Super Bowl Preview Digest: It's Time to Appreciate Tom Brady While We Still Can
The Super Bowl environment is all about hype and the ridiculous bulls--t that will go on. It's a great week; it's about competition. The two best teams on the biggest stage. The winning team is the one that works the hardest. — Bill Belichick, as quoted from Tom Brady's meeting notes in Tom vs. Time.
No one knows Super Bowl week quite like Belichick, which is why he shifts so effortlessly from irritation about the mindless hysteria surrounding Super Bowl week to the type of obvious cliches that makes Super Bowl week so mindlessly hysterical in the first place.
Let's start where we often start Super Bowl week: with a deep dive into the mind, heart and soul of Tom Brady.
Tom Brady Finally Does Opening Night Right
Tom Brady looked happy.
Brady attended his eighth Super Bowl Opening Night (or Media Day, as the Super Bowl media circus was billed earlier in his career) on Monday, and he did so without the faraway stare of a commuter avoiding eye contact on a crowded subway train—the look that was permanently fixed on his face about four Super Bowls ago.
Brady smiled warmly beneath a snug wool cap, trading it out for a fedora that made him look like a Guys and Dolls extra for a brief photo op. He appeared engaged and amused, not at all like someone who wished he could teleport the entire press pool onto the middle of a frozen lake so he could watch film and drink some kale concoction in peace—again, a vibe he has radiated at past Media Days/Opening Nights.
Brady didn't say an awful lot, mind you, and Digest didn't listen to much of it. Wading into the camera thicket surrounding Brady is like climbing into a giant sausage grinder. Opening Night is for the foreign press and entertainment reporters who ask Gisele questions; the rest of us try our luck with players who don't spend an entire hour under siege. Monday was Brady's chance to deflect non-football questions after a year of deflecting football questions.
The content is never all that relevant at Opening Night. It was just great to see Brady having fun.
Brady doesn't appear to be enjoying his success all that much in his new Facebook docu-propa-tainment masterpiece Tom vs. Time. Part Marvel Netflix superhero miniseries, part infomercial for the TB12 lifestyle, part softcore erotica for a certain segment of the fanbase, Tom vs. Time paints Brady's effort to remain great past his 40th birthday as an almost messianic sacrifice. Tom vs. Time is like a U2 tour documentary without the music, a vanity project likely to make Patriots fans swoon and the rest of the NFL world a little queasy.
That's why it was great to see a relatively fun-loving Brady at Opening Night. It's easier to cherish him when we aren't being made to feel obligated to cherish him.
And we really should love the time we get to spend with Brady at this Super Bowl, because he won't be around forever.
"You've heard Tom talk about it: As he gets older, he realizes each time he's here could be the last time," Devin McCourty said. "With age, you also get an appreciation for what you're doing."
Time will beat Tom. Maybe not Sunday, but soon. And he knows it. So now is the time to enjoy everything, even the stuff that used to be annoying.
The Eagles Defensive Line's Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse
The Eagles defensive line is one of the deepest, most devastating units in the NFL. With no clear superstar, however, the line is easy to overlook, and it can be hard to keep the many characters straight. With that in mind, Digest asked Eagles defensive linemen to choose the best among themselves in a variety of categories.
Who is the fastest player on the defensive line?
BRANDON GRAHAM: "Yours truly."
BEAU ALLEN: "Me. Don't look so surprised! I'm the fastest guy on the defensive line. I'm the strongest, best-looking, funniest, most charismatic. No, really...the fastest lineman is Vinny Curry. He has an unbelievable get-off."
DEREK BARNETT: "I'm gonna say me. I think I'm the fastest. I'm confident in myself."
FLETCHER COX (pictured): "Me. No. The young one, Derek Barnett. He's the youngest. He's still slow, though."
Who is the strongest player on the defensive line?
GRAHAM: "Yours truly. Nah, I'm just having fun with you. I gotta go with Fletch [Fletcher Cox]. He's a big boy.
BARNETT: "That's between B.G. [Graham] and Fletch."
COX: It's probably between me and Beau.
What about the toughest?
GRAHAM: "Shoot. I gotta go with myself. We all push ourselves out there, but I want to be the toughest.
ALLEN: "I think Brandon Graham's really tough."
BARNETT: "We're all tough."
COX: "I've gotta give the toughest one to Timmy Jernigan. He's battled through a couple of things."
How about the most technically proficient?
GRAHAM: "I'll go with Chris Long. He's really good with his hands. It's all about technique, especially when you get older. And he's all about technique.
ALLEN: "I honestly do think I am. I pride myself on being really technical. It's just focusing on small details: hand placement, footwork.
BARNETT: "Chris Long is very technical. He's very smart. And you can see it on film."
COX: "To each his own. Everybody rushes differently, so you can't just single out one guy."
If there's a zombie apocalypse and you have to go back-to-back with one defensive linemate and fight your way to freedom, who would you select?
GRAHAM: "It's gonna be me and Fletch for sure. He's gonna bring some pain."
ALLEN: "I'm going with a dark-horse pick here: our D-line coach Phillip Daniels, who's a 15-year NFL vet. He's a monster of a human being. If we're back-to-back, we can do some damage."
BARNETT: "I'm going with my dawg Timmy Jernigan. He's just a guy who...trust me...you're gonna pick him."
COX: Chris Long. Chris is like a truck driver. He just shows up and gets the job done.
Sights and Sounds from a Subdued Super Bowl Opening Night
Here are some notes and observations from Monday night's media brouhaha at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center.
- Opening Night has become less of a burlesque carnival than it was a few Super Bowls ago. There were almost no costumed superheroes, samurais or models in wedding dresses at this year's event. Oddly, that made the event even less useful for journalistic purposes. Opening Night is scheduled like a prime-time television circus but attended by a press pool that's as telegenic as the average insurance underwriter's convention and asks repetitive, dreary questions. It's the worst of both worlds.
- Carson Wentz hobbled into the middle of the arena floor thronged by cameramen. The injured Eagles star was denied a press-conference rostrum so luminaries like offensive coordinator Frank Reich could speak in comfort. "Somebody get me a chair," Wentz asked, reasonably (he ended up in the stadium seats). Wentz also limped down the stairs carrying some heavy baggage when the Eagles plane landed on Sunday. Losing a franchise quarterback to complications from charter plane and press-conference injuries would be the most "Eagles" thing ever.
- Giants reporters asked Lane Johnson where Eli Manning ranks among NFC East quarterbacks. "The guy has two Super Bowl rings and you guys treat him like Charlie Brown," Johnson replied.
- Eagles defensive lineman Beau Allen, when interrupted by the Eagles mascot while answering a question. "Hey, Swoop! How was the flight? [Faces reporters completely deadpan.] That was an eagle pun."
- A favorite "gag" question was to ask players what their XFL uniform name would be. Folks, NFL players in the midst of preparations for the most important game of their life don't have witty fake-name zingers at the ready, and most players were in elementary school when the league which gave us Rod "He Hate Me" Smart folded. For the record, Digest's XFL uniform would read "Gandalf Shrugs."
- The difference between Eagles and Patriots media sessions was striking. The Patriots acted like they were taking a brief break from a corporate seminar; the Eagles partied like it was a cousin's wedding. The vibe was similar last year. Patriots fans will nod solemnly at reading this about their team's superior professionalism, but there really is something to be said for attending so many Super Bowls that even Opening Night is just another day at the office.
Nick Foles: Game Manager, Big-Armed Gunslinger And...Scrambler?
Opposing defenders are rarely forthcoming when asked to evaluate the opposing quarterback. And Patriots players are rarely forthcoming about anything. But since Nick Foles is one of the more mysterious new faces in Super Bowl LII—a journeyman backup who looked like Brock Osweiler's stumblebum cousin late in the regular season but pitched a gem in the NFC Championship Game—Digest asked Patriots defenders for their opinions anyway.
"He’s a good quarterback," cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. "He’s got a lot of great talent around him, so that makes his job a little easier. But he won a couple of big games for them. He’s a starting quarterback in this league. He can throw all the passes. He can put the offense in position to make plays. He’s a game manager."
Game manager. Great talent around him. That's defender code for He's not that good, folks.
Patrick Chung, more versed in The Uninformative Patriots Way than Gilmore, was less forthright with the backhanded complements.
“He’s big," Chung said. "He can make all the throws. He can do it all.”
You get the feeling that Chung would say the same things if kicker Jake Elliott were forced to start at quarterback.
Safety Duron Harmon is the Patriots' most reliable source of noises that sound like human communication. Here's what he had to say about Foles:
"He’s able to shrug off a few guys. He has a big arm; he doesn’t have a problem throwing it downfield. He’s accurate downfield. And his scrambling ability..."
Wait...what? Scrambling ability?
"...People don’t realize it, but he doesn’t scramble to run," Harmon continued. "He scrambles to get more time and find open receivers downfield. He does that really well.”
In summary, Gilmore sounds like he has a fine handle on Foles' strengths and weaknesses, Chung sounds like he is sick of Opening Night press conferences, and Harmon sounds like he accidentally spent the last week grinding tape of Carson Wentz.
Solving the Mystery of the Patriots' Low Defensive Ranking
Super Bowl Opening Night isn't the best environment for investigating a mystery—it's like a kindergarten cafeteria after a cake and ice cream party, but with all middle-aged dudes—but Digest tried anyway.
The Patriots defense ranked 29th in yards allowed during the regular season. Opponents averaged 366.0 yards per game, a figure which would presage playoff doom for just about any other NFL team.
So how were the Patriots able to allow so many yards and yet win so many games, not all of which were sprinkled with Brady magic?
"I don’t know," safety Patrick Chung said. "Stats are stats. All that matters is winning games.”
True. But there must be something more at work. A focus on turnovers, perhaps? A bend-but-don't-break philosophy?
"Don't let 'em score," Chung said, when asked to espouse on such a philosophy.
Not very helpful. Maybe Opening Night MVP Duron Harmon can unravel the mystery for us.
“We may give up yards, but we have a good red-area defense," the Patriots safety explained. "Coach Matty P [Matt Patricia] and Coach Belichick always do a great job getting us ready to defend the red area.
"If you can make them kick three, you’re closer to winning the football game. So we try to pride ourselves on making teams kick three in the red area.”
Red-zone defense. Makes sense. But do the Patriots have a secret sauce?
“No secret sauce," Harmon said. "Just putting work in.”
"Just working hard at it," added defensive tackle Malcom Brown. "Just making sure everyone's minding their P's and Q's. We just work hard at it."
Of course. Hard work. Why haven't the NFL's 31 non-dynasties thought of that?
Hidden Advantages for Super Bowl LII
You probably know Tom Brady gives the Patriots a vast advantage over Nick Foles at quarterback and that the Eagles defensive line is superior to the Patriots line. But not all Super Bowl LII advantages are obvious, so we combed through Football Outsiders and their Premium DVOA Database to find some hidden edges. All rankings and stats below come from those sources.
The Eagles defense held opposing offenses to a 55 percent success rate in "power situations" (think 3rd-and-1 or goal-line plays) and stuffed opponents for no gain or a loss on 29 percent of their runs. Those rates ranked sixth and second in the NFL, respectively. The Patriots defense allowed a 62 percent power success rate (15th) and stuffed just 16 percent of opponent runs (29th). The Eagles have an edge if the game comes down to short conversions.
The Eagles were the best 3rd-and-long team in the NFL this season, but Carson Wentz had a lot to do with that. So while it's tempting to hand the Patriots an edge here, the Eagles ranked first in the NFL in 3rd-and-medium (3-6 yards to go) defense and 11th in 3rd-and-long defense. The Patriots defense ranked ninth and 19th. We will declare this one a draw.
Red-Zone and Goal-Line Situations
Both the Patriots and Eagles possess excellent red-zone offenses, though, again, the Foles-not-Wentz factor bears mentioning. But the great Eagles defense is just ordinary in red-zone and goal-to-go situations, ranking 16th in each case. The Patriots defense, meanwhile, stiffens inside the 20, ranking fourth in red-zone and sixth in goal-to-go situations. This is an edge for the Patriots, because you don't beat them by settling for field goals.
Field Position and Special Teams
The Patriots are the best kickoff team in the NFL. They are also the only team whose average opponent drive starts inside the 25-yard line (the 24.63-yard line, to be a little too exact). Forcing opponents to constantly drive the length of the field has been a powerful hidden Patriots edge all year.
OK, this is obviously an advantage for the Patriots. But Doug Pederson has held his own this season as one of the most aggressive coaches in the NFL, both on fourth downs (the Eagles were 17-of-26 on conversions this season) and clock management (see their pre-halftime field-goal drives). The Eagles may lose to the Patriots, but Pederson will make sure that they don't lose to the Patriots mystique—the way the Jaguars did last week.
Hall of Fame Vote Preview
There is a good chance Ray Lewis will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Terrell Owens will not when the selection committee meets Saturday.
If that happens, the football corner of the internet will melt. And while it would be a perfect interpretation of the letter of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's enshrinement bylaws (Lewis' connection to, and obstruction-of-justice sentence in, the stabbing deaths of two people in 2000 is an off-field issue that does not count. Owens' endless intrigues with his coaches and quarterbacks spilled onto the field and are therefore in play.), inducting Lewis while shunning Owens for a third year would violate the spirit of just about everything.
Just bracing everyone for the inevitable.
Here are some thoughts on how the committee will vote on other Hall of Fame finalists:
- Randy Moss is like Owens but with less drama and better highlights. We're hearing that there are pockets of Moss doubters among the selection committee. But the greatest obstacle to Moss' first-ballot enshrinement may be polarization and if-one, why-not-the-other debates about the two mercurial receivers. Nothing causes paralysis on the selection committee like two similar candidates. Isaac Bruce will be stuck behind Owens and Moss on the priority docket.
- If Moss and/or Owens is inducted, Brian Urlacher may be shunted into next year's class to make space and "balance the ticket." If the Owens-Moss blocs bludgeon each other to a draw, Urlacher joins Lewis in the Class of the Linebacker.
- Brian Dawkins vs. John Lynch is the Moss-Owens undercard on the committee battle schedule. Lynch has been waiting longer and is riding a wave of good vibes after a successful year as a general manager. Dawkins is a better candidate and could get a psychological boost from an Eagles-heavy news week. (The committee is instructed to ignore this stuff and sometimes does.) Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed will soon join the safety logjam, so the committee had better act fast.
- The problem with Alan Faneca, Kevin Mawae and Steve Hutchinson is that they are all broadly similar candidates: interior linemen with long careers and impressive peaks. This is a good year for one of the three to slip onto the ballot. Tony Boselli could outflank them as recent Jaguars success jogs memories about his outstanding peak.
- Joe Jacoby's reputation as a good player who found himself in an outstanding situation has hindered his candidacy for years. Everson Walls has a strange resume—some excellent big-stat seasons with the early-'80s Cowboys, a late-career ring with the Giants—and enough support among older voters to have slipped into the Finalist stage before moving onto the Seniors Committee docket. Neither is a better candidate than more recent players. Nostalgia aside, Ty Law has a far superior dossier to Walls.
- As the only running back on the docket, Edgerrin James has a good chance at enshrinement this year. It's not about being the strongest candidate, but being the strongest one with no similar candidates to split the ballot.
How we would vote: Brian Dawkins, Ty Law, Ray Lewis, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, with IOUs for Lynch and Urlacher.
How the committee will vote: James, Law, Lewis, Lynch, Moss.
Draft News 'N' Notes Digest
The Digest team spent a few days in Mobile, Alabama, watching Senior Bowl practices, interviewing prospects and soaking up both juicy rumors and barbecue sauce. Some unfiltered thoughts and insights:
- Wyoming QB Josh Allen has the highest upside and lowest downside of any top quarterback prospect we have seen in over a decade (guys with major character concerns excepted). Allen is the classic case of a talented prospect at least two years away from NFL competence but probably less than eight months away from his first start. Teams with short-term quarterbacks in place (the Giants) should love him; teams with baked-in instability (Browns) should be terrified.
- Richmond's Kyle Lauletta was the week's anti-Allen: a smaller passer with quick feet and a quick release who displayed pinpoint accuracy on short passes, then tore it up in the game itself. Lauletta could be mistaken for Kirk Cousins, except that his passes wobbled and died when throwing into a moderate breeze. In the wake of Case Keenum's success, teams will re-evaluate low-upside "ever-ready" types, so look for Lauletta to become a mid-round darling.
- Read between the lines of John Elway's on-field press conference from Mobile, and it's obvious that the Broncos' prime minister is leaning toward signing a free-agent quarterback instead of dipping into this rookie class with the fifth pick in the draft. Elway spoke of the greater unknowns of selecting a rookie and kept emphasizing the team's cap situation, sounding like a man eager to make space in the budget for someone like Kirk Cousins.
- Shaquem Griffin's press conference played out like a deleted scene from The Office, as our colleagues awkwardly struggled to ask questions about the Central Florida defender's missing left hand, which was amputated when he was a small child because of amniotic band syndrome. Talk about the limits, um, someone with your, er, situation, I mean, given your condition, uh, is there a sense that, ya know, teams might look at you, say, differently, because of [breaking into cold sweat] your potential limitations? News broke during the week that Griffin was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, which is ridiculous. Griffin lined up everywhere from edge-rusher to deep safety during practice, demonstrating speed, awareness and tenacity. His personality and attitude will light up a locker room. Griffin will be drafted; his exclusion from the combine is just another illustration that the more NFL experts are involved in any decision, the worse the decision.
- Quick notes on skill-position players who shined during Senior Bowl week: Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki looked like Travis Kelce in practices. Oklahoma State wide receiver James Washington measured just 5'11" but could not be covered in one-on-one drills. Boise State receiver Cedrick Wilson was also difficult to cover, with deep speed, smooth breaks and excellent hands. Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage, a big back with remarkable speed and quickness, looked like David Johnson at times.
Headline News from the Week
Vince McMahon announces the rebirth of the XFL
Finally, a football league for fans tough enough to call others "snowflakes" unironically.
AFC defeats NFC in Pro Bowl
In case you missed it, here is a summary of all of Sunday afternoon's action:
- First Three Quarters: Both teams play with all of the intensity of a warm-up before a charity softball game.
- Fourth Quarter, when everyone realizes that the winners earn $32,000 each more than the losers: Reenactment of Antietam, with working weapons.
Saints defender Cameron Jordan sends a 108-year old WWII veteran to the Super Bowl
That's waaaay too inspiring an act to spoil with a Saints defense has been sending others to the Super Bowl for years gag. Yet here we are.
NFL’s own data reveals that players suffered more injuries in Thursday night games than in Sunday night games in 2017
Expect the NFL to move swiftly and decisively on this matter by fudging all future injury data.
NFL Competition Committee plans to revisit the catch rule.
This is silly. Everyone knows what a catch is. It's [insert your own personal definition which changes on a play-by-play basis here.]
Satire Daily posts a video stating that the NFL has admitted to fixing games; many are fooled by the hoax
C’mon folks. If Roger Goodell admitted to fixing games, no one would believe him anyway.