rework some people to make that fit.

I know I’m running a lot of numbers at you– and that these percentages sound small, but remember that each 1% is just under $1.5 million. The more the highest-paid people make, the less the rest of the team can make. That means players you can’t sign and veterans you can’t keep.

To bring this more locally, let me do some AFC North teams. The Steelers follow the same blueprint as the Falcons– but even more extreme and with less bang for the buck:

  • QB Ben Roethlisberger is the second highest paid player (to Eli Manning); he ties up 15.82%
  • LB Lawrence Timmons gets 9.99%
  • WR Antonio Brown gets 7.85%
  • C Maurkice Pouncey gets 6.97%

That’s 40.63%– and if you add in G David DeCastro (3.48%), we’re up to 44.11%. The Pittsburgh roster is about to blow up, because RB Le’Veon Bell (paid only 0.79%, thanks to his rookie contract) will expect 8-10 times what he made last year.

Roethlisberger is pouting because he wants the front office to improve the team. If he wants that, he ought to do his part, by slicing a bug chunk off his contract.

Baltimore is another example of a team paying too much to too few:

  • QB Joe Flacco ($22.5 million against the cap; fourth) eats up 14.94%
  • CB Lardarius Webb (someone I’m not even sure should start) gets 6.29%
  • DE-LB Terrell Suggs gets 4.94%
  • DE-LB Elvis Dumervil gets 4.89%

That’s 31.06% for four players– add in C Jeremy Zuttah (3.05%) and you’re up to 34.11%. And that’s for a .500 team.

And, for comedy relief, I give you the Cleveland Browns. The five highest-paid players of a 1-15 team consumed 30.67% of its total payroll– almost 1% more than the Patriots:

  • CB Joe Haden made $13.4 million– $400,000 less than Brady. He takes 10.23% of the cap.
  • T Joe Thomas ($9.5 million) cost 7.26% of the total. That’s a good value– only a tad more than New England pays Solder, but they get a Hall-of-Famer and a team leader.
  • CB Tramon Williams– who started only 7 games because he was benched– gets 5.33%
  • QB Robert Griffin, who started five games, consumed 4.00%
  • QB Josh McCown, who should not even have been on the roster  took 3.85%

Just to recap: Tom Brady, who might be the greatest player of all time (I’d say Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh) was paid 9.14% of the salary cap. Griffin and McCown got 7.85%.

Players 6-10 are Demario Davis (also benched, 2.44%), Danny Shelton (2.03%), Gary Barnidge (1.96%), Cameron Erving (1.64%) and Corey Coleman (1.62%). Barnidge is a good value; Shelton had his first good year.

Remember, by the way, that Sashi Brown– the alleged super-genius in charge of the front office– was the guy in charge of the salary cap. So he can’t duck the blame for this mess.

You’re tired of reading this stuff, so we’ll stop. But it’s this stuff– not the X’s and O’s, or the clutch plays– that explains why the Patriots always win a lot of games and always go into the playoffs. They’re going into the Super Bowl– and they’re 12th in cap space, with $8.97 left. Miami ($13.73, seventh), the Giants ($11.2, eighth) and Green Bay ($9.42, tenth) are the only playoff teams with more space.

The other day, my brother-in-law was snickering at WRs Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and TE Martellus Bennett. They combined for 181 catches, 2,487 yards and 14 scores– not counting the blocking and the decoy routes– and used only 10.12% of the budget. They make less than Julio Jones.

The only knock I have on the coach– other than his penchant for breaking NFL rules– is that his team has been built upon one lucky break. In his very first draft, he chose Brady in the sixth round (a few picks after the Browns chose Spurgeon Wynn, let us never forget).

That was an accident– nobody waits to pick a player they expect to be their starting quarterback until the second-to-last round of the draft. Brady produced three Super Bowls championships during his first four seasons (his rookie contract). He has lasted until age 39, and had missed– until his suspension this season– only the 15 games in 2008.

Brady has always been willing to take substantially less money than every other quarterback, to make those numbers work. If he insisted on as much money as Peyton Manning (who always wanted top dollar), none of the equations work.

Without Tom Brady, a substantial percentage of what has happened since 2000 doesn’t occur. Maybe all of it.


The other question in my mind is whether New England would have been successful in the era before free agency. We don’t know. The Patriots don’t want high picks– they’d prefer to trade them for 2-3 other choices, so they can get a bunch of good players, rather than one really good one.

That approach makes sense in an era where you know you will lose your picks every four years. In an era where you can keep a Hall-of-Fame player for his entire career, it’s not the right approach.

Would Bill Belichick have been able to put together a roster that could have been a dynasty? He didn’t do nearly as well when he was coaching in the era before full free agency. It’s clear that he learned from the experience– but we’re just guessing about how he would do in any other era.

But we also can’t say whether any other coach would have been able to compete in this era. Not to be detract from Don Shula– he played coached in his first championship in 1964 and his last in 1985; a wider spread than almost anyone. But Shula’s reputation rests largely on his success with the 1970’s Dolphins, When Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield jumped to another league, the Dolphins were never as good again. Could he have handled rebooting a team every few years? We never got the chance to find out.

Well, this is all taking away from the game preview– but I’m writing this because I really don’t have anything to say.

The Patriots aren’t very good at running the ball (3.9 per carry)– but the Falcons (4.5 yards allowed) ate terrible at stopping the run.

Brady has been sacked only 15 times– 3.4% of his attempts. Atlanta has sacked quarterbacks 34 times– on 4.9% of their attempts. You’d have to assume he’ll have time to throw

The Falcons have let opposing quarterbacks throw for only 6.9 yards– but have given up 31 TDs and only 12 interceptions. They’re facing a quarterback who threw 28 TDs and had only two balls intercepted. He ought to be able to pick them apart.

Atlanta has a great offense– but the scheme they’re running is still largely the one that Kyle Shanahan’s dad was using in the 1990’s. Belichick knows how to beat it– and he has two Pro Bowl defenders in his secondary and a pass rush with 34 sacks (an even higher percentage of attempts).

The one chance that Atlanta has is this. The Patriots aren’t a dynasty peopled with great players who have a history of stepping up in clutch time. They have very good players who usually do their jobs during their tenure.

But New England has been to 10 conference championships– they’re 6-4 in those games. They’re 4-2 in Super Bowls. What history has shown is that a non-entity can, on any given Sunday, take them down.

In the 2011 Super Bowl, it was Ahmad Bradshaw, Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks. In the 2007 game, Amani Toomer, Plaxico Burress and David Tyree did it.

Sometimes it’s Von Miller getting 2.5 sacks and a pick in the AFC Conference Championship in 2015… but Owen Daniels also caught two TDs and C.J. Anderson gained 72 yards on 16 carries.

For all we know, Sunday it might be Tevin Coleman running 80 yards on one play and Taylor Gabriel making five clutch first downs– one for a score.

I’m not going to pick that way, of course. I’m going to figure the Falcons come in a little dazed, get something they didn’t expect (possibly a set of brass knuckles taped into Rob Ninkovich’s hand wraps) and get beaten. But if I were a Falcons fan, I’d want to see what happens in this game

Prediction: New England 28, Atlanta 15


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