HOUSTON — For the football fans who enjoy the finer points of their favorite game, Super Bowl XXXVIII provided a long, long look at what a good football team should do to succeed in the 21st century — and what it shouldn't do.
First, you can't win with defense alone. Two of the finest defensive coaches the NFL has ever seen, Bill Belichick and John Fox — the head coaches of, respectively, the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers — fought to a 0-0 draw through the first 27 minutes of Sunday's 30-minute first half.
Second, you can't win with a running-play offense. In the decisive game of this long season, good runners didn't do much.
Third, it was pass offense that made this a memorable Super Bowl and that won Sunday for New England, 32-29.
Fourth — and foremost — to fire the weapon of decision these days, the priority requirement is a passer like New England's Tom Brady is and has been — or like Carolina's Jake Delhomme could be. With only four minutes left of a first half that will be long remembered for its oddities, the Patriots got things going with a familiar Patriot parlay: sacking a quarterback into a fumble and then throwing a touchdown pass.
And in the 33 minutes that remained, there was enough good defense and great pass offense to make it the grandest Super Bowl of them all.
Victory Goes to the Best Passing Team
THIS SUPER BOWL was the game that should put to rest forevermore the untruth that a winning football team is one that can run and defend the run. This was the game that showed the largest American audience of the year that two good running teams that happen simultaneously to be good defensive teams can play naught but scoreless ball until they come out of the huddle throwing.
For this, contrary to the broadcast media's conventional wisdom, was the game that established the truth that, in this era, the team with the best pass offense has the best chance to win big football games.
All season, the Patriots have been passing with distinction. They are and for many months have been a passing team. Months ago, it was clear that the Belichick & Brady Circus had succeeded the old Ram circus as the greatest show on turf.
The reality is that Brady has now won 15 straight games with passes designed by Belichick's coaching staff in a well-ordered pass offense.
Even so, the notion has been pervasive that — apparently because he's a defensive expert — Belichick has been winning with defense. Hardly anyone has talked about his extraordinary pass offense. This Super Bowl was in fact widely billed as a battle of defenses. What it became instead was what it was always destined to be: a matchup of passers.
It was so destined because Brady seemed certain to direct at least one early scoring drive, meaning that Delhomme, playing catch-up, would also have to start throwing. The only surprise was that Delhomme could hold his own and, in a high-scoring fourth quarter, actually hold the lead for a moment, 22-21, and hold a 29-29 tie into the final seconds. He only lost the game when his widely acclaimed defensive team couldn't hold Brady.
Modern vs. Old-Fashioned Football
ON A DAY AND NIGHT when the officials kept control with penalties for infractions that weren't always called earlier in the playoffs, the Patriots showed with their early touchdowns that their carefully prepared, structured pass offense was going to be a force. In the second quarter, they scored twice in four minutes on a pair of five-yard passes by Brady against a Carolina defense braced for a run.
Fox is a running-play coach whose defensive team, naturally enough, has the same mind-set. Thus on both of Brady's second-quarter scoring passes — both delivered on first and goal from the Carolina 5 — the Panther front four, attacking blockers as usual, was rushing forward to tackle a runner who wasn't there when the Patriots threw over them for the easy touchdowns to take the lead at the half, 14-10.
On the Patriots' next trip inside the Carolina 5, the Panthers, confused now, divided their defense between the run and the pass and couldn't restrain Patriot running back Antowain Smith, who in the fourth quarter ran the ball in easily from the 2. This was modern football — unlike Carolina's, which in design was old-fashioned — and in four-touchdown modern football, three of the four touchdowns are likely to be pass-play touchdowns, as they were Sunday.
Brady was the controller in a beautifully designed pass offense in which at least one receiver was nearly always open. And in all, he threw three short-yardage scoring passes, hitting Mike Vrabel for the other one from one yard out. A starting Patriot linebacker playing tight end in Belichick's specially designed goal-line offense, Vrabel stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 261 pounds. Taller and 40 pounds bigger than linebackers used to be when the Super Bowl series began, Vrabel is as agile as any of the old guys.
He was agile enough to make the game's big sack, which ended the first half's long scoreless duel, and athletic enough to score the big touchdown of .the second half
That Vrabel was in there for the big play tells you something about Belichick, who uses every player he has, and he has 59 players altogether, or six more than any other NFL coach. The last six on the Patriot roster spent their season getting cut and getting back as Belichick tried to get the edge in every matchup witrh a new opponent. One Patriot, fullback Larry Centers, fired in October, came back to be the MVP of a December game. Said Belichick: "You try to maximize your opportunity to win (every) week." That's Belichick.
The Namath Motion Can Be Learned
THE DIFFERENCE between Sunday's busy passers can be measured mathematically: Delhomme completed exactly half as many passes as Brady completed, 16 to Brady's 32, for almost the same yardage, 323 to 354. To say it another way, the average Delhomme completion doubled the length of the average Brady completion.
And it looked that way. Both quarterbacks moved their teams immense distances on the many scoring drives, but Delhomme did it with long passes and Brady with short. This was most graphically illustrated on the statistical long and short of it all. One Delhomme pass-play touchdown covered 85 yards. One of Brady's covered one yard.
Ironically, the weakness of the Panther offense wasn't that Delhomme didn't throw short but that he can't. On quick-pass plays, it takes Delhomme too long to get the ball off. His old-fashioned windup didn't impede Carolina's longer plays, which took a few counts while the receiver raced down the field. But it impaired his short-pass deliveries.
The Joe Namath quick-throw passing motion, which Brady has mastered, can be learned. The newest Hall of Fame quarterback, John Elway, who came into pro ball with a time-wasting, big-step passing style closely resembling Delhomme's, learned the Namath style toward the end of his career in time to win two Super Bowls after losing his first three. One of this season's winning quarterbacks, Donovan McNabb, has also finally come to the Namath motion.
If Delhomme ever gets the hang of it, he won't always have to throw the ball a mile to stay in the game, as he did Sunday, when, with long passes, he mounted three of the longest fourth-quarter touchdown drives in Super Bowl history. In order, they lasted 81, 90, and 80 yards finishing up a Delhomme day featuring a second-quarter 95-yard drive.
When he wasn't throwing long, however, Delhomme didn't complete many. Down the road, that could hurt the Panthers because long passes are always chancy, never to be relied on. By contrast in the fourth quarter, Brady, hitting one short pass after another, went 71 and 68 yards to touchdowns and 37 to the winning field goal.
Brady, however, got this chance to be the most valuable player again only because Belichick — for years a conservative run-and-defend coach — became a pass-offense coach last year (a learning year for him) after narrowly beating the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. If Carolina's John Fox can bring himself to make a similar conversion next season, the league will be his oyster — provided he also makes one change in the famed Carolina defense. The front four that Fox is so proud of tired Sunday toward the end of both halves. Fox hasn't been rotating defensive linemen. He'll need to do that to keep up with Belichick's 59 players, three of whom play on the defensive line sometimes, four sometimes, and two sometimes. Variety is what spices Belichick's team.
Bob Oates' book, Sixty Years of Winners, is available at latimes.com/bookstore or by calling (800) 246-4042 ($16.95).