A ‘throwback’ Super Bowl win enhances Patriots’ legacy (and Belichick’s)

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ATLANTA — Ten minutes left in Super Bowl LIII. (Or, as John Legend called it, the Super Bore.) Rams 3, Pats 3. New England had managed one field goal in 10 possessions. On the New England sideline, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had seen enough. He gathered his offensive players around him and explained that, in crunch time in the NFL championship game, he was ripping up the game plan.

Patriots tight end Dwayne Allen told me the story at 2 this morning, at the Patriots’ team party in the Atlanta Hyatt Regency, trying to be heard above the Snoop Dogg concert thumping in a nearby ballroom. “One of the things Bill Belichick preaches,” Allen told me, “is he wants a smart, tough, disciplined, unselfish football team that performs well under pressure. And that’s what we did tonight.”

The Rams’ defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, had matched McDaniels’ calls all night. Mostly, the Patriots could do nothing against the Los Angeles sub defenses. Because the Rams’ front was so formidable with pile-pushers Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, they could afford to play one or two extra men in the back end and limit Tom Brady’s passing options with three strong corners. So McDaniels told his men they were just going jumbo, which would force Phillips out of his sub packages and put linebackers on receivers the Patriots trusted could beat them.

McDaniels would keep only one small player on the field—Julian Edelman. And on the next series, he’d play two tight ends (the lightly used Allen and Rob Gronkowski), a fullback (James Devlin), a big back (Rex Burkhead) and Edelman.

“It was a pretty amazing thing,’’ said Allen, one of the beneficiaries of McDaniels’ invention. “Hats off to the Rams. They really knew us. They played us great. But football’s about in-game adjustments. Josh told us on the sideline, ‘We did not practice this at all coming into this game, and I realize that, but this is going off in my head, and it’s something I think we need to do.’ “

The Patriots had averaged 4.9 yards per play in the first 50 minutes of the game. On this drive, they averaged 13.8. New England played what it considers its athletic big offense, and it worked. Gronkowski beat linebacker Samson Ebukam up the right flank for 18 on first down, then hit Edelman on linebacker Cory Littleton for 13, then Burkhead in the left flat for seven, then Gronkowski between Littleton and Mark Barron down the left seam for 29. Sony Michel subbed in for a two-yard touchdown run. Five plays, 69 yards, TD. Pats, 10-3.

In the lowest-scoring game in Super Bowl history, New England bested the surprisingly toothless Rams—the second-highest scoring in football this year—for their sixth title in 18 years. Pats 13, Rams 3. Afterward, Bill Belichick praised McDaniels as much as I’d heard him praise any of his coaches. Belichick called the McDaniels change a “real key breakthrough,” and said McDaniels “made a great adjustment,” and called his play-calling “outstanding, as usual.”

With this victory, Belichick and the Patriots tied the Steelers for the most Super Bowl titles—six. Brady played, for him, a mediocre game. But he was absolutely effervescent after the game, thrilled that the Patriots’ defense played a Steel Curtain kind of game (first eight Rams possessions: eight punts). People who saw him early this morning at the party—I did not—told me he was unusually thrilled and pumped because, as one teammate said, “he loves a team win and couldn’t give a s— about stats.”

“This game,” Allen said, competing with the Snoop Dogg din, “is the difference between the New England Patriots and 31 other teams in the National Football League. We figure it out, and we have no ego when we have to change things.”


This was a wonderful game for the Patriots’ legacy. They’d won (and lost) Super Bowls mostly with bludgeoning offensive performances. Never had the defense and special teams outshone the offense. Never, of course, till Sunday. “A throwback game,” Richard Seymour said. I saw the mountainous defensive tackle of the early dynasty at the party this morning. New England forced the Rams—the NFC’s highest-scoring team—to punt on their first eight series. L.A. hadn’t punted eight times in any of coach Sean McVay’s first 35 games atop the Rams.

Credit will go to Belichick, as it should, for the smart, tough, disciplined and unselfish team, as he preaches. The football world has been slapped in the face by the genius of the young McVay, who is 33, half Belichick’s age. But he was just another speedbump to the Belichick Patriots on Sunday, and McVay’s quarterback, once upon a time a strong MVP candidate this season, was pitiful for most of the Rams’ 260-total-yard day. Belichick, surely, belongs on the Mount Rushmore of all-time coaches. He might sit above the mount before he’s done—and he shows no signs of wanting out after his 19th season as Patriots coach. With 292 career regular-season and post-season victories, Belichick stands 56 victories away from becoming the winningest coach ever. He’s a young 66, and relatively stress-free. As of this morning, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t coach five more years, likely long enough to pass Don Shula’s 347 wins.

The great leader coaches his assistants, and Belichick has done that. Outgoing defensive play-caller Brian Flores orchestrated a great game against Goff, confusing him through the game and bringing pressure through more line stunts than the Rams had expected to see. Flores will be named coach of the Miami Dolphins today, so Belichick will have to break in a new defensive boss. (Smart money is on Greg Schiano, the former Bucs and Rutgers coach, and a confidant of Belichick’s.) But don’t expect the Patriots to change much of what they do. On both sides of the ball, every game, the game plans are snowflakes. Always different.

That’s one of the reasons McDaniels wasn’t concerned at halftime, when the Patriots stumbled to a 3-0 lead halfway through. In the locker room post-game, talk was that McDaniels went to the board to talk to his team and he drew the number “44.” That’s how many plays the Patriots ran in the first half—and how many plays the Rams D was on the field. “That’s got to count for something,” McDaniels told his players. “That’s gonna pay off in the second half.”

 

Maybe it did. When New England changed its offensive approach to a heavy look with 10 minutes left, the Patriots went 69 yards for a TD and 72 yards for a field goal on their next two drives. On New England’s 61st snap of the game, Sony Michel busted over right tackle for 26 yards. On the 64th, Rex Burkhead ran behind left tackle for 26. That was the ballgame.

This is the team, of course, that America loves to loathe. But I think if America hung around the locker room, it would like this edition of the Patriots. Around the Patriots last week, the coaches and players spoke of a selflessness—even among the stars like Rob Gronkowski and Edelman and Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore—that exceeded prior championship teams in Foxboro. “It’s not easy to be a Patriot,” Gilmore told me last night. “It’s a grind every day. Even when we win games, it feels like we lose sometimes because it’s hard. We want to be perfect and sometimes we’re not. But it’s worth it. Everything is worth it.”

After the game, I spent a few minutes with Robert Kraft in the out-of-the-way trainers’ room in the Patriots’ locker room. Kraft, impeccable in a three-piece blue suit, was bushed, talked out after his 10th Super Bowl appearance in his quarter-century as owner. “I want to get out of this suit,” he said.

But first, the Bostonian who had Patriots season-tickets as a kid put this team in perspective.

“Well,” he said, “this team is a different team than any of the others we’ve been with. It has a certain sense of character and maturity about it that I don’t ever remember. And I saw it the last two weeks in this locker room. There was a quiet air of confidence. They worked hard. There was a good attitude. I don’t think we had the most Pro Bowl players. Matter of fact, how many did we have? One? And what they did on defense today was unbelievable. Just going back to the start of the season, with all the turmoil and tension and then we started, what, 2-3? (It was 2-2.) And then we came to December and we lost two games in a row which we usually don’t do. And because of that, we didn’t have the home field advantage through the playoffs and we had to go on the road in the championship game to a place we got beaten badly the last time we played there. And they probably have the best young team in all of football. And our guys found a way to get the job done. And then today, the same thing.

“I just pinch myself because you know I’m still a fan. Especially when I’m sitting in my box, I’m thinking as a fan and thinking back to being in the stands and dreaming about owning the team.”

I said: “You’re a New Englander. You love the local sports teams. So how does nine Super Bowls in 18 seasons, unheard of in NFL history, rate versus the great franchises in the history of Boston?”

“I’m gonna let you rate that,” he said. “The only one that I really remember growing up was the Celtics and I was a big fan. They really sustained success. I don’t know how many teams were in the NBA. They had nowhere near the 32 teams we had.”

He was about talked out now, but he had one last thing for me:

“I honestly don’t believe what our team and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have done will ever be replicated in the age of the salary cap.”

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Why the New York Jets deserve the controversy, dysfunction surrounding them

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1. I think the Jets architecture job is not the one to take if you want to run a franchise, Peyton Manning. To be charitable, the Jets are not close to contention.

2. I think I won’t be the first to use this rationale for my opinion about what happened when Mike Maccagnan got dismissed the other day as Jets GM, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me: The Jets truly deserve this controversy. A few points:

• I have no sympathy for Maccagnan, who lorded over a 14-35 team since New Year’s Day 2016. Only Cleveland and San Francisco have won fewer games since then. But by my math, Maccagnan just spent $235 million in free agency this offseason, a gargantuan sum. He just had the keys to the draft and, apparently with minimal input from the head coach, made Quinnen Williams the third overall pick in the draft. He was fired 19 days after the draft. What owner in his right mind allows a GM he figures he may well fire run a crucial off-season? Christopher Johnson, that’s who.

• Adam Gase is going to have a major say on who becomes the next GM of the Jets. Gase was 23-26 in his three-year stint coaching the Dolphins, and, though the quarterback position was plagued by injuries while he was there, he’s supposed to be a quarterback guru, and the Dolphins, again, are starting from scratch at the position after firing Gase four-and-a-half months ago. I like Gase well enough. But what exactly has he done, first, to earn a head-coaching job after his three years in Miami … and, second, to play a significant role in picking the architect of the new Jets?

• I assume the reports of Gase not wanting Le’Veon Bell for $13.5 million a year are true. (I don’t blame him.) But the leaks in that building are never-ending, and in this case, the leaks could drive a wedge between a guy who doesn’t seem very happy to be a Jet in the first place, Bell, and the guy who’s going to be calling his number this fall. Gase better figure a way to tamp that down. I don’t know if he can.

• How do you have faith in the Jets to get this GM thing right now? And what smart GM-candidate type (Joe Douglas or Louis Riddick or Daniel Jeremiah) would want to take his one shot—because most GMs get one shot at running a team—working for Christopher Johnson?

• If I were Mike Greenberg, I’d be burying my head in my hands this morning, wondering why oh why did I get stuck loving this franchise? How can season-ticket-holders send in their money this year thinking they’re going to see the turnaround season of a team that’s won 5, 5, and 4 games the past three years?

• Sam Darnold doesn’t coach.

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The lessons Chris Long learned from playing with Patriots, Eagles, Rams

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Chris Long, who retired over the weekend after an 11-year NFL career that ended with two Super Bowl rings (in 2016 with New England and 2017 with Philadelphia), and an NFL Man of the Year Award (in 2018) for his work in U.S. social justice and building fresh-water wells for thousands in Africa, on the lessons he takes with him into retirement:

“I learned to never make a decision based on just one thing. The decision to retire was complicated. It was based on health, which is still very good, and family, we have two small children, and football fit, which includes a chance to win and my role and geography. Philadelphia is where I wanted to play a couple more years. I love Philadelphia. But as a player I learned the most important thing to me is Sunday, and having a chance to be a big part of it. It seemed like player-coach was kind of the role that was going to be carved out for me—maybe playing 10, 12, 15 plays a game. I’m a rhythm player. I need to set people up, I need to be in the flow of the game. If I sit on the bench for three series, I can’t get rhythm, and I’ll get cold and maybe I’ll hurt myself. Some people think that’s great—play less and you won’t get hurt. Man, I want to play ball. In Philadelphia, it didn’t seem there was much of a chance to compete there. But they were honest with me the whole time. I appreciate the honesty. I’ll always love Philadelphia and the Eagles, but I didn’t want Week 4, 5, to come around and people think, Whoa, where’s Chris? Did Chris retire? I’d rather do it this way than just fade out. And I didn’t want to start over again across the country somewhere.

“I learned so much in my career. Getting drafted second overall, and going to St. Louis, and the fact that we were losing, I just thought, I am not gonna fold. I am not a loser. I am gonna be a bright spot. I am gonna give these fans, who I deeply appreciate for their dedication, the respect they deserve . Anyone playing in that era in St. Louis knows how bad it was at times. It was carnage, in so many ways. It was a test of my will. Do I get irritated by the no-Pro Bowl thing, never making a Pro Bowl? Yeah, I do. Fifty sacks in the first six years, with no one watching, on a bad team. I just felt the narrative should be, That kid panned out. But that’s okay—it was a labor of love. I have zero regrets.

“In New England, I learned so much about football. I always thought I was a smart player, even though I never thought about anything but the six inches in front of my face. In New England, I was forced to learn so many schematic concepts. In my career playing football, nobody asked me to do as much as Bill Belichick did. I might be 3-technique, or a linebacker, or a linebacker dropping into coverage more than ever, or playing inside more than ever. I’ll always remember how much I learned watching Bill in practice. He can coach any position as good as any position coach in league. He can walk around the field and stop drills and coach each position—at the highest level. And the quality of the dudes. Solid men. The right kind of people.

“Tom Brady blew me away. Who’s the most famous athlete of our generation: Tom Brady? LeBron? Messi? Ronaldo? Serena Williams? Maybe I haven’t been around enough to know how the biggest stars really act. But Brady is a normal guy. When I got there, here comes Tom. ‘Hey Chris, I’m Tom, nice to meet you.’ Well, yeah, I know you’re Tom. A lot of people want to hate him for all the success, and I understand how you can dislike the Patriots, but I cannot understand how you can dislike Tom.

“That Super Bowl against Atlanta … when we were way behind, I’m thinking, ‘I waited my whole life to be here, and this is a nightmare. This is the worst nightmare I have ever had.’ If we lost that night, I very possibly would have retired a bitter man. But winning it breathed life into me.

“Going to Philadelphia, I felt I found a home. Best sports city in America. But how different my situation was. I went from team captain with the Rams two years before that to winning the Super Bowl in New England to starting on the bottom in Philly. I was an average Joe. I was challenged. I learned how much being a team, being together, really means. We were a case study for whatever you believe. Either we were an anomaly or we proved you could do good things and win in pro sports. We happened to have guys who were good players who cared. I remember winning a Monday Night Football game, falling asleep at 4 or 5 o’clock, and waking up for a train to Harrisburg to work with state legislators on policies. It just showed how much we could make changes in things that matter, and play really good football too. You can be a football player and a citizen. It’s gratifying when young players come up and say they’re inspired to do more because of things that Malcolm Jenkins or Torrey Smith have done, or me.

“I’ve always tried to be me first and a football player second. When I came into football, I didn’t want to be this piece of wreckage who couldn’t move or have a normal life. But I learned you can’t predict the future. I thought I’d play eight years. I thought I’d retire at 30. But I played 11, and now I’m 34.

“NFL Man of the Year … I never felt deserving of it. I am not the best person in the NFL. I never want to get up there promoting myself as some infallible person. I was very honored. But I was also conflicted that people saw me as this community service guy, not a player. Nobody saw me as the player I was in my prime. I don’t want to be known as Community Service Guy; I want to be known as a guy who busted his ass for 11 years at his craft. But I do appreciate the fact that people saw that I played for free for one year, that I was part of a group that built 61 wells for people to get fresh water in Africa, and that we’ve got 220,000 people drinking from our wells. I will not downplay that stuff. But I am not some angel, believe me. I don’t have a brand. My brand is me.

“Retirement is interesting. It is something I feared for a long time. It is an existential crisis. I’ve been doing something since high school, working toward a goal. I fantasize about crossing the threshold, but at the same time it’s something you can be deathly afraid of.

“I am excited about the next phase of life. I’m launching a digital media company. I will have my own pod. I’m just excited about being able to control the narrative. I like to create. Maybe I’ll work at a network. Whatever I do, I’ll be me.”

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