In his ninth Super Bowl, Tom Brady was mortal for most of the night. Then, when his team needed him most, he delivered the winning blow.
ATLANTA — Flecks of confetti in his hair. Sweat beads caught in a neatly groomed beard. Eyeblack still adorning his face. Tom Brady had another one.
Brady didn’t play well for much of Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams. He finished 21-of-35 for 262 yards and an interception. At times, the optics were uglier than the stat line. The 41-year-old was throwing quickly, mostly by design. Occasionally because of interior pressure. There were no deep shots, no challenging throws. Until the midway mark of the fourth quarter.
As is Brady’s wont, he geared up for a perfect pass when his New England Patriots needed it most. Tied 3-3 with 7:36 remaining in the fourth quarter, the look and moment finally converged. In the slot to his left, tight end Rob Gronkowski was lined up against linebacker Cory Littleton in man coverage.
Gronkowski lumbered down the left side on a go route, and Brady laid it out there. With Marcus Peters and John Johnson closing with help, the throw had to be perfect. It was. Gronkowski made a diving catch in traffic down to the 2-yard line. Sony Michel steamrolled into the end zone on the next play, and the Patriots had their sixth Super Bowl title.
In New England’s first five possessions, it crossed midfield in each. Somehow, the Patriots only nabbed three points, thwarted by a Brady interception, a Stephen Gostkowski missed field goal and a fourth-down incompletion.
GOING DEEP: Gronk makes the big play in his potential farewell
“We just moved it, we just couldn’t sustain it,” Brady said. “We obviously could have played better offensively, but the reality is (when) you get in these games, you just have to find a way to win and we played well in the end and that’s what we needed.”
Los Angeles was able to largely blanket Brady’s outside weapons. Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett were held without a catch. James White, who led the Patriots in catches this season with 87, was held to two receptions.
Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was creative, mixing in more man than New England expected along with his standard Cover 3 looks. On most third downs, Ndamukong Suh lined up in a wide-nine stance, helping to chip on White and Gronkowski before rushing Brady. The strategy worked, holding the vaunted Patriots to 13 points.
The game plan ultimately made for a night of old standbys, with Julian Edelman winning the game’s Most Valuable Player award on 10 receptions and 141 yards. Chipping in was Gronkowski, who made six catches on seven targets for 87 yards. Brady found his security blankets in a time of need, and they kept the motor running.
“He is like a brother to me,” Edelman said of Brady. “He has helped me so much. He has been a huge part of mentally kind of coaching me up just through his actions and how he is as a football player, as a professional, as a father and as a family man. It is an honor to get to play with a guy like that. He has six Super Bowls now so it is pretty insane.”
In the end, the final portion of Edelman’s quote is all that will be remembered. The struggles for three quarters will fade into history’s ether. Brady’s heave to Gronkowski will be the indelible moment from the night, a night where offense largely was non-existent.
As Brady left the podium, his smile was still beaming. The twinkle of both confetti and eye present.
Top 10 storylines entering the offseason
1. Do the Steelers move Antonio Brown, and where?
2. Who do the Cardinals take with the No. 1 overall pick?
3. Where are the Raiders playing in 2019?
4. Which team ends up landing Nick Foles in a trade with the Eagles?
5. What does Patrick Mahomes have for a second act after 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards?
6. Will the Giants, Dolphins, Broncos, Jaguars and Redskins find future QBs?
7. Does the Matt LaFleur hire breathe new life into Aaron Rodgers and the Packers?
8. Do the Browns finally make the playoffs for the first time since 2002?
9. How do the Cowboys approach Dak Prescott’s contract situation?
10. Can Patriots become second team in history to reach four straight Super Bowls?
When Big Corn takes on Big Beer during the Super Bowl, it makes the quotable section.
Matt Verderame and Josh Hill will bring you a new episode of Stacking The Box each week of the offseason as we march through free agency and the draft. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes for all the latest episodes to download right to your mobile devices!
Between 1981-97, the San Francisco 49ers won 13 NFC West titles. The Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Rams combined for four, or one less Super Bowl than the 49ers won in that span.
Info learned this week
1. Sights and sounds from a wild time in Atlanta
A little trip inside the long, strange journey that is Super Bowl week…
Walk through Radio Row in the Georgia World Congress Center and you hear multiple languages. You see a radio host dressed as a clown. You see Andre Reed, Dan Marino and Jack Youngblood. You also spot Patrick Mahomes, Alvin Kamara and Aaron Rodgers. There are so many stars, they actually become regular people.
Throughout the team media sessions, it’s a mixture of chaos amid the soundbites. The Rams stayed at the Marriott Buckhead, and it’s the smallest area you can imagine for fitting an entire roster of NFL-sized humans along with a throng of media.
When you aren’t being run over by TV camera crews with tripods, you’re talking with Ndamukong Suh about his legacy, Bill Belichick with how much the Patriots value versatility and why Los Angeles offensive line coach Aaron Kromer runs out of meetings to high-five receivers.
GOING DEEP: Belichick’s knowledge of history is the ultimate edge
At the Super Bowl itself, Patriots fans outnumbered Rams supporters at an 80/20 clip. The Brady uniforms were easily the most popular, although the obscure names were more indicative. Nothing says diehard fan like Andy Katzenmoyer, Ted Johnson, Ron Brown or Vince Ferragamo.
All told, the city of Atlanta did a bang-up job. Security was tight, the events were all in a central location, and the workers ranged from first responders to hotel clerks were friendly and helpful. Here’s to hoping Atlanta doesn’t have to wait 19 more years for another chance to host.
2. NFLPA preparing for 2021 lockout, saving royalty checks
On Thursday, the NFL Players Association held a press conference in Atlanta. The main headline emerging was talk that the union is expecting to be locked out in 2021 when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires, much as it was in 2011.
When asked how the NFLPA was better prepared this time to withstand a lockout, union president Eric Winston mentioned “Madden checks.” This is in reference to royalty checks that each NFL player gets annually, averaging approximately $17,000. The NFLPA made the decision to withhold these checks, releasing them in a four-year chunk of around $65-70,000 when the CBA runs out.
While that is far from the only measure the union is taking to prepare for potential labor strife, there is no reason for fans to panic. The owners haven’t talked lockout publicly at all yet, which is a far cry from the last time the CBA needed an overhaul. Furthermore, the salary cap is skyrocketing due to increased revenue on an annual basis. Neither the players nor the owners want to hurt that cash cow.
As an aside, I was eating lunch in the CNN Building’s food court, when NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and Executive Director of External Affairs George Atallah strolled by looking for lunch.
You think NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is already being that cost-conscious? Please.
3. Bucs could revisit Kareem Hunt at later date
Reports came out during Super Bowl week that the Buccaneers are expected to show interest in free-agent running back Kareem Hunt. On Friday, a source told FanSided that Tampa Bay isn’t interested at this time. Of course, that choice of language leaves the door ajar.
During his annual state of the union, commissioner Roger Goodell told the media that NFL personnel was making significant progress on Hunt’s investigation. The 23-year-old back is currently on the commissioner’s exempt list. When the league make a formal announcement of punishment, teams can begin weighing if they’re willing to jump into a bidding war for the embattled former rushing champion.
The Buccaneers could certainly use an upgrade in the backfield, but at what cost? Jameis Winston has already made ample headlines for all the wrong reasons. Adding another player with known issues involving women is a tough look for a franchises trying to regain credibility on the field and within the community.
Still, this is the NFL, and talent often trumps everything else. If the Buccaneers feel Ronald Jones isn’t going to be the feature back they drafted him to be two years ago, Hunt is a dynamic option, optics and all.
4. Laying out the important dates in the offseason slate
The Super Bowl is over. The next season has already begun.
While it feels impossible to believe, the NFL offseason is already in full swing. Come Feb. 19, the window begins for teams to designate their franchise and transition tags. Each club can use one of each, and has until March 5 at 4 p.m. ET to make those decisions.
Meanwhile, the NFL Scouting Combine takes place from Feb. 26 through March 4. The main storyline there? Will Kyler Murray show up? If so, how tall is he and how does he test?
On March 11 at noon ET, the 52-hour tampering window opens for free agency. While deals aren’t permitted to be signed by players leaving their current clubs, many of the big-money contracts will be agreed upon verbally in this time period. Come March 13, all contracts can be signed officially.
The teams with the most cap space this year, in order: Colts, Jets, Browns, Bills and Raiders. It’s an AFC party.
Additionally, the NFL schedule release date is always a mystery, but last year it was the Thursday before the draft. If that holds true, look for the scheduled to come out on April 18, with the draft coming on the 25th in Nashville.
5. Bengals, Dolphins will finally introduce next head coaches
With the Super Bowl over, Miami and Cincinnati can formally welcome their new hires.
For the Dolphins, they take another plum off the Bill Belichick tree in Brian Flores. There will be criticism with the hire, considering that Belichick has seen five assistants plucked from him in New England, and they’ve combined for a single playoff victory in 19 combined seasons. Flores is looking to change that narrative, although Miami fans should be patient considering the upcoming rebuild.
As for the Bengals, Zac Taylor comes over as the former Rams quarterbacks coach. Taylor, 35, is the second-youngest coach in the league to Sean McVay, and he inherits a roster that has a middling quarterback and the last-ranked defense. That said, Taylor is a long play for the Bengals, who are trying to build a playoff winner for the first time since the Sam Wyche era.
GOING DEEP: Family was on Taylor’s mind prior to the Super Bowl
Both of these men are young and unproven. They’ve never been head coaches at any level before, and each is coming from a place where they didn’t have to call plays. Still, the Dolphins and Bengals should be commended for not hiring retreads. The NFL is littered with coaches who have gone through multiple chances only to prove they learned little at the previous stop. With the coaching cycle being somewhat drab this offseason, Miami and Cincinnati took chances on hungry assistants with something to prove. Hopefully it works out.
Next season will be the 100th in NFL history. The league has plans to celebrate the campaign throughout the year, starting with their commercial paying homage to old and new at halftime onS Sunday night.
Taking a step back, it’s amazing to think where the league began. It was formed in 1920 at a meeting in Canton, Ohio, and survived two World Wars while becoming America’s great game. The only surviving franchises from the earliest days are the Bears, Packers and Cardinals.
In it’s early years, the league had teams in Kenosha, Providence, Rock Island and Pottsville. There were the Oorang Indians, the NFL’s only all-Native American outfit, led by Jim Thorpe. Over the century, the league has gone from fields covered in coal dust to glistening palaces, and from small towns to the brightest of lights.
If there is any lesson from the NFL’s first 100 years, it’s that perseverance and hustle is a damn good recipe.
The offseason is always intriguing, but the splashy moves don’t always forecast success.
Last year, the Minnesota Vikings went for broke, signing Kirk Cousins to a fully-guaranteed deal of three years and $84 million. After going 13-3 with Case Keenum the year prior, most believed Cousins represented a significant upgrade. Minnesota ended up 8-7-1 this season and arguably as the league’s biggest flop.
Conversely, the Seattle Seahawks lost a litany of stars. Seattle saw Cliff Avril, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson, Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham all leave via retirement, trade or free agency. Nobody thought the Seahawks would make even a peep in the stacked NFC. Seattle ended up improving to 10-6 and reached the playoffs.
Still, the next few months are an important time for contenders to make a few key moves to propel themselves.
In 2018, we watched the Rams load up for a championship run, and it worked beautifully despite the ending. Is this the moment for the Kansas City Chiefs or Houston Texans to do that, knowing each only has a star quarterback on its rookie deal for so long? Do the Los Angeles Chargers up the ante, hoping to get Philip Rivers that elusive ring?
Ultimately, there’s no sure way to the top through free agency and the draft. Teams have succeeded by consistently signing low-risk, high-upside players while trading down to acquire more picks (the Patriots, for example). Other franchises have been incredibly aggressive, trading away picks and signing big names to huge deals (again, the Rams).
For each contender, though, opportunity knocks with the right combination. Now to find it.