It appeared for a moment that the New England Patriots had suddenly employed the defensive tactics that both teams had recently used in the Pro Bowl.
You know, treating tackle football like a game of two-hand touch – the same playbook that had been used by the University of Washington defense in the Huskies’ Alamo Bowl appearance.
And it worked about as well for the Patriots.
Leading 17-15 with roughly a minute to play in Sunday’s Super Bowl, the Patriots suddenly went pacifist on defense and invited New York Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw into the end zone for a free touchdown.
All their competitive lives, these defenders had been taught to play to the final whistle, that anything is possible, and you’re never out of it until the clock hits 00:00.
But here was a team – with the lead in the game – allowing the opponent the go-ahead touchdown in the Super Bowl.
Maybe it helps to consider it an intentional walk on a grand scale; not a surrender but a tactical retreat, buying time and playing percentages.
But it made for the strangest score in 46 Super Bowls. And when the ploy didn’t work out in the end, it triggered second-guessing with reminders of all the happenstances that could otherwise work in your favor: bad snaps, shanked kicks, The Miracle at the Meadowlands, and, two of the most compelling words.
When the Giants drove inside the Patriots’ 10 with 1:04 on the clock, New England coach Bill Belichick studied the options. The most likely scenario called for the Giants to run down the clock and kick the go-ahead field goal, leaving a scant 20 seconds or so for the Patriots to drive into field-goal position themselves.
But if they keeled over for a quick touchdown by the Giants, the Patriots would have to drive for a touchdown to win, but they’d have nearly a minute to do so.
In the postgame interview, Belichick said that chances were 90 percent that the Giants would make a field goal from that distance and leave them insufficient time to retaliate.
The tactic works against a lifetime of conditioning for players on both sides. The Giants’ appropriate response would have been to hand the ball off and for Bradshaw to resist the instinct to score and take a knee short of the goal line to keep the clock ticking.
Bradshaw, though, was not schooled to that effect until he was handed the ball and quarterback Eli Manning yelled at him “don’t score.” By the time it registered with him, he was already steaming toward the end zone. He tried to drop, but ended up spinning around, and taking a seat in the end zone – perhaps the most ignominious score in Super Bowl history.
He went to the sideline feeling apologetic in the face of teammate and coach criticism.
We’d seen a similar move, notably in Super Bowl XXXII when Packers coach Mike Holmgren instructed his defense to allow the Broncos to score from the 1 inside the final two minutes.
It didn’t lead to a win in that case, either.
Quarterback Tom Brady got the Patriots to the Giants’ 44 and was left with a last-play Hail Mary into the end zone that was tipped and hung in the air dangerously before falling incomplete to preserve New York’s win.
Holmgren was always dodgy when asked about the ploy, and it doesn’t appear to be Belichick’s favorite topic right now, either.
Understandable. Even some of the New England defenders commented on how strange it felt.
But it made for an exciting, if weird, end to a marvelous Super Bowl.
Brady’s wife, Brazilian mannequin Gisele Bndchen, spawned headlines after being heard complaining about receivers’ drops. So we may wonder whether things are a little cool around the Brady breakfast table this week after the missus dissed Tom’s teammates.
But Brady was hardly at his best, either. And we can only imagine what it will be like years from now when Bradshaw’s grandkids ask him to show replays of his touchdown run in the Super Bowl. Grandpa, it looks like you just sat down in the end zone.
So, maybe the percentages pencil out, but it just feels like such a short-circuit of the hard-wiring these guys have.
Coaches who go into games as heavy underdogs don’t tell their teams, hey, there’s a 90 percent chance we’re going to lose, anyway, so just let them score.
Had the Patriots been able to pull down that final pass in the end zone, Belichick would be hailed today for his shrewd decision.
But until this works a few times in high profile games, it still seems dangerous to start asking players to operate against their deepest instincts.
It makes them think too much.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org