Monday, January 17, 2011

A Game of Yards, Not Inches; A Game of Points, Not Yards

Strip away the egos of both sides (quiet people have egos, too), the ill feelings (as if playoff games didn't always have plenty of those), the play-call second-guessing (fans and media will go to any lengths to avoid concluding blocking and tackling have anything to do with the final score). What's left of the Jets defeat of the Patriots yesterday?

What remains is a not particularly unusual football game, one best viewed through an invaluable piece of analysis I once received from the 1980s Pats' offensive lineman Sean Farrell.

"All football games are basically five or six big plays," Farrell said. "The rest is filler."

The Jets' win stands as incontrovertible evidence Farrell knew what he was talking about. New England's league-leading offense ran about 20 more plays than New York, had the ball for 10 minutes more than New York, and outdid New York in spinning its wheels by a factor of about 15 to 1.

For the numeral-minded reader, the following stat is presented. Each team in this game had four scoring drives. The Jets' drives totaled 16 plays, and all of 'em ended in touchdowns. The Patriots' drives totaled 33 plays, and two ended in field goals. Right there is arithmetical proof that the Jets seized every moment that came their way, while the Pats could not.

But arithmetical proof is hardly needed. Memory will do just fine, thank you. A quick brain scan reveals that there were four plays after which I thought, with decreasing amounts of confidence in my opinion "yes, the Pats will win." These were a the first missed Jets field goal, the the Pats' fumbles they managed to recover in the second half, and Sammy Morris' two-point conversion.

As big plays go, those aren't exactly skyscrapers. They are not the stuff AP game story ledes are made of. By contrast, the Jets have a laundry list of plays that will fill a room in the abandoned warehouse that has been the site of the New York Jets Legend and Lore Museum. My memories of each are sharp, but my memories of my reactions to them are sharper still.

David Harris' interception made me think "hey, maybe this'll be a game worth watching after all." The Jets' first TD drive = "Definitely going to be a game here." The Jets second TD, when noted slacker Braylon Edwards carried two Pats DBs into the end zone along with the ball, was when I first thought "The Jets CAN win." The Jets instant response to the Pats cutting the lead to 14-11 brought forth "The Jets deserve to win." When the Jets stopped the Pats' odd fourth quarter tribute to Woody Hayes drive was when "deserve" became "will." Everything after that was confirmation of an already set opinion. The 28-21 final score hid a Big Play score of about 11-4 and a Really Big Play shutout.

What was New England's effort after the first quarter but an increasingly futile search for big plays, either on offense, defense, or special teams? What was that fake punt but some individual's (we'll never know whose, apparently) attempt to generate an artificial big play, because neither the defense nor offense appeared capable of doing so?

Live by the turnover differential, die by the lack of one. All season New England's defense was only as good as its interceptions and fumble recoveries. Without them, they were less than adequate against a Jets offense that is, let's face it, only slightly above adequate on its best days.

Thing is, the Jets know this. Their game plan was Farrell's sentence in x's and o's. Filler, filler, filler, then when the chance presents itself, go for the decisive strike. Above all, don't make negative big plays, Mark!

That offensive strategy only works when a team's defense works wonderfully well. The Jets' defense won its gamble (one which they approached with significantly more confidence after Brady's pick) that they could best neutralize Brady, the Pats' Living Big Play, by focusing on his collaborators. Play the wideouts tight and fly to the ball as a group on the dumpoffs. Crowd the middle and make the rookie tight ends work for space. In essence, the Jets back seven-eight bet they were superior athletes to the Pats' collection of pass catchers and ballcarriers. On this night, they collected.

When nobody's open, all QBs are mediocre. Four of the five sacks the Jets had on Brady surely fell into the coverage category. All those throwaways! Take away 65 yards gained on two passes to different tight ends, and Brady averaged 5.4 yards a pass attempt. That figure indicates that New England's YAC was, well, yack.

The following paragraph is NOT about Randy Moss. He didn't help much the other time the Pats lost to the Jets, after all. But just as the playoff loss to the Ravens last year demonstrated the need for New England to recreate its defense with more emphasis on athleticism than technique, this loss showed the same need for the offense. No quarterback can make all the big plays all the time. On this point, Brady and Peyton Manning are in perfect agreement.

But back to the victors. And here we must swerve from cold stats and colder game plan diagrams to the white-hot and very malleable substance that is the Jets' collective psyche. What DID drive slacker Edwards to come up with a reasonable Bronko Nagurski impression when his team needed it?

Before the game, I wrote that the Jets were too neurotic and insecure to make the most of their acknowledged talent againsts the Patriots, a notably secure, not to say smug, bunch. Wrong again. I saw just how wrong I was last night watching another television program after the game was over, a program that had nothing to do with sports.

The Golden Globe Awards were a three-hour reminder that sometimes, neurosis and insecurity are WHY people in demanding professions achieve success.


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