NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

Pittsburgh Strayed from the Passing Fundamentals in Favor of a Risky, Unconventional Running Attack
The stadium scene.
Feb. 7 2011 12:54 PM

NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

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Clay Matthews. Click image to expand.
Green Bay's Clay Matthews (left) and Desmond Bishop 

I was wondering about the celebration-penalty rules myself, Josh. When the Packers' Nick Collins got flagged in the end zone after the most exciting play of the game— his interception runback through an ever-thickening crowd of Steelers, capped by a just-long-enough leap over the goal line—the ref announced that he was guilty of "going to the ground after the score." Yet when Greg Jennings caught his first touchdown pass of the day, he went to the ground in celebration as well, genuflecting in a show of prayer. No flag. Maybe the issue isn't defensive versus offensive, but secular kneeling versus religious kneeling.

It's beyond ludicrous that in a TV event introduced by the rootin'-tootin', fruited-plainspoken Sam Elliott tribute to the American Authenticity of the Great Gritty Traditions of Pittsburgh and Green Bay, a player should get a penalty for putting a little mustard on the actual, uh, game. But the human beings in uniforms on the field (or being rolled away from the field on injury carts, over and over) are subordinate to the show, right? That was especially clear in Dallas, where Rashard Mendenhall missed a play after colliding with a cameraman and where sideline shot after sideline shot showed the players ignoring the field in front of them and craning their necks to peer up at Jerry Jones' monster video board. Even the participants are spectators now.

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But oh, right: the game. Close as it was, this Super Bowl rarely felt like the outcome was in doubt—although that obvious outcome, through the fatty midsection of the game, was a Pittsburgh victory. From the moment late in the second quarter when Green Bay's Charles Woodson broke his collarbone, through the luminescent Black Eyed Peas-as-world's-worst-wedding-band halftime show, clear to the end of the third quarter, Green Bay seemed doomed: a once-fearsome, now-wounded moose, slowly bleeding out in the snow as the wolves closed in. "The momentum has totally shifted," Joe Buck said.

Except all the while, the Packers had more points than the Steelers did. It was a perfect conclusion to a season in which Green Bay—in that much-cited but still mind-boggling statistic—never trailed by more than 7 points, yet almost missed the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers and company led the game wire to wire, but until the first play of the fourth quarter, when Clay Matthews popped the ball out of Mendenhall's grasp (Troy Aikman having moments before declared Mendenhall to be "the total package"), the part where the Steelers would actually score the go-ahead points seemed like a mere formality.

Was that just me? I grew up in that era of blowout Super Bowls, so I'm conditioned to expect one of the teams to be unmasked as a feeble pretender. Oh, John Elway might put up a score early, but eventually he'll start blasting the ball at his receivers too hard for them to catch, and the undersized, altitude-conditioned Orange Crush defense will get tossed around by brawnier NFC guys, untiring in the oxygen-rich air down at sea level.

Or possibly the Packers looked so hapless to my aging eyes because they would not and could not run the ball. When I went to football games in college, we would groaningly refer to the near-retirement-aged coach's offensive theory as "establishing the run to set up the punt": a short gain into the line on first down, no gain into the line on second down, and then an incomplete pass on third-and-long, which proved that the passing game couldn't be trusted.

But this is the 21st century, and the polarity has been reversed. It is now possible for a coach to stubbornly, inflexibly, uselessly cling to the passing attack. (In my family, we call this the "Andy Reid approach.") The Packers' third-quarter play calling in particular had that dazed, bleeding-moose helplessness to it: short pass, incomplete pass, punt ... short pass, incomplete pass, punt. I was shocked when Fox posted Aaron Rodgers' passer rating late in the game and it was 114.9. It felt a lot lower than that.

Meanwhile, the Steelers were smashing the ball downfield on the ground, including the five-play, 50-yard touchdown drive that made it 21-17, in which they never threw a pass. An injured amoeba is a strange creature—the Packers lost most of their defensive backfield and ended up enfeebled at the line of scrimmage. But not too enfeebled to knock the ball away from Mendenhall. That's what Pittsburgh gets for straying from the passing fundamentals in favor of a risky, unconventional running attack.

Maybe bad passing is really good passing, and Troy Aikman is a football visionary. "A ball Jordy Nelson's got to make," Aikman said, watching a replay of a mistimed Rodgers throw glancing off Nelson's fingertips. "Perfectly thrown ball," he said later, after Rodgers overthrew Nelson in the end zone. When the replay kept showing an uncatchable ball, Aikman then downgraded it to "well-thrown," and finally, breaking precedent, added, "I wouldn't say that he should have caught that one. That would have been a nice catch."

Was it good defense that made things look out of joint? Or was it the really appalling amount of attrition? Maybe Rodgers would have been more in harmony with his receivers if Donald Driver had been able to stay around. Maybe Ben Roethlisberger would have heaved one of those schoolyard bombs on target if Maurkice Pouncey had been around to buy him an extra second or two here and there.

Or perhaps it was big-game jitters, like Christina Aguilera flubbing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Did Aguilera have to go off and sing the anthem again in a back room, like John Roberts redoing his botched swearing-in of President Obama, to make sure the game would be official?

It was telling when the Packers won the coin toss (with the special Super Bowl XLV coin-toss-ceremony coin), chose to defer receiving the ball, and then were totally unable to come up with an answer when the ref asked which end zone they wanted to defend. The ceremony was breaking up, everyone was drifting back to the sidelines, and the ref was chasing around trying to find a Packer who could make the decision about which direction the kickoff should go: end zone? There are end zones here? Oh, right.

It must be hard for the teams to go out and play 60 minutes of football—on the ordinary 100-yard scale of things—while everything around and between the action has swelled to gargantuan size. The Walter Payton Award! Slash! The Hall of Fame! What's another third and two next to all that?

I got my own lesson in the Big Game's priorities as I watched it on DVR, after giving my kid a bath and putting him to bed. The Packers had kicked a field goal to make it 31-25, and the two-minute warning had arrived. Roethlisberger was getting ready to make another bid for glory. "The man with two rings will go to work," Buck intoned. I thumbed the skip-ahead button to get through the commercials. Just as I caught a glimpse of Robert De Niro's face in some movie ad, the DVR bounced out to the menu screen. The recording was over.

I know you're normally supposed to over-program the DVR for sports, in case the game runs long, but I'd never guessed the Super Bowl time slot—with trophy ceremony, postgame interviews, and everything else—could be shorted by the network. Fox, it turned out, was more interested in lying about when Glee would start than in giving the Super Bowl its due.

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