Monday Morning Digest: Brady vs. Goodell and Other Key Super Bowl Matchups
HOUSTON — Super Bowl week is about much more than the Super Bowl.
It's also about Hall of Fame selection, the NFL Honors awards show and the halftime show, not to mention the commissioner's State of the NFL press conference and thousands of media members from around the world descending on Houston to write about everything from the commercials to Tom Brady's preferred brand of toenail clippers.
Monday Morning Digest promises to keep the off-field silliness to a minimum as we tee off America's annual pregame tizzy. We'll set you up with some keys to the game, statistical splits that could foreshadow Sunday and even a brief interview with Rob Gronkowski.
We'll also preview the Hall of Fame vote, round up some non-Super Bowl news and provide all the Pro Bowl coverage you need (about 400 words).
We are just six days and 20 million words of hype from kickoff. Let the wild rumpus start.
Brady and Goodell: Epic Showdown or Schoolyard Spat?
- Goodell and Brady smile
- They shake hands
- They pose side-by-side with the Lombardi Trophy
If the Patriots win the Super Bowl and Roger Goodell finds himself beside Tom Brady for the postgame ceremony, here is what I hope happens:
Then they go about their business like the fabulously wealthy, powerful and successful individuals that they are.
That series of events won’t be satisfactory to the hordes of rubberneckers who circled the Goodell-Brady Deflategate feud like middle schoolers at a shoving match. Brady vs. Goodell is already being stirred up as the biggest drama of Super Bowl week, as if the Falcons are just some minor obstacle for the Patriots to leap over on the way to the level boss.
Brady’s father kicked off the melodrama by blasting Goodell in a KRON TV interview this past weekend. That’s how Super Bowl week goes: Everyone from Lady Gaga to Donald Trump will probably be enlisted to pour some fuel on this spat. And anyway, what’s a schoolyard drama without an angry dad shaking his fist at the bully?
Some fans may be seeking "closure" from Deflategate. For segments of New England, "closure" might mean Brady purposely dropping the trophy on Goodell’s foot, grabbing the microphone and delivering a 10-minute Braveheart speech about freedom and justice, or whatever.
There’s another segment of the population who would enjoy the spectacle of Brady grimacing in defeat as he leaves the field.
Deflategate doesn’t deserve closure. When a bad television show gets canceled, no one demands a last episode. We just want it to go away so we can watch something good.
Deflategate wasn’t just a sports scandal. It was a dark omen. We should have known something was wrong with society when it took 18 months and a zillion court orders and judges' decisions to figure out if someone deflated a football.
Deflategate damaged the concept that smart, influential people could hammer out a compromise that served both their mutual interest and the public good. Instead, a different approach started to be seen as reasonable and noble: lawyering up, digging in heels and turning a minor problem into an all-or-nothing, resource-squandering power struggle.
There’s an old saying among the wealthy and powerful about lawsuits. First you have the lawsuit, then you have the settlement, then you have lunch. It’s all business. Get it over with and get back to achieving your goals.
After Deflategate finally stopped just short of the Supreme Court, Brady did just that this year. So did Goodell, inscrutable though his goals may sometimes be.
They need to focus on their job: providing entertainment for a world that needs temporary escape from a real world that feels increasingly defined by pettiness, spite and the corrosiveness of power.
Schoolyard dramas are fun. Then graduation day arrives, and the principal who didn’t always solve discipline problems with the wisdom of Solomon must hand a diploma to the bullies, the troublemakers and that popular kid who raised a stink with the school board about a Saturday detention.
Graduation is about growing up, putting old grudges aside and working together.
We’ve forgotten how to do that. If the Patriots win, Brady and Goodell will have a chance to remind us.
Super Bowl Stat and Split Digest
Matt Bosher has a higher touchback percentage than Stephen Gostkowski (61.9 percent to 55.9 percent), but Patriots opponents average 19.3 yards per kickoff return, while Falcons opponents average 22.6 yards per return.
As the Texans playoff game demonstrated, Dion Lewis (pictured) has higher big-play potential than Eric Weems, though he also has greater mistake potential. Slight Advantage: Patriots
Football Outsiders ranks the Patriots and Falcons first and second in the NFL in first-quarter offense. But the Patriots rank sixth in first-quarter defense, while the Falcons rank 21st. In simpler terms, the Patriots outscored opponents 130-32 in first quarters, while the Falcons outscored them 139-68. Slight Advantage: Patriots
Bosher and Ryan Allen finished fifth and sixth in the NFL in net average at 41.6 and 41.4 yards per punt. Weems averaged 11.4 yards per return, with four Patriots returners averaging just 6.9 yards per return. Patriots returners were far less likely to call for a fair catch than Weems, however: They had 18 fair catches and 45 returns, as opposed to 21 and 24 for Weems. Advantage: Neither
The Patriots enjoyed a net penalty advantage of 20 penalties and 111 yards over their opponents in the regular season. The Falcons had a nine-penalty, 127-yard advantage.
The Patriots commit more holding penalties than the Falcons (35 to 26). Falcons cornerback Robert Alford committed 12 total penalties in the regular season and two more in the postseason. Look for Tom Brady to target Alford’s receivers if he sees contact. Advantage: Neither
Both teams have nearly identical turnover numbers: 23 takeaways and 11 giveaways for the Patriots, 22 and 11 for the Falcons. It should be noted here that the Patriots faced a much more generous slate of quarterbacks than the Falcons and should have produced more takeaways.
The Falcons have not turned the ball over in the postseason while recording four takeaways. Slight Advantage: Falcons
Football Outsiders ranks the Patriots eighth in the NFL in red-zone offense, while the Falcons rank 29th in red-zone defense. This may be the most important split in an otherwise rather even set of matchups.
The Falcons offense ranks 14th in red-zone offense (surprising, since it is in the top five in so many categories), while the Patriots defense ranks 12th. Big Advantage: Patriots
Gostkowski was 11-of-14 beyond 40 yards this season, Matt Bryant 15-of-17. Both are veteran kickers, so not too much should be made of little variations in their performance. Advantage: Neither
Late and Close
The Patriots and Falcons rank second and third in the NFL in late-and-close offense, according to Football Outsiders. (The Saints ranked first.)
Their defenses rank 28th (Patriots) and 23rd (Falcons) overall. But if you want to bet against Brady in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl based on a tiny statistical blip, that’s on you. Advantage: Neither
Key for Patriots: Stopping Julio Jones
One of the big stories of Super Bowl week will be the Patriots' plan for stopping Julio Jones.
One of the big stories going into the AFC Championship Game was the Patriots' plan for stopping Antonio Brown. That plan turned out to be simple. And it worked.
The Patriots rendered Brown ineffective for most of the game by locking in cornerback Malcolm Butler as his man-to-man defender, then providing frequent safety help, often from Devin McCourty.
That sounds a little simple for a genius like Bill Belichick. But true geniuses know how to avoid overcomplicating things.
The diagram above comes from the third quarter of the Steelers game. The safeties appear to be in two-deep coverage. But when Brown (84) ran an out-route to the sideline, McCourty (32) ignored Darrius Heyward-Bey (88) and chased Brown.
Meanwhile, six defenders crowded the line of scrimmage, making it impossible to determine who would blitz and who would drop into coverage. The Patriots rushed only three defenders. Most of the others were locked in man coverage, though Dont'a Hightower (54) dropped into a middle zone.
Hightower turned out to be crucial to the defensive success of this play. Jesse James (81) and Eli Rogers (17) ran shallow crossing routes to "pick" each other's defenders, but Hightower gummed up the works and made them redirect their routes.
The Patriots ended up with double coverage on the Steelers' most dangerous weapon, lots of underneath coverage and a deep safety (Duron Harmon, No. 30) available to handle any surprises. Thanks to Chris Long (95) and Jabaal Sheard (93), they also mounted enough of a pass rush to keep Ben Roethlisberger from getting comfortable in the pocket.
The Patriots use three-man pass rushes often. The depth of their secondary allows Butler to shadow the likes of Brown and Jones. McCourty's athleticism and experience makes him the ideal double-coverage safety: He can diagnose pass patterns and beat the receiver to where he is trying to go.
Tactics like these will be effective against the Falcons. But the next slide shows the Falcons have a potential countermeasure on offense.
It involves challenging Hightower and the other linebackers who often find themselves covering running backs.
Key for Falcons: Getting RBs Involved in Passing Game
One reason the Falcons offense improved from "very good" to "unstoppable" this season was its use of running backs as big-play threats in the passing game.
Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined to catch 85 passes for 883 yards and five touchdowns. Opponents with great cornerbacks who can match up well with Julio Jones and the receivers, like the Broncos and Seahawks, often discovered they were vulnerable to Freeman and Coleman leaking out of the backfield.
The diagram above is adapted from the first quarter of the Falcons-Broncos game in Week 5. Wide receivers Jones (11) and Mohamed Sanu (12) are stacked to the left. Tight ends Austin Hooper (81) and Levine Toilolo (80) are on the right. Before the snap, Coleman (26) moves from the backfield to the slot between the two tight ends.
The Broncos are in nickel, as most defenses are against base offensive personnel these days. But the stacked receivers force their nickel cornerback to line up on the Jones-Sanu side.
That leaves linebackers to cover Hooper and Coleman. Coleman is faster than any linebacker in the NFL. When he angles a route underneath Hooper, the linebackers get crossed up in coverage. Coleman catches the ball in stride over the middle of the field with no defenders nearby. The play turns into a footrace, which turns into a 49-yard run before the safeties chase Coleman down.
The Patriots want to crowd linebackers at the line of scrimmage to confuse the pass protection, then drop them into coverage. They also want to be able to use big, veteran linebackers like Shea McClellin and Rob Ninkovich as all-purpose defenders against base personnel.
Coleman and Freeman's ability to outrun linebackers in coverage will limit the Patriots' personnel groupings and tactics. Anytime you stop Bill Belichick from doing whatever he wants on defense, you give yourself a little better chance to beat the Patriots.
A Few Minutes with Gronk
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski spent the second half of the season on injured reserve with a back injury. He kept busy by partnering with Hunting Lane Films and INE Entertainment to produce MVP, a Shark Tank-like reality series for the go90 streaming network.
MVP features entrepreneurs who are seeking endorsements pitching their products to a sports-celebrity panel. Gronk took a few minutes to talk about the show, action movies and Terrell Owens eating raw fish.
Who’s the biggest "shark" among your celebrity panelists?
We have the Triple Crown jockey, Victor Espinoza. He was tough to please. When you’re a Triple Crown winner, you’re tough to please.
Which celebrity panelist were you most excited to meet?
My favorite person was [softball legend] Jennie Finch. I always wanted to meet her. She went to the University of Arizona, and when I committed to play football there I was a big fan of hers. So I finally got to meet her 12 years later.
Who’s the funny person on the panel?
T.O. and Antonio Brown were pretty funny. They also dressed to impress, always looking sharp.
Did Terrell Owens offer you any career advice?
There’s an episode about tuna, salmon, good healthy foods that were quick on the go. I asked T.O., "Do you eat this stuff? How are you still looking like that?" He gave me advice about always eating clean. I definitely took that advice. I totally agree with it. He had never ate raw fish, and in that episode he tries it for the first time.
What reality television do you watch?
Man, I don’t really watch that much TV. I like getting involved. I have a movie coming out called American Violence where I’m a bodyguard. I have an action scene in it. I’m into movies.
Is there a movie franchise you would like to be part of?
Anything that has action. Superheroes. All the movies Jason Statham’s in, protecting people and getting the job done.
Has it been difficult watching the Patriots in the playoffs, especially when they got a scare from the Texans?
The team has been working hard. They’ve been great. I’m super-excited for the guys. I cheer for them hard. I’m pumped for watching them every week. I wish so bad I was out there with them. But I’m their biggest fan right now.
They deserve where they’re at. They grind every day. And it pushes me to rehab hard every single day.
Digestible Nuggets: Pro Bowl Edition
Everything you wanted to know about the Pro Bowl but were too bored to ask:
• The Pro Bowl goes through cycles. There is the Game Is Terrible cycle, the Game Is Improving cycle, the Players Won't Attend cycle, the Let's Try Something New cycle. Sunday's game marked the return of the No One Is Even Pretending to Play Defense cycle. When the Pro Bowl reaches the Game Is Really Good cycle, the Mayan calendar expires and the super-volcanoes begin.
• The Seahawks played both defense and offense Sunday night, with Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett channeling Charles Barkley by spoiling the low-impact picnic with interceptions and sacks, while Doug Baldwin (pictured) raced past hypothetical coverage for a touchdown.
• There are teams that light up the Super Bowl and teams that light up the Pro Bowl. The Seahawks need to do some soul searching to determine how they went from the former to the latter.
• Andy Reid challenged a play in the third quarter. Who decided the Pro Bowl needed challenges, and where can they be sent for a three-day observation?
• That said, Reid followed a fake field goal with a "fumble-rooskie"-type trick play in the third quarter. Reid should coach the game every year, and the cameras should only start rolling when he gets bored and starts calling wild plays.
• In an unexpected development, the Pro Bowl skill challenges were actually entertaining, with Odell Beckham Jr. catching footballs dropped from drones and Andy Dalton proving wholly incompetent at dodgeball. Bold prediction: The NFL will turn the tight, prerecorded hourlong skills show into a bloated, live three-hour special, ratings will drop and the latest plan to "fix" the Pro Bowl will be scrapped.
• If the NFL does expand the Festivus-like skills competition, it should consider pingpong. Many NFL players love pingpong and would get super-competitive about it. You may not know that you really want to watch Sherman and Travis Kelce whack each other with pingpong paddles when a game gets out of hand, but now that you have read about it, good luck thinking about anything else.
Hall of Fame Ballot Digest
The Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee meets in Houston on Saturday to select the class of 2017. Here’s the skinny on the 15 finalists.
Morten Andersen, Kicker
His candidacy is picking up steam, according to the scuttlebutt around the campfire. As time passes and veteran kickers fall well short of the records he set, Andersen’s longevity and success look more and more remarkable.
Tony Boselli, Tackle
The best offensive lineman in the NFL from about 1997 to 2000 and the lone Jaguars player in the pipeline for a long time to come. If the committee starts inducting small-career superstars from that era, however, Terrell Davis will probably go first.
Isaac Bruce, Wide Receiver
Bruce is stuck on a split ticket with Torry Holt, who was a semifinalist this year, and is waiting for his quarterback to pave the way (see below).
Don Coryell, Coach
Coryell would have gotten in years ago if classified as a "contributor." As a coach, his candidacy keeps crashing into his head coaching record, which makes him look like the poor-man’s Andy Reid of the 1970s.
There is no good mechanism for inducting innovative assistant coaches. Should Buddy Ryan be inducted for the 46 Defense? Alex Gibbs for the zone-stretch blocking system? Coryell has the best case of any strategic innovator in history, but he spends each voting cycle in a pool with dozens of worthy players and several head coaches who enjoyed much more success than he did.
Terrell Davis, Running Back
His candidacy was slow to pick up steam because of the "short career" knock (which is not as fashionable now that we are more attuned to the dangers of playing football) and the "everyone put up big numbers in the Broncos offense" knock (which sounds silly now that history has forgotten Olandis Gary). Davis may not make it this year but is climbing the ladder.
Brian Dawkins and John Lynch, Safeties
The safety glut is coming, with Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu soon to join the ballot and Steve Atwater hanging around the semifinalist stages. Look for the committee to push Lynch through this year, with Dawkins waiting until next year.
Alan Faneca, Joe Jacoby and Kevin Mawae, Offensive Line
Faneca will get in before Mawae. Jacoby has a chance to beat both of them in. His candidacy has never had great traction, but the committee may want to close the books on the 1980s Redskins.
Ty Law, Cornerback
Law will make it soon. His record is rock-solid, and the committee will want to get the ball rolling on the Belichick-era Patriots.
Terrell Owens, Wide Receiver
As I wrote in August, a small-but-passionate group of voters argued to keep Owens from enshrinement last year. My gut tells me Owens will have the votes now that Marvin Harrison is off the wide receiver board and Owens’ antics of the 2000s look restrained compared to what goes on in everyday American politics.
Jason Taylor, Defensive End
Taylor has Hall of Fame momentum. He will probably find his way into the top 10 during the committee’s meeting. From there, it’s a matter of whether he cracks the top five or someone like Lynch or Law gets prioritized above him.
2017 Hall of Fame Class Prediction
Morten Andersen, John Lynch, Terrell Owens, LaDainian Tomlinson, Kurt Warner.
NFL Honors Prediction Digest
Most Valuable Player: Matt Ryan
Based on the All-Pro voting and other ballots, Ryan is a lock for the MVP award. It’s a good thing the playoffs turned out the way they did, or else the Aaron Rodgers supporters would be howling.
Coach of the Year: Jason Garrett
This award is given annually to the coach who takes his team from the bottom of the league to the top. It really should be given to the coach who keeps his team at the top every year. But Bill Belichick will settle for those Lombardi Trophies.
Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers
"Hey, sorry we spent the first half of the year manufacturing a 'slump' out of the fact that you were throwing to guys who should have been preseason cuts. Here’s a consolation prize."
Defensive Player of the Year: Von Miller
Aaron Donald and Landon Collins would be better choices. Miller is the safe, famous choice for an award typically won by the safe, famous choice.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Dak Prescott
Think like a voter: Prescott’s rookie year as a quarterback was more unique than Ezekiel Elliott’s rookie year as a running back, and a running back with big stats can be rewarded elsewhere.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Joey Bosa
Deion Jones had a greater impact on his team’s success. But the voters all heard how dominant Bosa was this season from the handful of people who watched the Chargers every week.
Comeback Player of the Year: Jordy Nelson
Walter Payton Man of the Year Award: Eli Manning
We can look at a line of quarterback stats and reach a dozen different conclusions. You don't want us thinking too hard about which player's charitable efforts were the most noble.
49ers name John Lynch as general manager.
Lynch, a Hall of Fame candidate at safety and television analyst, has no coaching or front-office experience. Those who do not remember Matt Millen are doomed to repeat Matt Millen.
Ben Roethlisberger contemplates retirement.
No wonder offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been behaving erratically lately. And by "lately" we mean since 2011 or so.
Antonio Brown allegedly "pouted" about not getting the ball near the goal line.
The Steelers are one doomed romance away from becoming a CW drama.
Browns sign Jamie Collins to a four-year, $50 million contract.
The Browns are willing to pay top dollar for a defender who could quickly transform them into a 10-6 team. The Patriots were willing to make a midseason trade to get rid of a defender who could quickly transform them into a 10-6 team.
Cowboys plan to exercise fifth-year option on Zack Martin.
It’s a no-brainer move. But the Cowboys' cap budget is starting to look like that hallway closet that’s so full that anyone who opens the door is buried in an avalanche of old junk. And Tony Romo is the big bag of golf clubs stuffed way up at the top.
NFLPA seeks "less punitive" league marijuana policy.
The NFL’s counterproposal: Players will still be suspended but will be assured that it’s for their own good.
NFL admits concussion protocol wasn't followed for Matt Moore in the playoffs.
It’s hard to be jaded about this when the NFL is the only governing body left in America that will even admit a mistake.
Seahawks assistant head coach Rocky Seto leaves the NFL to enter the ministry.
Seto’s calling should not be confused with all of the executives named in the 49ers' general manager search who rushed into churches shouting "Sanctuary!"
Jets coaches think Darrelle Revis can make the transition to safety.
Jets coaches also thought that Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg could provide effective quarterbacking.
Bengals re-sign kicker Randy Bullock.
The negotiation went like this: TEAM: Are you Mike Nugent? BULLOCK: No. TEAM: Here is money.
Final Thoughts: Hype for a Week of Hype
Super Bowl week is more about spectacle than football. Many of the week’s events and traditions have a life of their own. Here are some things you can expect to hear a lot about, even though they have nothing to do with the Falcons, the Patriots or the act of watching sports on television for their entertainment value.
Super Bowl Opening Night (Monday)
For fans, The Event Formerly Known as Media Day is a strangely static television spectacle consisting mainly of repetitive press conferences with players in tiny booths that look like carnival dunk tanks. For reporters, it means two hours of elbowing past a Nickelodeon mascot in a superhero costume and a Spanish TV reporter dressed as a prom queen so we can ask Tom Brady about his favorite brand of aftershave.
Radio Row (All Week)
It’s not a row. It’s an entire floor of a convention center colonized by the nation’s sports-talk community. Every hour there counts as two years off my sentence in purgatory. I hope.
Commissioner’s "State of the League" (Wednesday)
Roger Goodell takes the stage for his annual report: Ratings are great, medical marijuana is bad, the game is as safe as it can possibly be (and getting safer!), the people of San Diego are happy that they will get to watch the Chargers on television now, and so on.
This was the most cynical regularly scheduled press conference in history, until roughly last November.
Super Bowl Parties (All Week)
You can determine a media member’s attitude toward the parties based on how many he or she has been invited to. I think they are a waste of time and resources (he says, gorging potato chips alone in a hotel room).
Commercial Hype (All Week)
The Super Bowl remains the Super Bowl of advertising, and sponsors spend the week trying to generate hype about their commercials. That said, the person you know who "only watches the Super Bowl for the commercials" is the same person who jokes that "kids these days don’t know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings." No one has heard of Wings, gramps, and no one remembers the Bud Bowl, either.
NFL Honors (Saturday)
It’s like the Academy Awards and the ESPYs had a baby, hired the People’s Choice Awards as an au pair, then found out there was a wild party in the house that was crashed by all of the most boring NFL Network talk shows.