Let 's start by defining our terms. "Two-minute drill" is a misnomer. Some of the most famous game-winning drives have started with three- and even five-plus minutes on the clock. In last year's Super Bowl the Giants' offense took the field for the final time with 3:42 left to play, trailing New England 17--14.
This is an article from the Feb. 4, 2013 issue
Eli Manning was supposed to go to the right side of the field on the first play, to Hakeem Nicks or Victor Cruz. But he didn't like what he saw: Cruz was basically wearing two Patriots defenders; Nicks, in the process of beating his man, had yet to flash open. And so from his own 12-yard line, Manning looked left and launched a throw that made Ernie Accorsi look like a very smart man.
It was Accorsi, then New York's general manager, who'd gone out on a limb for Manning in 2004, acquiring him from the Chargers in exchange for a king's ransom of draft picks. In Archie's son and Peyton's kid brother, Accorsi had seen grit and a preternatural calm even in—especially in—the most charged moments.
During a real two-minute drill, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride calls the plays. In practices, Eli runs the show. That forces him to "anticipate, make situational calls and deepens his grasp of what we're trying to do," says Gilbride. It also tells Gilbride what plays his quarterback is most comfortable with "at the moment of greatest stress."
That first-and-10 against the Patriots qualified as such a moment. Manning lofted a perfectly placed 38-yard pass to Mario Manningham, who made a balletic catch over his left shoulder, barely keeping his feet in bounds. Eight snaps later, Ahmad Bradshaw's six-yard touchdown run put the Giants in the lead.
While not all two-minute drills end in triumph—Tom Brady's ensuing Hail Mary into the end zone went unanswered—the Super Bowl is being decided more and more, it seems, by last-gasp drives: Four of the last five have come down to the final possession. If XLVII follows suit, which quarterback gets the edge? Joe Flacco, the Ravens' fifth-year starter, has engineered 10 fourth-quarter comebacks, while second-year man Colin Kaepernick's NFL résumé features no such highlight. "Flacco's guys know he can do it," says ex-49ers center Randy Cross, who was involved in the winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII. "They're going to have a confidence the 49ers can't have, because they haven't done it."
That said, Kaepernick has the makings of a future maestro of the 2MD. As a Nevada senior in 2010, his seven-yard scoring pass with 13 seconds to play tied No. 3 Boise State, whom Kap & Co. proceeded to knock off in overtime. Kaepernick is an accurate passer and possibly the best running quarterback in the NFL. And he's fearless—his father, Rick, says ever since Colin was 10, regardless of the sport, he has wanted the ball in his hands near the end of the game. Rick says his son "believes what it said on the poster in his bedroom: 'If it is to be, it's up to me.'"
"It looks like they already believe in him," says Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, who admires Kap's speed and envies the 49ers quarterback his green light to showcase it. Tongue-clucking Cowboys coach Tom Landry never approved of Staubach's scrambles. "We're watching film in my 11th year," he recalls. "I take off running, and Landry says, 'You're gonna learn someday.' I said, 'Coach, I'm retiring here pretty soon.'"
The authoritative site Pro Football Reference credits Staubach with 15 fourth-quarter comebacks and 23 game-winning drives. The most memorable came in a divisional playoff game at Minnesota in 1975—a 50-yard desperation heave to Drew Pearson to beat the Vikings, 17--14. Recounting the throw for reporters, Staubach said, "I just closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary."
"It's funny," Staubach muses. "I could just as easily have said Our Father or Glory Be." But while he may have coined a figure of speech, Roger the Dodger did not invent the two-minute drill. Johnny Unitas gets credit for that.
John had no memory of anything that failed before." Thus does Ernie Accorsi account for the icy cool of Unitas, who joined the Colts in 1956. That summer Baltimore played an exhibition game against the Eagles in Hershey, Pa. In attendance was a 14-year-old Accorsi, who grew up in Hershey and saw Unitas launch "the first pass he ever threw as a Colt."
Fourteen years later, in 1970, Accorsi was hired as the Colts' p.r. director. Watching Unitas warm up in the preseason, he noticed he'd lost a large measure of zip off his fastball. Turning to a bookish scout named Milt Davis, Accorsi wondered aloud, "Can we win with John, the way he's throwing?"
Davis's reply made a lasting impression: "Ernest, we evaluate the quarterback on his ability to take the team down the field and into the end zone with a championship on the line. That's how you evaluate the quarterback."
"It was a lesson I never forgot," says Accorsi, now a consultant for the Panthers. Accorsi's insurance agent is still Jim Mutscheller, the 82-year-old ex--Colts tight end. In the 1958 NFL championship game Unitas executed the seminal two-minute drill—85 yards in seven plays on the frozen turf at Yankee Stadium—to force overtime with the Giants. Alan Ameche's one-yard plunge in sudden death won the Greatest Game Ever Played. On the preceding snap Unitas had thrown six yards to Mutscheller, who lost his footing on a patch of ice and went out-of-bounds just inside the two-yard line. For decades Unitas needled him at banquets: I tried to make Mutscheller a hero, and he fell out-of-bounds.
"I always kept my mouth shut," the old tight end recently told Accorsi, "but he threw that ball behind me."
Even the drives that end up being burnished into legend by NFL Films are messy and imperfect as they unfold in real time. Before his Giants tenure Accorsi had put in two turbulent years as G.M. of the Baltimore Colts. He resigned in February 1984 after owner Robert Irsay traded away John Elway, whom Accorsi had chosen with the first pick in that year's NFL draft but who said he'd never play for the team.
Today Accorsi describes Elway as "the greatest player I ever scouted." He saw that judgment vindicated in the 1986 postseason. By then he was G.M. of the Browns, who were hosting Elway's Broncos in the AFC title game. Accorsi looked on as the quarterback he'd once drafted crafted the most epic non--Super Bowl two-minute drill ever.
It began with 5:32 on the clock. A muffed kickoff bottled Elway and the Broncos back at their own 2. In the huddle, guard Keith Bishop famously deadpanned, "We've got 'em right where we want 'em." Fifteen plays later Elway completed his sixth pass of the drive—known thereafter as The Drive—a five-yard guided-missile touchdown to Mark Jackson. Barefoot kicker Rich Karlis's extra point tied the game, and his 33-yard field goal in overtime won it.
Whom the football gods would destroy, they would first have engage in premature celebration. On second-and-10 at Cleveland's 40, Elway had been sacked by Dave Puzzuoli, who raised his hands in triumph. Denver's misfortunes seemed to be mounting when, on the ensuing third-and-18, Bishop's shotgun snap glanced off the hip of Steve Watson, who'd gone in motion. Elway performed an impromptu contortion to gather the wayward snap, then gunned a 20-yard completion to Jackson, and the roar in Municipal Stadium was reduced to a concerned muttering.
Another quirk from that possession, according to Accorsi: "We'd just picked up Brad Van Pelt" to beef up a thin linebacker corps. "Before the last play of The Drive the new guy missed the defensive call. On the touchdown pass we had 10 men on the field. The way Elway played, maybe it didn't make any difference."
For pure clutchness, it's tough to equal The Drive. Yet that's what Joe Montana did two years later in Super Bowl XXIII against the Bengals. Joe Cool had already won a pair of Lombardi trophies with the Niners, so his calm during a TV timeout preceding San Francisco's final possession wasn't surprising. His equanimity had a soothing effect on his teammates. Trailing the Bengals 16--13 with 3:20 to play, the Niners were 92 yards from Cincy's end zone. Milling in the huddle, second-year right tackle Harris Barton "was coming out of his skin, he was so jittery," recalls Cross. That's when Montana defused some of the tension by pointing out a familiar face in the far end zone: "Isn't that John Candy?"
Those Bengals were cutting-edge on both sides of the ball. Coach Sam Wyche's hurry-up offense was complemented by the newfangled zone-blitz schemes of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. And yet, "we didn't blitz any during that drive," recalls CBS analyst Solomon Wilcots, who was a Cincy free safety. "We rushed three guys, dropped everybody else, and Joe Montana just kind of did whatever he wanted to."
As Montana dissected Cincinnati's defense, Wyche, a former 49ers assistant, must have been thinking, How many times have I seen this? Montana's 10-yard touchdown strike to John Taylor, the 11th play of the drive, put the Bengals out of their misery.
How has the two-minute drill changed? Since 1994 coaches have been able to communicate with quarterbacks via wireless radio, making it even more infrequent for passers to call their own plays. What else? "There's just much more emphasis on [hurry-up offenses]," says Bruce Arians, newly named coach of the Cardinals. "Especially in OTAs and training camp."
Averse by nature to circumstances for which they haven't prepared, offensive coordinators strain to conceive of every possible scenario in which the two-minute offense might be employed. This season, as interim coach of the Colts while Chuck Pagano battled leukemia, Arians issued a directive to an assistant: "Go through the entire league and find two-minute scenarios." One of the dozens the assistant came up with put the offense on its own 22-yard line with 28 seconds to play, two timeouts and needing a field goal to win.
On the Thursday before their mid-September game against Minnesota, the Colts prepared for that very situation with this three-play sequence, as narrated by Arians: "Deep in, timeout. Deep hook, timeout. Now we've got nine seconds to get eight yards. Throw to the flat, fall down, kill the clock. Kick the field goal, win."
Three days later, when the Vikings tied the score at 20 with 31 seconds left, quarterback Andrew Luck sprinted up to Arians. "Before I can say a word," the coach recalls, "Andrew's telling me the play."
"Trips right, 66 Indigo Buck, X-in, Alert Down Timeout," said the rookie, who then shouted to his offense, "We got this, guys. We just did it in practice!"
Starting on his own 20, Luck threw a deep in to Donnie Avery for 20 yards. Timeout. Deep hook to Reggie Wayne for 20 more yards. Timeout. Luck hit Avery in the right flat for seven (negated by an offside penalty on the Vikes), then spiked the ball. Adam Vinatieri's 53-yard field goal with 12 seconds to play won the game.
Luck shows promise at the two-minute, but who's the best in the business right now? In a league of marquee names, that distinction belongs to Eli Manning. His career passer rating of 82.7 is a so-so 14th among active QBs, but he's won two of the last five Super Bowls with beyond-clutch drives in the game's final minutes. More than any of his NFL peers, he is comfortable in the crucible of the two-minute drill. "I definitely don't get nervous," he told SI in December. "That's maybe the difference with other people. They may think, If we don't score here, we lose. I look at it the other way: Hey, we're about to win."
Eli's heroics against New England a year ago came as no surprise, echoing as they did his Super Bowl performance four years earlier. Recall the pocket collapsing on third-and-five and Eli spinning out of the grasp of the rush, then launching a 32-yard pass down the middle of the field, in the vicinity of David Tyree, whose leaping "helmet catch" immediately entered Super Bowl lore.
In the stands that night in Glendale, Ariz., was Accorsi, who'd staked his job and reputation on the ungainly gamer out of Ole Miss. During the TV timeout preceding that game-winning drive, Accorsi was approached by Saints coach Sean Payton, a former Giants assistant who in a surreal twist repeated the words of that scholarly old scout, Milt Davis. "Ernie," said the smiling Payton, "we evaluate the quarterback on his ability to take the team down the field and into the end zone with a championship on the line."
"I'm aware of that," replied Accorsi, who turned to his son and said, of Eli, "If he is what we thought he was, he does it now."
Complete coverage of Super Bowl XLVII from New Orleans, including daily video updates, analysis and postgame reaction from Peter King, Jim Trotter, Don Banks and SI's team, at SI.com/mag