New England broke out a new scheme to fool the Los Angeles’ wunderkind coach and up-and-coming quarterback on way to sixth Super Bowl title.
All that talk about Sean McVay reinventing the NFL may have to be put on hold.
The old guy on defense proved to be the true star of the show.
McVay and his high-powered offense were stopped by an array of confusing schemes devised by old master Bill Belichick, the man exactly twice the age of the 33-year-old McVay.
And if not for the genius of 71-year-old Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, McVay and his team might have been blown out. Instead, the two old men turned Super Bowl LIII into a throwback game. New England’s 13-3 victory over Los Angeles wasn’t just the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever, it was a study in defensive artistry.
While New England’s offense, led by Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and wide receiver Julian Edelman, did just enough to get by, McVay and quarterback Jared Goff were left helpless. McVay was left with few answers and Goff was a hesitant passer who squandered the few opportunities he had and rarely was in much of any type of rhythm.
This was a far cry from the explosive offense the Rams had displayed during the regular season or even the effective one they had used to beat Dallas and New Orleans in the NFC playoffs.
McVay explained that in the simplest terms.
“I got out-coached, I didn’t do nearly enough for our football team,” McVay said from the outset and throughout his postgame press conference. “That is where it really eats at you because you feel like you didn’t do your part to help them achieve success.”
For his part, Goff fell on the sword as well, admitting that he was confused by what the Patriots were often doing on defense. Specifically, the Patriots used many of the stunts and games that had been so effective through the first three quarters of their victory over Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game.
The further twist is that the Patriots then played zone defense behind those arrays of defensive line tactics. For most of the season, the Patriots had been a man-to-man defensive team. This twist caused obvious hesitation and confusion for Goff, who had thrived much of the season by reading situations and getting rid of the ball quickly.
Instead, Goff was hesitant, like a golfer who has the yips when staring down a putt. The old adage that to study long is to study wrong was absolutely the case for Goff.
No moment proved that more than late in the third quarter. On a first-and-10 from the New England 29-yard line, Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks was completely alone behind the Patriots defense. It was an obvious busted coverage. Instead of firing the ball for an easy score, Goff stared down the play long enough that New England cornerback Jason McCourty was able to dash over from his side to knock the pass away at the back of the end zone.
As Goff was asked about the play, his face winced ever so slightly, replaying the pain of the missed opportunity.
“I wish I had some plays back,” Goff murmured at one point.
Two plays after that incomplete pass, the Rams drive stalled when Goff was sacked for the third time in the game.
What this game came down to was the work of defensive masters. This was like watching Cage the Elephant do a warmup act for a Rolling Stones concert. As much as the young guys have plenty of great energy, the old dudes still know how to put on a show.
Belichick and Phillips did that throughout the game. The Patriots defense held Los Angeles without a third-down conversion on its first eight attempts. The Rams defense bottled up the Patriots offense with similar success until midway through the fourth quarter.
“There wasn’t anything,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who won his sixth Super Bowl with the most meager performance since his first title win at the end of the 2001 season. “Look, they have a good front, good secondary players, they’re very athletic at linebacker.”
Like Goff, Brady also looked befuddled at times and often threw passes away if he wasn’t throwing to Edelman. New England finally broke through for 10 points in the final seven minutes when Brady hit tight end Rob Gronkowski on a couple of key plays. But this was only the second Super Bowl to not have a play from scrimmage go at least 30 yards. The previous one was Super Bowl IX in which Pittsburgh beat Minnesota in the previous record low for points scored.
But this was something more than simply a Super Bowl record. It was a lesson, a proof that age and experience are still often more valuable that youth and exuberance.
This was like the blind master telling the student to take the pebble from his hand and then snapping the hand away at just the right time. Both McVay and Goff looked numbed by the experience, baffled by their inability to solve the puzzle laid before them.
After the game, as McVay started to speak, New England’s Kyle Van Noy came in and shook the coach’s hand and paid him a compliment.
“You’re a heck of a coach,” Van Noy said.
McVay is every bit the great young mind so many have called him.
But he’s still not an experienced one and that showed Sunday night.