I’m sorry, I can’t help it. I want to talk about the greatest football game I have ever seen. It was almost perfect.
You see, I’m a Patriots fan. I’m a Giants fan. I had some basic understanding of their DNA. And what I hoped for, and longed for, for this game, was a perfect display of Bill Parcells football. In it, there would be move, countermove, every coach’s decision, every quarterback’s decision close to the very best one in the situation given the players’ capabilities, every player playing up to the maximum of their capabilities given their nervousness and sometimes their unfamiliarity with the Super Bowl, all the way to the end of the game, and at the end, at the very last play, the Patriots would win. But that wouldn’t matter. Because what mattered was the perfection.
And for the first three quarters, and into the fourth, it happened just as I hoped. Move. Countermove. Never really taking too much of a chance. Never really taking too little. Every player beginning to play in the moment. Did you see the way the Patriots’ defense tried to strip Ahmad Bradshaw of the ball, just as they should? Did you see the way the very minor parts of the Giants’ team, like Henry Hinoski, began to trail Bradshaw and Nicks, so that twice they were in the perfect position to recover a fumble? You never see that in a football game. Never. Move. Countermove. Perfect timing of timeouts (with a couple of unimportant, to-be-expected exceptions from Manning in the second half). Perfect move and countermove on the special teams. And then, early in the fourth quarter, the referees screwed up.
You have to understand that until then, I have never seen referees perform at such a consistently high level. Every spot far more perfect. Every call that mattered, right the first time, no matter how difficult. And then, on a third down with the Giants marching, the referees failed to pick up what I think was an extremely subtle foul by a defensive back. And that put everything out of whack. Tom Coughlin was furious. I don’t blame him. Because if everything had been perfect, and the referees had performed at the high levels of the rest of the game, the referees would have picked it up, and the game would probably have gone just as I hoped.
And then Eli Manning saved the day. Both teams adjusted to the new reality, but we were still probably going to see a Giants’ victory due to that referee’s mistake – and then, as the Giants were marching down the field towards the almost inevitable touchdown and two-point try that would succeed, Eli managed to hit Nicks for a 14-yard gain on second down, when he should have succeeded on third down, and that would have meant the Giants’ field goal would have come too late, and Brady could never have gotten up the field in time for the Patriots to win. Now, things were back on track for perfection.
And then, on the very next play, someone or someones in the Patriots’ defense screwed up when they shouldn’t have. And the perfection was irretrievably wrecked. It was almost inevitable that Jacobs or Bradshaw would run. The Patriots defense should have been ready enough. Belicheck had called time outs and challenged an obvious call and used the two-minute warning to give them time to gather enough energy to make this play. Bradshaw should have gotten 2 or 3 yards. Then, some way or another, the Giants should have gotten to fourth down in the 10-20 area, kicked a field goal with about a minute to play, and Brady would have marched the Patriots down to between the 20 and 35 yard lines on the last play of the game and Coughlin would have called his last time out and Gostkowski would have nailed the field goal anyway and the Patriots would have won. And that wouldn’t have mattered. Because what mattered was that I was seeing thinking, every-effort football that was yielding extraordinary play after extraordinary play, from Jason Pierre Paul blocking Tom Brady’s throw just right to Rob Gronkowski coming in on a bum leg and Tom Brady picking just the right spot to use him.
And now, the Patriots’ loss was just about inevitable. Now, Manning could use the 4-yard pass to Nicks that gave him a first down. Now, the Patriots had to use their second timeout and then let Bradshaw score. Now, the time was just too short, and Brady’s best effort could not get the Patriots to the 15-yard line or within that gave them a probable touchdown on the last play. Against the Giants’ defense, with both teams playing at the peak of their game as they were, Tom’s perfect throw into the end zone on the last play of the game had very little chance of succeeding. It would be only fitting that it fail; and it did.
But still, in the short interval before the almost inevitable happened, there were some extraordinary things that I have never seen. Did you see Tom Coughlin choosing to run for the extra points? There was minimal chance that a fumble would cause a runback. If it succeeded, then there was still some small chance if Brady somehow got a touchdown that the extra point could be blocked. If it failed, and Brady somehow screwed up on his timing and got the touchdown too early, there was a small chance that Manning could take the ball down to field goal range and Tynes could nail a field goal and we would be in overtime. It was the absolutely perfect Bill Parcells coach’s move.
But the thing that really opened my eyes was the way, in the middle of the play where he scored, Ahmad Bradshaw realized what the Patriots were up to and suddenly, just as he was about to cross the goal line, stopped. In the way that absolutely minimized the chance that he would not score a touchdown at the end of the play. Just to take 2 seconds off the clock. I have never seen a player do that pitch-perfect thinking at that point in the game. Never.
Now think ahead to the end of the game. Tom Brady is around his own 45. There are 5 seconds left in the game. The only thing he can safely do is throw it in the end zone, from his own 45. And that’s a very low-percentage play.
But suppose he had six seconds, or seven – if Bradshaw had not done that. He could have passed for another 11 yards, out of bounds or not, and the Giants, playing perfectly, would have let him. Now he would be on the Giants’ 45 yard line, with about one second to play. Now, just as before, he looks and looks downfield, is flushed out of the pocket, moves towards the sidelines, and a lineman is heading towards him and a contain man is just downfield, in the perfect defense, and then suddenly he runs past the scrimmage line. He darts past the contain man. Now the Giants defense in the end zone is beginning to react just as they should, and they move over to get him and handle possible nearby laterals in just the way they should, and he reaches about the 25 yard line just before they get to him and he whirls and throws a perfect strike across the field to some tight end who has drifted downfield. Before, that tight end would have been on the 35 yard line, so Brady would never have tried that play -- too low-percentage. And now we see that the Patriots’ defensive line has begun to block the Giants’ offensive line upfield, just as they should, and all those receivers in the end zone are coming to block the Giants’ defensive backs away from the other side of the field, just as they should, and still the Giants’ defense, playing perfectly, will get over there and tackle the tight end somewhere between the 5 and 10 yard line. Except that maybe they won’t. Maybe somehow that tight end will find a way to make it into the end zone. It’s a better chance than trying to throw the football into the end zone from one’s own 45. And it wouldn’t have mattered which of the two happened. I would have seen one more extraordinary play.
Yes, all this is very improbable. But that’s the point. What Ahmad did, that’s real perfection. What Coughlin and the rest of the team did to bring Ahmad to the point of making that play, that’s real perfection. What the Patriots did to bring the game to that point, that’s real perfection, marred only by that one defensive play. The whole game brought Ahmad to that point of perfection. And, as it turned out, it mattered a little bit. That, to me, is real enjoyment. That is football as I first saw Bill Parcells develop it, way back in 1986 as he marched to his first Super Bowl win, and this time played by both teams. That is an absolute symphony of football, every player playing close to the best of his capabilities within a great plan and completely integrated with their teammates, so that each side keeps forcing the other to make an extraordinary play at the end – or just miss it, which is almost as good.
Upset that Welker missed that big catch near the end? Don’t be. The Giants’ lineman were pressuring Brady just enough and the defenders were just close enough to Welker that about the best throw he could have made was that throw, and Welker would have had to have made an insanely great catch. He didn’t make it? That’s not the point. The point is that he had reached such a level at that point in the game that he almost made that catch. It wouldn’t have made the game as good if he had made that catch. Whether he had made it or not, wow.
You know, the best line I ever saw written about football was done by Dan Jenkins in his book Semi-Tough. At the end of a fictional Super Bowl, even though the rest of the game has been far from perfect, for one brief moment at the end of the game one of the great players on one of the teams has knocked over the best player on the other team with everyone else playing perfectly to score a touchdown that wins the game. And the winning player goes over to the losing player’s locker room to tell him that with all the unlucky breaks the losing team has had, that losing team should have won. And the losing player looks the winning player in the eye, and says, simply, “One thing I’ve learned, son: Them as should have won -- did.”
That is what we almost had. Not only that one team deserves to win, but that it is all proved out when both are playing and acting at an extraordinary pitch of that perfect amount of extra stretch in a completely integrated way, and even the lucky breaks even up, so that all doubt as to who deserves to win is removed, and what we are left with are the plays, and the plays, and the plays. I know a lot of people are happy or unhappy for other reasons, but I wish they would see it my way. I wish all the players would realize that no matter how many times they go to the Super Bowl, they will probably never take part in a game as great as this one. Please, be happy. I sure am.