How Super Bowl LIV Will Be Won, Lazy Andy Reid Narratives, and Non-Specific Apology Time for AB

Also, defensive solutions, Super Bowl stages, Kyle Shanahan speeches, and just how much did NFL offenses fall back this year? Plus, musical guest: The Mountain Goats!
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Super Bowl LIV preview

1a. On Sunday evening, I expect both the Chiefs and 49ers to use everything at their disposal to win the Super Bowl: running, throwing, catching, tackling, shouting words of encouragement to each other.

Last year didn’t necessarily feel like it was going to be a game featuring a mere 16 total points, but it did feel like the offenses were flawed and the defenses ripe to take advantage. The Rams had struggled throughout the last third of the season with six-man fronts and Cover-4 looks. The Patriots were actually cooking pretty good offensively, but Wade Phillips spent three-plus quarters repeatedly de-pantsing Josh McDaniels.

This year has nothing resembling that "here comes the defense" feel. Both offenses are near-flawless, and Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid rank 1-2 in offensive coaches you wouldn’t want to face when they have two weeks to prepare. The Chiefs, of course, have the invincible Patrick Mahomes under center. This season, K.C. went stretches without Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, LT Eric Fisher and RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. They had their full offensive lineup intact for—including postseason—nine games. In those games, they went 9-0 and outscored opponents by an average of 16 points.

On the other side, the 49ers have had the luxury of keeping Jimmy Garoppolo’s impossibly handsome right arm in its holster this postseason. He had been dicey with ball placement early in the year and it popped up again in that postseason-opening drive against the Vikings. Fortunately for Garoppolo, the play-calling was so sharp that he had a significant margin for error and the 49ers went in for a touchdown while barely breaking a sweat. The other nice thing for Garoppolo (besides the exceptional run game) is that Kyle Shanahan always seems to have one or two designer plays in his pocket that he can go to in an emergency—the kind of close game, offense is stagnant, all of the sudden Kyle Juszczyk is running uncovered 40 yards downfield play calls. And Shanahan didn’t have to burn any of those in those first two playoff games.

1b. So how will the defenses survive? For the 49ers, the pass rush is capable of taking over a game. Early in the season, especially when the Chiefs were without Fisher, there were a couple teams that got to Mahomes. That included, most memorably, the Colts’ Sunday night dominance in Kansas City back in Week 5 (Justin Houston’s ice-cold revenge on the team that employed him for eight years). The 49ers play mostly zone coverages, and while a year ago the man-heavy Patriots played an unexpected amount of zone in the Super Bowl, it's much tougher to ask a zone team to play a lot more man. If the pass-rush doesn’t get home, it’s awfully hard to play zone against Mahomes considering the horizontal and vertical stress he can put on a defense.

As for the Chiefs, their run fits will have to be right, but they’re also going to need guys like Daniel Sorensen, Kendall Fuller and Tyrann Mathieu to make tackles and limit the 49ers’ RAC guys (George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, especially). And you wonder if Shanahan will get Juszczyk on the field often to keep the Chiefs in base personnel, as their linebackers do not cover well.

1c. I still think the size of the stage is an X-factor, especially for the quarterbacks. It doesn’t get to everyone, but I vividly remember Ben Roethlisberger, in his second season, playing the worst game of his life—or perhaps anyone’s life—in Super Bowl XL. My assumption is that both Mahomes and Garoppolo will be on-point, but don’t underestimate not just the buildup, but the bizarre rhythm (extended commercial breaks, an approximately four-hour halftime) can throw things out of whack.

1d. For the sake of NFL Films, here’s hoping that Kyle Shanahan—the sport’s best offensive mind, a leader of men on the verge of winning a Super Bowl at age 40, giver of many very good locker room speeches—has conceived a pre-game speech that doesn’t make him sound like a lunatic recounting a snuff film.

1e. Chiefs 38, 49ers 34, both offenses throwing and connecting on haymakers. I think you should watch this game.

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2. I wrote last year about the undeniably lazy narrative that Andy Reid is a “bad playoff coach.” It’s born out of a combination of, well, admittedly bad clock management (an easy criticism, since it’s the one part of the job even a casual Madden player can do as well—if not better—than an NFL head coach) and a misunderstanding of just how much Reid’s Eagles teams overachieved. Over the course of his coaching career, he’s had decent quarterbacks (Donovan McNabb, Alex Smith) but never a true star, until now. That makes a difference in January.

But I did want to call attention to this misguided criticism of the aforementioned take from last year, mostly because I thoroughly enjoyed the late website Deadspin over the years and, if we're being honest, looked forward to them one day calling me out for my stupidity, be it specific or general. And in January 2019, I got a text from a friend saying my dream had come true!

As you can imagine, when I saw the opening sentence—“MMQB senior editor Gary Gramling delivers the truly bats--- take”—I was ecstatic. Which of my truly awful takes would they select from? Was it the time I argued that instead of playing overtime NFL games should settle ties based on which coach has fewer unpaid parking tickets? Or my proposal that, in order to avoid another Deflategate, the NFL replace leather footballs with ones made up entirely of wadded-together raisins? But, alas, no such luck. Here is the takedown in full:


Whoa boy, putting two takes that bad in such close proximity is actually how blackholes are formed.

We’ll set aside the Reid one, because I'm tired of it and it really is now for the fringes of sports talk radio and people who absorb the NFL solely through box scores. But that Alex Smith take is a pretty good example of the kind of aimless spreadsheet fetishism that has taken over a large part of the NFL conversation.

I’d be willing to bet I have more spreadsheets on my laptop than Mr. Excel himself (I believe his first name is Ira, Ira Excel). Analytics are wonderful, when put into proper context. Some portions of football can be captured by analytics, but as a stat dork, I find it kind of nice that—unlike, say, baseball—so much of football cannot. There’s no metric for throws not attempted, or play designs not useable due to shortcomings of a player (or players).

But back to this specific case: Alex Smith’s extreme career outlier deep-ball efficiency in 2017 was the result of the Chiefs unveiling a revamped offensive system that prominently featured Tyreek Hill running uncovered 20 yards behind the deepest defender—there is little debate about that. (In fact, had author Dennis Young read the article he linked to. . . ) To argue that it was actually Smith's sudden transformation into a gunslinger fitting tight-window throws at the deep-intermediate levels is only slightly less laughable than my wadded-raisins football. Alex Smith was, is, and always will be a conservative quarterback. Concluding that he was actually an aggressive quarterback because of those 2017 numbers is like looking at Kelvin Benjamin’s 15.2 yard-per-reception average in 2018 and concluding he’s a speed demon.

I don’t know Dennis personally, but I enjoy his work—I believe he’s at the Daily News now if you want to keep an eye out (and the Deadspin folks are having a revival at what appears to be a temporary sports blog that also does not have a name). But my message to Dennis's everywhere: Analytics are great but, by Lucifer's beard, be careful with the conclusions you draw from them.

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A quick announcement: For anyone interested, my friend Jeff and I are once again having our Super Bowl tweetup at the Dunking Donuts where Jeff works, the one around the corner from the one on Pine Street. Party starts at kickoff; there’s no TV in there but the FM reception is pretty good—we can get frequent updates and, if we’re lucky, a rock block of Styx. 

A heads up though: Jeff’s new boss Craig says we can’t hold a party in there, but we figure if we rotate people in, maybe four at a time, he won’t notice. When you’re rotated out of the party, you can hang out around back where Jeff throws out the old bagels. And, as always, I’ll be signing books for everyone in attendance. Well, not so much books because I haven’t written one in years, but I’ll be signing brochures for the timeshare I just bought into. And, also, I’d like to tell you all about that timeshare because it’s a really great deal and I think you'll be interested. See you there!

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3. One of the storylines of 2019 was that, league-wide, defense had caught up to offense, nature was doing its thing and correcting the imbalance. A lot of that had to do with the early-season struggles of Sean McVay’s Rams, who had been the boyishly handsome poster boys for the offensive revolution, and the Patriots, who ran out of NFL-caliber weapons for Tom Brady.

Looking at the raw numbers, points per game (playoffs included) dropped from 46.6 per game in 2018 (second-most of the past 10 years) to 45.7 (fifth-most over the past decade). Offensive yards per game dropped from 704.1 per game (highest of all time) to 695.9 (third-lowest of the decade). I know, I know, I swore it felt more like a 698-yards-per-game season, but the numbers don’t lie.

However, the numbers don’t take into account that three Hall of Fame, in-their-primes offensive players left this season: Andrew Luck (retired), Rob Gronkowski (retired) and Antonio Brown (self-destruction, limiting him to one game). Not to mention, the two games Patrick Mahomes missed and the ones in which he was limited by an ankle injury. There’s always turnover across the league, but that’s a lot of offensive talent that was missing in 2019. For that reason, I’m not so sure defenses caught up in quite the way many think they did.

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4. In light of Antonio Brown’s shift to “unspecific apology but also it's not my fault and everyone is out to get me” mode, just a heads up to Sean Payton or any other team wanting to do “due diligence” on him: An on-field workout isn’t going to tell you anything you don’t know. Brown is a generational talent very much in his prime, and his mastery of the position—especially the subtleties of winning at the catch point—mean he will age exceptionally well. Like Steve Smith, he doesn’t get proper respect from a historical perspective because, at 5’ 10”, he doesn’t look like what people think an all-time great receiver should. But by the end of 2018 he was legitimately on a trajectory to end up an all-time great.

So, yes, Antonio Brown remains more than good enough at football to theoretically improve your team immensely. The problem, of course, is everything else.

On the eve of the season’s final game, it’s a pretty natural time to look back upon the season past. Pretty much my entire month of August was spent working on our Antonio Brown exposé. I also spent the spring working on our Kellen Winslow Jr. piece. (It was a real feel-good summer.) For the Winslow piece, I spoke to a couple experts on CTE and head trauma to get a sense of the “CTE defense” unofficially being put forward. With what I learned, I feel fairly comfortable saying anyone putting out the “Burfict hit made Antonio Brown like this” theory is just as dopey as you think they are. Head trauma might play a minor role in Brown’s behavior, but that's it. My hypothesis, after a summer of reporting, is that it's a combination of factors, but a much bigger issue in Brown's behavior is the number of people who enable and, at times, encourage his worst instincts.

There’s what seems to be Brown’s addiction to social media. (Hey, I know that drug. When my friend Duke retweeted one of my poop jokes I thought I was The Highlander for a good two weeks. I’m The Highlander, you know.) If you’re a famous athlete, there are enough dopey fans out there who will deify you no matter what you do, and social media hooks it right into your veins. And that’s not a knock on the many Patriots fans who humiliated themselves last September—plenty Raiders fans or Steelers fans would’ve done the same thing if Brown was still on their team.

There’s also the sycophants and hangers-on with whom he surrounds himself. When Brown sent threatening messages to the woman accusing him of sexual misconduct—and her children—via text (as a refresher, the woman was not and is not seeking remuneration), some dingus in the group text answered, “Yes sir we will do that.” He had one of his confidants do that, “When you speak to Mr. Brown you don’t look him in the eye” thing to a celebrity chef they had hired. A few weeks ago, as he threw a tantrum directed toward his ex-girlfriend and police in front of his children and decided he just had to live-stream it all, he had a couple of friends looking on but not saving him by smashing his phone Ron Swanson-style. He had what is presumably multiple people agree to help him make whatever this auto-tuned abomination is.

There’s also the agent, who decided to make a public show of stepping in too late. And then there was the greatest quarterback of all-time. Despite Brown going after the second accuser less than a week after his first game with the Patriots, Tom Brady seemed to be arguing that some nebulous idea of culture, or “being in the right locker room,” would have been a cure-all for a troubled man (despite some very clear evidence that it is not).

It might be too late for Brown to ever resume a football career, but at age 31, it’s not too late for him to develop into a decent human who treat others properly. He clearly needs some kind of mental health treatment. But he also needs powerful people to stop making excuses for him. Maybe more than anything, he needs someone who will delete all his social media accounts, say no to him, and clear out anyone who won’t do the same.

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5. Hey Tom Brady's instagram, shut your stupid face; other teams are playing in the Super Bowl this year and you can let them have the attention.

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6. I deeply regret not doing the sequel to “What Time Is the Super Bowl?” this year. On the suggestion of former executive editor Mark Mravic, we had theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli do it for Rams-Patriots last year, and I had some good candidates in mind for this year. However, with Mark and designer Jorge Ruiz not around to work on it, I just didn’t have it in me. Maybe next year, if the mystery of what time the Super Bowl starts still remains unsolved.

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7. Normally, this is the place where I write something along the lines of: While the singularity is imminent and it’s unclear whether or not the machines will allow me to write this column, I hope I’m back and thanks for reading! But if you’ll indulge my narcissistic ramblings for a few moments, this year's sign-off is a little different . . .

When I started this column back in 2015, it was a way to show ol’ boss Peter King that there was a place on The MMQB for something on Sunday mornings. Something stupid. Something pretty stupid but also very stupid. And thus, this column was born. The Sunday FreakOut—the one I write on Sunday evenings—is quite popular, more so than this one. But Football Things is the one I always loved doing.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what the writer-reader relationship is with this column. I’ve—quite literally—always written it for myself, or perhaps the other versions of me out in the multiverse who might one day stumble upon it. A few people have written in to say they hate it, but a stunning number of people wrote complimentary things (some of them from strange and distant lands . . . Northern Ire-Land?). Some even offered me a meetup featuring free alcohol not realizing that I absolutely do not venture outside the corridor that is my home to my office. Honestly, the support made the whole exercise seem less absurd, and it was always appreciated even if I was too lazy and self-absorbed to return the kindness in the form of an email saying, “thanks.” But anyway, for those of you who have read this deep into this column, I’m going to assume you’ve been here before and I thank you for being on the other end to receive it.

I typically write this column on a late-night train home, or in my basement with a large bottle of bourbon and box of Clif Bars, or in the early-morning hours typing with one hand and holding an angry, angry baby in the other arm. Or in the corner of an empty hotel conference room on Super Bowl weekend, which is where I wrote the Football Things season finale last season.

As a few of you know, my day job is running NFL features as well as co-running the NFL beat with Bette Marston. That night last February, a bunch of the writers and I were out at the SI Super Bowl party in Atlanta. Andy Benoit and I bailed early on account of us being too dull and socially awkward for anyone there to want to interact with us, so we took a long Uber ride back to the airport hotel and basically, affording me a chance to just talk with a friend I rarely see. When we got back, I sat in bed and started writing but took a break when roomie Jonathan Jones returned from the party and put on the MMA fights—I don’t watch MMA, but Jonathan showed me videos of MMA fighters pooping their pants mid-fight, because Jonathan is my friend and he knew exactly how to get me interested in MMA. When it was time for lights out, I went down to the conference room, turned a chair facing the corner, put on some Superchunk, and by the time the column was written, produced and published, the the omelette station was ready. A couple hours later, I caught my flight home. I felt lucky to not only work with the writers I work with, but to have them as friends. That was the last time we were all together, and I guess I never would have imagined that would be the case.

As many of you know, there have been changes since then. Peter and my good friend and fellow editor Matt Gagne both left SI a couple years ago. Andy, Jonathan and Robert Klemko have moved on to bigger and better things. Mark Mravic, the only person who was ever allowed to edit this column, is no longer here. To be clear, I’m wildly optimistic about the feature work we’ll do in 2020. Jenny Vrentas, Conor Orr and Kalyn Kahler are an absolute dream team, and then you throw Greg Bishop, Charlotte Wilder and Mike Rosenberg into the mix and maybe sprinkle some Alex Prewitt in there—I mean, come on, that’s an ’85 Bears-caliber roster. But I’ve found it difficult to find my footing since last fall. Work feels different. Writing this column feels different. (And it looks different—yes, I heard all of you who wrote in, I know it looks different.)

When I started this column and decided to put a song at the end (as an admittedly self-indulgent and fairly lame idea), I decided that whenever I wrote the final column, it would end with this song. I don’t know if this is the literally the last Football Things (I selected the live version with the upbeat end, you’ll notice). There's a good chance that, next September, I'll sit down and write the same kind of thing I've always written. But it feels like the end of . . . something bigger than just the season. Maybe because this season wasn't like any of the others.

This is as good a spot as any to cease this meandering word jumble. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Mountain Goats!

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