I walked out of Sun Life Stadium late Sunday night and stopped to congratulate a Saints fan that was sitting a few rows down from me. The most indelible image I'll take from Super Bowl XLIV is the look on the man's face.
His face was one of pure happiness. His downtrodden Saints had just won the Super Bowl and there wasn't a cloud high enough for him.
It's why I love sports.
It was at that moment I realized I wasn't angry because the Saints had won, and had beaten the team I've followed for nearly three decades. Sure, I was disappointed about losing out on a second championship in four years, but how could you hate against something so pure?
But this is the NFL, and there's an ugly side to everything. For the last seven questions of the 2009 season, let's take a look at the good and bad of the Super Bowl.
7. Does Peyton Manning deserve the avalanche of criticism he's getting for his game-changing interception?
He deserves some, but not to the extent that some media have played it out. Deion Sanders, who must be still bitter about getting burned by Marvin Harrison over a decade ago, claimed Manning choked. Many writers at Bleacher Report have piled on arguments ranging from Manning being completely overrated to being undeserving of the MVP.
Moronic would be the only way to describe any of those arguments.
This doesn't mean I'm removing blame from Manning for the play. The quick slant is designed to be a very fast read, but it's still a read. Manning shouldn't have made the pass, though he shares the blame with Reggie Wayne for doing nothing to shield Tracy Porter away from the ball. Wayne's poor cut helped Porter make the great break that won the Super Bowl.
6. Does this alter Manning's legacy at all?
No, it doesn't change his legacy one way or another. It's a blemish, and considering the stage, his ill-advised pass will live in infamy. But Manning was a great quarterback before, and he still is afterward. The arguments about him being the best ever had he won are mostly futile.
There is no true answer to the question of who is the best quarterback ever. You have your stat mongers that point to guys like Dan Marino. You have your trophy hounds that point to guys like Joe Montana and Tom Brady. Manning's career has been very Marino-like, but Manning had the title. That alone will put him in any greatest argument, but that's it. He's one of the greatest, and is that really that bad a thing?
That said, people who claim he's one Patriot first down from having zero rings are completely insane. Without the tuck rule, there would be no Patriots' dynasty. Without Dwight Clark's catch, the 49ers don't become the team of the '80s. Without Desmond Howard, Favre would be titleless.
Okay, you see where I'm going? They are all useless arguments. Manning has his title, period.
Every great quarterback has some redeeming quality that puts him into the argument. Montana's coolness, Marino's impressive stats, Favre's flair for the dramatic. But each also has a weakness. Montana lacked impressive stats. Marino lacked a title. Favre has a knack for throwing interceptions.
In this game, Manning's fatal flaw was exposed.
5. And what is that?
The biggest fallacy of Manning is that you have to rattle him to beat him. I've watched nearly every single game Manning has played, and there is no rattling him. There is the chance you can give him a Favre-complex.
I joked after the Super Bowl, when I remembered Tracy Porter was the same one to pick off Favre in the NFC Championship, that Manning might be a distance cousin to Favre.
There are times when Favre feels like he can make a play. Sometimes it works, and you get amazing results. Other times, it ends in disaster. It's what makes Favre great, but it's also his weakness.
For Manning, it's not a matter of whether he can make a play, it's that he has to make a play.
By the time of Manning's pick, the Colts were falling apart around him. The defense had done nothing since their fourth-down stop at the goal line in the first half. Special teams had let them down repeatedly. The coaches were apparently calling plays using a Ouija board.
Manning probably felt like he had to make a play. And when Manning feels like he is standing alone, that's usually when trouble happens. The Colts were down seven, and with precious few minutes remaining, something had to be done. Manning had looked solid until that drive—just remember the beautiful pass to Dallas Clark when Manning was forced to roll out—but during that drive Manning's accuracy left him. It was the worst I've seen him throw in a long time.
It was something that was seen frequently early in Manning's career. Poor defenses usually meant Manning had to make plays to keep the Colts competitive. On that night, the defense lost its will power. Manning had to make a play, and it ended up going poorly.
4. So how did the Colts lose the game?
There's a lot of key points where you can say the Colts let the game slip away.
The first point was Pierre Garcon's drop in the second quarter. With a 10-3 lead, the Colts would have been at midfield with that pass. The Saints were still settling down on offense and defense, so chances are the Colts would have gotten at least a field goal. The momentum going into halftime might have been different then.
The second instance was the Saints' onside kick to start the second half. Stupid or brilliant? It all swung on how the play ended up. The Saints got the ball, so it ends up being a brilliant move, but the Colts had the chance to recover. Hank Baskett is a wide receiver and really should have got the ball.
But none of that matters had the defense done anything against the Saints' passing attacked. The injuries to Dwight Freeney and Jarraud Powers were huge. Without a healed Freeney in the second half, Brees had time to find the receivers he wanted. Without Powers, the Colts were forced to use Tim "10-yard cushion" Jennings in the backfield. Notice how many passes went his way.
That's the hidden story here. Even if the Colts had scored on the drive when Manning threw the interception, the Saints would have had about two minutes to win the game. Do you think the defense would have held? I don't. This game was lost with or without Manning's pick.
3. So how impressive was Drew Brees' performance?
Brees tied a record for most completions in a Super Bowl, but can you remember one throw that stood out from the others? I can't either. That's not to undermine Brees' performance.
Early in the game, the Colts were doing a good job of collapsing the pocket. Brees got happy feet and his throws were inconsistent. As his line settled down and started keeping the Colts at bay, Brees went to work. He did a good job of making quick reads and finding open receivers, often taking advantage of Jennings or hitting the zones where the linebackers were.
Brees may have never had that one great throw that makes all the Super Bowl highlights, but he did a great job of taking what the Colts gave him. He bled the Colts' defense to death, very slowly.
2. How different were the coaching approaches to the game?
For Sean Payton, it was clear that he was digging deep into his bag of tricks to find everything that could help his team win the game.
For Jim Caldwell, it was clear that he wanted to avoid any situation that might throw the game away.
Fortune favors the bold.
Payton's risk to go for it on fourth-and-goal in the first half failed. But it's a credit to Payton's coaching that his team didn't collapse after that. If anything, it's in the Saints nature to take risks. Eventually, that attitude was rewarded.
The Colts, on the other hand, seemed content to give cushions on defense. On offense, rarely did the Colts look to do much more than trickle down the field. And let's not even mention that play-calling that led to Matt Stover's missed field goal. It was just a very odd series altogether.
1. So what's the future hold for these two teams?
For the Colts, it's a question of whether or not they can overcome the jinx of a Super Bowl loser. Seven of the last 10 teams to lose the Super Bowl failed to reach the playoffs the year after.
The Colts should break that trend. Most of the last 10 Super Bowl losers were teams without consistent success. Teams like Seattle, Carolina, and Oakland have a history of up and down seasons. One of the few exceptions would be the 2008 New England Patriots, but they had the misfortune of losing Brady at the beginning of the season.
With a young core, there's no reason to think the Colts won't contend for another Super Bowl in 2010.
As for the Saints, they face a tougher challenge. They have several free agents, and teams love to sign free agents from Super Bowl winners. But, the Saints will retain a great nucleus on offense and have some good pieces in place on defense, especially in the secondary. The Saints should be a playoff team next season, though they may not be the favorite in the NFC.