INDIANAPOLIS -- Call it the Reluctant Touchdown. Ahmad Bradshaw's awkward and unwilling flop into the end zone is part of Super Bowl lore now -- there with Rice-to-Montana, there with David Tyree's helmet catch, there with Lynn Swann's ballet, there with Mike Jones' tackle one yard shy. Those moments defined their times. In many ways, The Reluctant Touchdown defines ours.
The situation was this: The New York Giants trailed New England by two with one minute, four seconds left. The Giants, however, were on the Patriots' 6-yard line -- it would be a 24-yard field goal from there. Lawrence Tynes, the Giants kicker, had not missed a kick of less than 30 yards (or an extra point) in four years. The Patriots had only one timeout left, meaning that the Giants were more or less set up to take the lead with less than 20 seconds left; a New York victory was all but assured.
Then, we had perhaps the strangest play in Super Bowl history -- a touchdown that the runner didn't want to score, a touchdown designed by the defensive coach, the Reluctant Touchdown that gave the Giants a 21-17 victory and capped off a dramatic, exciting and frustrating Super Bowl. What can you say? These are complicated times.
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We had expected an extravaganza -- two great offenses, two statistically challenged defenses, a fast track inside a dome. What would be the score? People were predicting 35-31. Maybe higher. Points! Touchdowns! Hey, that's what this football season was all about, right? Offense. Passing. Spectacular touchdowns. Yes, it all pointed to a light show.
There was an Indianapolis light show at halftime, when Madonna turned the football field into a Lite Brite set -- it was really quite dazzling. But the game itself lacked color and brilliance. And that's hard to explain even now, even after the game ended. Everything in the game pointed to offensive spectacle. The defenses didn't exactly stop the offenses, not really. Both quarterbacks -- Tom Brady and Eli Manning -- had good days. There wasn't too much pressure on either one of them for most of the game. Both teams ran the ball pretty well. There was only one turnover in the game, and it was an interception thrown way downfield.
So why didn't we get a free-for-all? Like I say: It's sort of hard to explain. Things just seemed to happen ... and not happen. For instance, Tom Brady's first pass of the game was a long throw down the middle to absolutely nobody. This was inconvenient because Brady happened to be standing in his own end zone when he threw that pass. After an interminable referee meeting it was called intentional grounding and a safety.
The Giants promptly followed up with a 78-yard drive -- Manning hit all five of his passes, including the touchdown pass to Victor Cruz. Salsa dance! Yes, this was what we had expected. The Patriots actually forced a fumble two plays before the touchdown, but it was nullified because they also had 12 men on the field. The Patriots looked very much out of sorts. The Giants led 9-0. And then, for some reason, they would not score again for the rest of the half.
The Patriots also stopped and started. Brady looked confused or exhausted or, well, something throughout the first quarter. Maybe it just took him a while to unwind. He did get hot at the end of the half. He led the Patriots on a 96-yard drive. He hit all 10 of his passes. The Patriots led 10-9 at halftime.
And once again, it felt like the show was about to begin. Brady came out hot in the second half ... he hit six more passes in a row and and led New England on an 79-yard touchdown drive. The drive looked so easy. The Patriots led 17-9. And then, for some reason, they would not score again for the rest of the game.
It was just weird. Maybe it came down to this: Both defenses seemed to follow the sound reasoning that their only shot was to prevent big plays. They were more than willing to allow the offenses to methodically plod down the field, short pass after short pass, hard run after hard run, but they were unwilling to blitz or take big chances or try to force the action. Both defenses leaned their backs against the ropes and covered up. There were no fumbles recovered by the other team. There weren't many passes broken up; no near interceptions, except for the one Brady heaved downfield. It was like slogging in mud.
Pro football is unquestionably bigger, stronger, faster and smarter than it has ever been. The athletes are incredible. The strategies are mind-blowing. But something about this Super Bowl felt mechanical. The crowd seemed subdued. The quarterbacks dumped off a lot of short passes. The game just never quite seemed to take off.
But, hey, that's just how the matchup played out. That was just the rhythm of this game. The Patriots led 17-15 with about nine minutes left, and they got the ball and it just felt like they would (in orderly fashion) drive down the field, run down the clock, and put away the game. And the Patriots went about doing that. Brady completed a pass to Wes Welker. He completed another to Danny Woodhead. Welker picked up a first down on an end-around. Brady completed a first down pass to Aaron Hernandez. There was less than five minutes left.
And then ... one of those strange things happened, one that Patriots fans will never forget. Brady dropped back to throw and immediately saw something he had not seen all game long: busted coverage. Wes Welker was running free. All Brady had to do was throw it out there to Welker -- something he had done successfully more than 100 times this year -- and it would move the Patriots into easy field goal range, it would give them a chance to run the clock down, and it would possibly put away the game.
But Brady's throw wasn't quite right -- it almost seemed like he aimed it. Of course, with Welker a pass doesn't have to be just right. This is a man who has twice caught more than 120 passes in a season. Welker turned back toward the ball, jumped, and seemed to get both hands on it ... only the ball bounced away and fell incomplete.
"We just didn't quite connect," Brady would say.
That misconnection would lead to a punt ... an amazing catch ... and, finally, the Reluctant Touchdown.
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If there's one thing that drives me nuts about watching pro football today, it is that nothing feels immediate. Great plays are under review. Fumbles are often discussed ad nauseum before they are awarded (and then, often, they are reviewed again). Marks are questioned; penalties are mulled over. This is probably unavoidable. Everything about the NFL has great gravity ... you have to get it right. And getting it right takes time.
So when Mario Manningham made one of the great catches in Super Bowl history -- a 38-yard grab on the left sideline with two defenders hounding him and at an angle where it seemed opposed to various laws of nature to get both feet in bounds -- we had to wait a few minutes to see if he REALLY caught the ball. He did, but it was those minutes of waiting that led us to a strange and dramatic ending.
See, at that moment Patriots coach Bill Belichick had all three of his timeouts. He really needed to keep all three for the obvious reason every football fan knows -- three timeouts means that you can stop the clock after first down, after second down and after third down. But Belichick decided to challenge the Manningham call. He lost the challenge. He lost the timeout.
The Giants had the ball at midfield. Manning -- who, like Brady, seemed to have his way with the defense all day but could not quite finish off drives -- completed a pass to Manningham for 16 more yards. Two plays later, it was a pass to Hakeem Nicks for 14 more. So much has been written about this, but there's no question that Manning just seems so much more self-assured on the field now at age 31. The gaminess of youth seems to have worn off. He is in control. Three plays later, the Giants had a first down at the 7-yard line, and the Patriots stopped Bradshaw after a one-yard gain. The clock showed 1:04. The Patriots used their second timeout. The Giants had the ball at the 6-yard line.
And now, we were at the crescendo. Belichick knew that because he had blown the timeout challenging that call, his team would have almost no shot at winning this game if he just let things run out. The Giants would let the clock go down almost all the way, kick the field goal, and win. The Patriots' only hope in that field goal scenario was a miss -- which was almost no hope at all. So Belichick told his team to let the Giants score on the next play.
But, of course, the Giants knew all this, too. They knew that if they scored the touchdown, they would have to give the ball back to Brady with about a minute left. True, the odds of Brady driving the Patriots for a game-winning touchdown in a minute were pretty low. But the odds of Tynes missing a 25-yard field goal for the win were even lower. Manning had an inkling that the Patriots might try to let the Giants score, and he wanted to remind his teammates not to score.
In other words: Everybody was thinking the situation to death. That's the tough part of NFL these days. I don't say that in a bad way ... it's progress. People once used abacuses, now we use wireless Internet on planes. Quarterbacks once drew plays in the dirt, now coaches craft strategies using video technologies, tendency charts and mathematical formulas unimaginable to NASA when they first sent a man to the moon. We live in a time where 6-year-old kids on Madden design more complicated offenses and defenses than Papa Halas ever dreamed about.
But it is also true that Vince Lombardi probably was not worrying about whether or not to let a player score ... and, even more daunting, whether or not to score when the other team was trying to let you score.
Manning handed the ball off to Bradshaw. He ran hard up the middle and it seems that it was at about the 2-yard line when he realized that nobody was trying to tackle him. And that's when Manning yelled at him to go down, and he tried to slam on the brakes, like Wile E. Coyote when he realizes that he's about to go over the cliff. You could almost hear the sound effects. Bradshaw managed to get his feet planted right about the goal line, and he put his hand down like he was going to take a knee. But his body was still going forward -- like those pro wrestlers who are thrown off the ropes -- and he turned and fell slowly backward, on to his behind, into the end zone. "A tushdown," comedian Billy Crystal would call it.
"I thought I heard Eli yelling at me to fall down ... I tried," Bradshaw would say, but not unhappily. People can argue about the right and wrong thing to do there. If Bradshaw had stopped and not scored the touchdown, and the field goal was somehow missed, that would be the worst decision in the history of the NFL. Of course, if he had scored and Brady then drove the Patriots for the win, people would second-guess that too.
Brady didn't drive the Patriots for the win, though he did throw an amazing Hail Mary to end the game. There's an art-form to the Hail Mary -- to throw the ball just high enough to give the receivers a chance to settle under it, to place it right in the middle of the end zone -- and Brady threw it perfectly. It still wasn't caught. The Giants won. And, instantly, people were talking history. They were talking about how Giants coach Tom Coughlin suddenly finds himself in rare company, with Don Shula, Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells and others, as the winner of two Super Bowls. They were talking about how Eli Manning now has one more Super Bowl ring than his famous brother Peyton.
They were talking about how it's been a bit of a drought for Belichick and Brady, who for so long seemed invincible and charmed. They have not won a Super Bowl for seven years, and those years include two heartbreaking losses to Coughlin and Manning's Giants. "We didn't make enough plays," Brady said. "We didn't do things well enough," Belichick said.
The Giants, meanwhile, celebrated. They are a big-city team, of course -- the biggest city team, really -- but there is something decidedly small-town about them. Eli remains the little brother. Guard Chris Snee is the coach's son-in-law. The Giants won their second Super Bowl in four years, but a few weeks ago they were 7-7 and there was again talk about firing Coughlin. The Giants talk a lot about family.
And then there's Ahmad Bradshaw, who scored the biggest touchdown of his life, though he didn't really mean to. ... Oh, sure, it's true that in the backyard, in the park with friends, in daydreams, you don't ever hope to score a Super Bowl-winning touchdown the way Bradshaw scored it, by unenthusiastically falling on your rump in the end zone. Then again, maybe you do.
"It was the happiest moment of my entire life," he would say.
"I tried to go down, man," he would also say.
What can you say? These are complicated times.