RUNNING FOR THE RING: NFL teams revert to smashmouth football in the postseason
It happens a lot in the NFL: The dazzling revolutions of September and October — the promise of a new-fangled Wildcat or read-option or run-and-shoot paradigm that will change everything — often fall by the wayside in the bitter rain and snow and cold of January, when football returns to the eternal verities of truth and reality.
So it is this year.
In a season during which passing and scoring records fell, all four Championship Sunday participants (including the one that set those records) relied on the timeless formula last weekend: run the ball effectively, control the clock, play solid defense and make the other team earn every point it scores.
You could see evidence of the back-to-basics approach in every divisional-round game:
- Russell Wilson’s passing was mostly grounded, and the oft-injured Percy Harvin was knocked out of the action with a concussion, but the Seahawks still took down the Saints. Seattle won behind tackle-breaking machine Marshawn Lynch (in postseason Beast Mode, evidently) and a suffocating defense that rattled New Orleans’ top weapon, Jimmy Graham.
- New England, decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball (along with, it has to be said, the murder charge against tight end Aaron Hernandez), has fewer difference-makers than it has had at any time in recent memory. But LeGarrette Blount was the blunt force that the Patriots used to pound the Colts’ defense into submission. Meanwhile, the Pats’ myriad defensive looks frustrated Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, who threw four interceptions.
- San Francisco won its second road playoff contest in eight days, thanks in large part to a defense that stonewalled Carolina’s running game (Cam Newton was the only Panther to eclipse 20 yards rushing) and snagged two interceptions. Offensively, the 49ers employed a balanced attack: Frank Gore led the charge on the ground while Colin Kaepernick made some timely plays through the air, leaning heavily on veteran gamer Anquan Boldin.
- Denver used San Diego’s own formula from the regular season — control the ball, shorten the game, manage the clock (35:27 of possession) — to keep the Chargers on their heels all day long. Denver’s defense missed Von Miller’s havoc-wreaking presence but stiffened enough to allow the Bolts just 65 yards rushing, less than half of what the Broncos churned out in a winning effort.
Each one of the four divisional-round winners exceeded 125 yards rushing. After setting the single-season record with an astounding 5,477 passing yards, Peyton Manning threw for just 230, with the other three winning quarterbacks failing to reach 200. Glamour QBs Tom Brady and Wilson didn’t even throw a single touchdown pass.
There is, of course, a long tradition of returning to the run game in the postseason. Go back 45 years to the New York Jets’ memorable defeat of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. New York was led by Joe Namath, who was one season removed from becoming the first quarterback in pro football history to throw for 4,000 yards, but the Jets ran more than they passed on that day (logging 43 carries and 29 throws), to control the clock and the Colts. (A year later, the Kansas City Chiefs — another team known for offensive daring and innovation — rushed the ball 42 times for 151 yards to dominate the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.)
These things were true 45 years ago, and they still might be true 45 years from now.
In recent years, we’ve seen running backs de-emphasized on draft day. Yet, by the time the playoffs roll around, the best teams almost always have a solid run game in place.
The star of the divisional weekend, Blount, went undrafted out of college and was pawned off by the Buccaneers this past offseason — yet he’s been unstoppable for the Patriots of late. Marshawn Lynch was a first-round draft choice, but the Bills gave up on him before the Seahawks recast him as their most reliable offensive threat. Knowshon Moreno’s demise had been rumored for years in Denver, but this season he’s been a steady all-around back who doesn’t fumble (and a strong blocker, to boot). Frank Gore is a former third-round pick — thanks in part to some injury baggage from college — who has developed a reputation as a tough inside runner, and his efficiency boosts both the passing game and Kaepernick’s devastatingly effective keepers.
So why does this happen so often? Why do the gaudy passing numbers of the regular season frequently get supplanted by the meat and potatoes of old-school football in the new year? Simple reasons, mostly:
Better defense: Playoff teams are generally more accomplished defensively, meaning each opponent has a formidable pass rush. The best way to neutralize this is to have a running game that the defense has to take seriously.
Weather: So Peyton Manning isn’t as good in cold-weather games? Guess what: He’s not alone — not by a long shot. Show me a quarterback who consistently overperforms in freezing temperatures and snow, and I’ll show you an anomaly. Cold weather leads to numb hands, making it very difficult to execute the touch throws that separate the great quarterbacks from the good ones. And while receivers enjoy a slight advantage over defensive backs in terms of footing — because they know where they’re going — it’s much harder to catch a rifled pass in sub-freezing weather than it is on a room-temperature day. (If you’ve never tried it, just trust me.)
Dangerous opposing quarterbacks: You can get away with a quick, drive-killing string of incompletions — or even a turnover — when the quarterback on the other side is an untested rookie/journeyman who lacks pocket presence. But do that in a playoff game against a Manning or Brady, and you’re going to get burned. That’s why it’s all the more important to control the football and minimize mistakes.
Throwback football will be on full display in the NFC Championship Game, as the style fits the personalities of the coaches very well. A physical running game is a large part of the DNA both Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh used to build their respective teams.
It’s a bit different on the AFC side. New England’s commitment to the run is simply Bill Belichick’s adaptation to a roster that’s currently short on difference-making receivers and tight ends. The Pats very well could go back to being a top-five passing attack and the league’s top-ranked offense next season if they can come up with the right group of receivers for Brady. On the other hand, Denver is only committed to the run as long as you stay in a loose shell defense that begs the Broncos to use it.
In each game, though, both teams will look to assert their will by establishing a ground attack. And the ones that do so best will likely meet in New Jersey in February.
THE LEGEND OF BEAR BRYANT: The Vince Lombardi of college football commemorates 100th birthday
Fred Thompson’s character Arthur Branch once said in an episode of Law and Order that “If it wasn’t for that sonuvabitch Bin Laden, we’d only remember September 11 as Bear Bryant’s birthday.” Today, many people throughout the world of college football—and especially in Alabama—will make Branch proud by not letting Bin Laden spoil the centennial celebration of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s birthday.
While working on Mama Called, a new documentary of Bryant’s life, I found myself pondering a question which I had asked myself many times over the years: Was Bear Bryant the greatest college football coach of all time?
In the time since his death in 1983, it has become more and more obvious that he was. Two other coaches of major college football teams passed him up in the all-time victories list—Joe Paterno (409) and Bobby Bowden (377) won more games in the major college ranks—but Bryant’s won-lost percentage is considerably higher (.780 to Paterno’s .749 and Bowden’s .740). Bryant won more national championships (six) than Paterno and Bowden combined (four). And for what it’s worth, Bryant was 4-0 in head-to-head matchups with Paterno.
Bryant’s stature in college football is so great that there’s really only one other football coach since World War II whose reputation compares—Vince Lombardi, another man whose 100th birthday was commemorated this year. I once asked Bart Starr, who had known Bryant for years and who won five championships under Lombardi at Green Bay, if he thought Bryant was the Vince Lombardi of college football. Starr said, “At the least. Some people might call Coach Lombardi the Bear Bryant of pro football.” (More on that comparison later.)
Paul Bryant coached at four universities and completely turned their football programs around for the better. Maryland was 1-7-1 in 1944, and then, in Bryant’s first and only season as head coach, went 6-2-1. Kentucky was 2-8-0 in 1945; in Bryant’s first year, 1946, the Wildcats were 7-3. In 1953, the Texas A&M Aggies were 4-5-1. When Bryant got there the next year, he gutted the entire squad and rebuilt it practically from scratch; the Aggies finished just 1-9 in 194, but Bryant’s labor bore fruit the next year, when they jumped to 7-2-1, and in 1956, they were the Southwest Conference Champions at 9-0-1. The Alabama Crimson Tide were 2-7-1 in 1957 to 5-4-1 in 1958 under Bryant, and, of course, the rest is history.
Bryant is the only coach to have achieved greatness in both the era of limited substitution (when all players had to spend some time on both offense and defense) and the era of unlimited substitution, the modern era of football when players specialized at just one position.
Bryant coached 133 games against 25 men who were eventually voted into the College Football Hall of Fame; in those games, Bryant was 85-42-6. He also coached against 11 of his former players and assistant coaches, with a record of 45-6. LSU’s longtime coach Charlie McClendon once ruefully exclaimed, “He taught me everything I know, but not everything he knows.”
The vast majority of college football historians have also overlooked the fact that Bryant is the only coach to have achieved greatness in both the era of limited substitution (or one-platoon football, as it was called, when all players had to spend some time on both offense and defense) and the era of unlimited substitution, the modern era of football when players specialized at just one position.
Bryant coached for 38 seasons, and his career breaks right down the middle between the eras of one-platoon and two-platoon ball. The difference was probably best summed up in a comment Bryant once made to me during an interview: “In the old days, you spent more time coaching football. Nowadays [with expanded staffs and larger rosters] you spend more time coaching the coaches.”
From 1945 t0 1963, his record was 141-49-13 for an excellent .727 win-loss percentage, while from 1964-1982 he was 182-36-4 for an awesome .829. No other football coach who had to make the adjustment from limited to unlimited substitution in the game even begins to compare.
However, Benny Marshall a longtime columnist for the Birmingham News, tapped into one of the most important, fascinating sets of parallel stories in sports history when he drew the comparison (if an overblown, rather unflattering one) between Bryant and Vince Lombardi—going so far as to refer to Lombardi as “a poor man’s Bear Bryant.”
Besides being born in the same year, Bryant’s and Lombardi’s lives shared an amazing number of similarities. Both men married young and stayed married to the same woman their entire lives. Both had two children, a son and a daughter, —and both sons were named after their fathers. Their football mentors—Jim Crowley at Fordham for Lombardi and Frank Thomas at Alabama for Bryant—learned the game under Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. Both won their first championship in 1961. They each developed close and lasting relationships with rebellious prodigies—Lombardi with Paul Hornung, Bryant with Joe Namath. And both, of course, were uncompromising taskmasters who stressed fundamentals and discipline.
They nearly played against each other when Alabama met Fordham at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1933; Lombardi was ineligible for Fordham’s varsity squad but was in the stands that day.
Lombardi’s impact on pro football has faded; he has no protégés or disciples still in the game. But The Bear’s influence still pervades every level of the game, from small colleges to the pros. Joe Namath, his most famous recruit, helped bring out about the merger of the American and National Football League. Ozzie Newsome, one of Bryant’s first black All-Americans, is currently general manager of the Baltimore Ravens. John Mitchell, the first black player to start for the Crimson Tide and Bryant’s first black assistant coach, is now in his 20th season as defensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. And Sylvester Croom, who starred at center and later served as an assistant coach for Bryant, became the first black coach at a Southeastern Conference school, Mississippi State, in 2004, and is the new running backs coach for the Tennessee Titans.
Bryant’s domain, I would argue, was larger than Lombardi’s or any other pro football coach’s. For nearly four decades Bryant was the dominant figure in what the great sportswriter Dan Jenkins called in his book, Saturday’s America, “the world of small towns and college communities that, from Labor Day through New Year’s, gives unqualified devotion to college football, displaying the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that can only be faked or imitated in pro football stadiums.”
Courtesy: Allen Barra
Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie–The Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.