Vince Lombardi

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THE ARCHIVES (2017-Part 4)

Super Bowl 52 Thoughts

The first thing that should be said about Super Bowl 52 and Philadelphia's thrilling 41-33 win over New England is it was no fluke. The win capped as consistent a season as any NFL team has put together in some time.

HC Doug Pederson's team lost only 2 games all year when it played to win (the Week 17 loss to Dallas was closer to a preseason game than a regular season game). In both losses, the Eagles were -2 TO. In every other game, Philadelphia won the design battle or the turnover battle or both. That's as good as it gets in the NFL.

From Week 4 through Week 12, the Eagles play design differential consistently impoved from -2.09% to +5.36% (No. 2 in the NFL) as QB Carson Wentz emerged as the most dangeros playmaker in the NFL. Then, after Wentz was injured and lost for the season in Week 14, Philadelphia regrouped and regained its form for the playoffs under backup QB Nick Foles, who played splendidly throughout Super Bowl 52.

But although the Eagles went up-and-down the field against the Patriots defense, Philadelphia did not win either the design battle or the turnover battle. A team that does not win the design battle or the turnover battle has about a 5% chance of winning the game. But the Eagles, their fans, and their betting backers could care less.

Eagles' DC Jim Schwartz had no clue how to slow down, much less stop, Tom Brady. In eight Super Bowls, this was only the second time Bill Belichick and Brady won the design battle. The other was in their 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl 39. Brady's effort should have been enough.

It might have been if NFL HQ had not suddenly figured out what a completed NFL pass looks like. On two of the Eagles' TDs, an activist appellate court could have overturned the scores. To QC, there is no way to distinguish Philadelphia TE Zach Ertz's encounter with the ground on the winning TD pass from Pittsburgh TE Jesse James' encounter with the ground in the Steelers regular season game with the Patriots.

Nevertheless, the NFL finally got its review right and hopefully it will spark a new era of instant replay judicial restraint, which will end needlessly arbitrary reversals that so often marred the regular season.

By butting out, the NFL left us with nothing but a fantastic game. And we will take that everytime.

In the first 35 Super Bowls, the better designed team lost only twice. (Cincinnati to San Francisco, 26-21, in Super Bowl 16 and Green Bay to Denver, 31-24, in Super Bowl 32. Both Cincinnati and Green Bay lost the TO battle on those Super Sundays.)

But since Belichick moved to the AFC and upset the Rams in Super Bowl 36, the team that wins the Super Bowl design battle is just 9-8 and has lost the last 4 games and 5 of the last 6 games.

In the prior era after Chuck Noll's dynasty came to an end, one team or another, usually the NFC team (Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, Belichick/Bill Parcells) enjoyed a dominant play design edge over its opponent.

But that is no longer the case. Today, play design knowledge has diffused so thoroughly throughout the NFL that by the time the Darwinian postseason tournament has reduced the remaining competitors to one AFC team and one NFC team, neither enjoys any meaningful design edge. As a result, the Super Bowl is usually determined by a critical play or two, like Pederson's "Philadelphia Special" 4DN play that produced a TD pass from backup TE Trey Burton to Foles.

The Super Bowl itself is now deep in a Golden Age in which anything truly can happen.

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Super Bowl 52 Preview

New England (-4) vs. Philadelphia

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 8th; Philadelphia 9th
TURNOVER MARGIN: New England 11th (+6); Philadelphia 4th (+11)

For the closest matchup in Super Bowl history as measured by play design differential, the betting on Super Bowl 52 has been awfully one-sided.

New England enters the game a mere .02% better designed than Phildelphia. That's an even smaller margin than Green Bay held over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl 45 (+0.13%) and the New York Giants held over Buffalo (+0.49%) in Super Bowl 25.

With such a close matchup and the Eagles soaring in off their 38-7 destruction of the best-designed team in the NFL, Minnesota, in the NFC Championship Game, Philadelphia backers have driven the line from Patriots -6 to Patriots -4. And that is right where it should be. Over their long history together, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady average +1 TO per game and QC values +1 TO as 4 points. Thus, in a matchup of teams perfectly matched in play design, a 4-point susidy of the underdog is spot on.

If the Eagles are going to please their backers, they are going to need another mistake-free, solid game from QB Nick Foles. There is almost no way Foles will be as sharp as he was against the Vikings when he tossed 3 long TD passes and was 10 for 14 on 3DN against Mike Zimmer's historically outstanding 3DN defense. Still, if Foles can play within himself and convert 3DNs efficiently enough that Jay Ajayi can ring up 15-20 carries, this will be a very close game.

QC does not think it will happen.

Philadelphia HC Doug Pederson is an Andy Reid desciple and although he has designed some cutting-edge run/pass options for Foles (and Carson Wentz before he was injured), Pederson's design philosophy is deeply rooted in the West Coast Offense. And nobody knows how to jam a West Coast Offense like Belichick, who has been doing it since he took up his chalk and figured out how to jam its inventor, the great Bill Walsh.

Unlike the Super Bowl 51 designs of Atlanta OC Kyle Shannhan, which did not run through any single player, the Eagles' designs--like many WCO offenses--clearly run through one key player: TE Zach Ertz. Against Minnesota, Foles targeted Ertz 8 times and came away with 8 completions. Ertz will catch some balls. But Belichick will tease Foles. He will offer Ertz to Foles and then, particularly in the second half, take Ertz away at the moment Foles needs him most.

The Patriots secondary is much better than most people think it is. Corners Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, and Eric Rowe are capable of holding up in man-to-man on Alshon Jefferey, Nelson Agholor, and Torrey Smith, particularly with S Devin McCourty providing help over the top. If Ertz is unavailable and the Eagles wide receivers are neutralized, New England has plenty of pass rush in Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise to get to Foles.

Foles was oustanding under pressure against Minnesota, but his larger body of work while being harassed is anything but impressive. Nobody is more efficient at turning pressure into sacks than Belichick and DC Matt Patricia and the Eagles ' pass protection had big problems in its two losses (Kansas City and Seattle) even with Wentz and LT Jason Peters.

QC expects Foles to have a long tough day that will include multiple sacks and a few turnovers.

If that happens, the burden will be on Philadelphia's defense to stop Brady and his corps of receivers. Again, that looks like a tough matchup for the Eagles. Philadelphia can rush the passer, but, with perhaps the exception of Nigel Bradham, DC Jim Schwartz does not have any LBs who can cover like Jacksonville's Telvin Smith and Myles Jack. Brady should eat well underneath dumping the ball to WR Danny Amendola and RBs Dion Lewis and James White.

And it will be a surprise if Brady makes the same mistakes he has made in his last 3 Super Bowls. It is not well rememberd because the Patriots last two Super Bowl wins over Seattle and Atlanta were so dramatic, but Brady played very unevenly in those games and tossed 4 interceptions. It seems unlikely that will happen again and if Brady plays mistake free and consistently moves the chains with the underneath passing game and a few timely Lewis runs, it will only be a matter of time before Rob Gronkowski and/or Chris Hogan get free for a big play.

Full disclosure: Since 2011, QC has been dreadful handicapping Belichick and the Patriots in the Super Bowl (0-3 ATS) and his overall record since 2009 against the number on Super Sunday is a Jeff Fisher-like 3-5.

Nevertheless, QC has a lot of confidence in this pick.

As ex-Patriots WR Brandon Lloyd told Sports Illustrated a couple of weeks ago, the Patriots win "because so many of their players lack the ability to start on another team, so they just do what they're told to do."

NFL success usually is the result of better play designs and players following those designs--doing what they're told--better than the opposing team's players following the play designs of the opposing coaches.

QC expects to see a textbook display of conformity from the Patriots and a surprisingly easy New England victory.

QC's Pick: New England Patriots SU and ATS

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2017 Year End Awards

GAME PLAN OF THE YEAR: Minnesota 20 Chicago 17. John Fox did not win enough games in 2017 to keep his job in Chicago in 2018, but he went down designing and not spectating. For that he becomes the first HC to win the "Game Plan of the Year" for a game his team lost. The game was rookie QB Mitchel Trubisky's first NFL start. In the first half, Fox and DC Vic Fangio's pass pressure designs drove gimply Minnesota QB Sam Bradford (sacked 4 times for 35 yards) to the bench from where he never returned in 2017 and Trubisky did not have to do much to keep the Bears in a 3-3 tie. In the second half, Fox greelit a gorgeous fake punt "center screen" design that produced a 38-yard TD pass from P Pat O'Donnell to backup RB Bennie Cunningham. Then, after TE Zach Miller caugth Trubisky's first NFL TD pass, he called a diabolical 2-point conversion play that ended with Miller taking a hand-off, running the option and pitching to the trailing Trubisky who walked into the end zone to tie the game at 17-17 in Q4. If all of the Bears' LBs had not gotten injured in the second half and Trubisky had not thrown a late pick that put the Vikings in position for a game-winnig field goal with :12 to play, the Bears even might have pulled out the win. But that the fact that the return they received did not match the quality of the design investment in no way diminishes that Fox and his staff gave vivid demonstration of a professional coaching staff designing at its best.

2009: New Orleans 38 New England 17
2010: Cleveland 30 New Orleans 17
2011: Denver 38 Oakland 24
2012: Atlanta 30 Seattle 28 (NFC Divisional Playoff)
2013: Philadelphia 33 Washington 27
2014: Arizona 14 Detroit 6
2015: Carolina 33 Dallas 14
2016: Kansas City 29 Atlanta 28

COACH OF THE YEAR: Mike Zimmer (Minnesota). This is an extremely close call between Zimmer and LA Rams' prodigy HC Sean McVay who did a great job resurrecting QB Jared Goff and leading a team that was 4-12 in 2016 to an 11-5 record and the NFC West title. In the end, QC is going with Zimmer because the Vikings' improvement througout the season is a microcosm of Zimmer's career. His team almost always improves from prior peformance. In 2017, QB Sam Bradford and RB played brilliantly in a Week 1 win over the Saints. But by the end of Week 4, the Vikings essentially had lost both of them for the season (Bradford played an ineffective half in Week 5 v. Bears), stood 2-2, and displayed a respectable, but not eyepopping play design differential of .0141. Zimmer and OC Pat Shurmur plugged in journeymen QB Case Keenum, won 11 of their last 12 games, and finished the season ranked No. 1 in play design at +.0536.

2009: Norv Turner (San Diego)
2010: Bill Belichick (New England)
2011: Wade Phillips (Houston Defensive Coordinator)
2012: Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco)
2013: Pete Carroll (Seattle)
2014: Jason Garrett (Dallas)
2015: Bruce Arians (Arizona)
2016: Kyle Shannahan (Atlanta Offensive Coordinator)

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Carson Wentz (Philadelphia). Be his season ended with a knew injury against the Rams in Week 14, Wentz was brilliant. He tossed 32 TD passes in 13 games, just 1 less than league-leader Rusell Wilson threw in 16 games. And he was a magician on 3DN, particuraly uber tough third-and-long situations. Backup QB Nick Foles is 5-0 as a starter and the Eagles have overcome the loss of Wentz and reached the Super Bowl. But that does not change the fact that for the overwhelming majority of the season, Wentz was the NFL's best player and the one QB was looking for first on Sunday night highlights.

2009: Dallas Clark (Indianapolis)
2010: Tom Brady (New England)
2011: Aaron Rogers (Green Bay)
2012: P-rex Manning (Denver)
2013: P-rex Manning (Denver)
2014: J.J. Watt (Houston)
2015: Cam Newton (Carolina)
2016: Matt Ryan (Atlanta)

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Pat Elflein (Minnesota). In 2017, the Vikings ranked last in the NFL rushing and 25th in the NFL in pass protection. After two weeks in 2018, the Vikings were without their starting QB. Stil, led by Elflein the Vikings finished 8th in rushing and 7th in pass protection. It is rare for a rookie to start as a rookie in the NFL, but Elflein was a starter from Week 1. His value showed clearly when he missed a late season game against Carolina wih a shoulder injury and the Panthers' pass rush broke through to sack Keenum 6x and force 3 TO.

2009: Brian Cushing (Houston)
2010: RobAaron Gronkowski-Hernandez (New England)
2011: Patrick Peterson (Arizona)
2012: Robert Griffin, III (Washington)
2013: Kenny Vaccarro (New Orleans)
2014: Teddy Bridgewater (Minnesota)
2015: Marcus Peters (Kansas City)
2016: Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott (Dallas)

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Brett Kern (Tennessee). Kern's 49.7 average per punt ranks second in NFL history to HOFer Sammy Baugh's 51.4 in 1940 when the ball was a lot plumper, the K-ball had not been invented, and the NFL would let a specialist "prepare" the ball in any manner he saw fit. He was only in the middle of the pack in fewest touchbacks, but he still ranked No. 1 in net punting (44.6) because of his incredible leg strength. His performance was so strong that after booming a 74-yarder against the Bengals, the NFL "randomly" selected him for a performance enhancing drug test. He passed.

2009: Josh Cribbs (Cleveland)
2010: Devin Hester (Chicago)
2011: David Akers (San Francisco)
2012: Matt Bryant (Atlanta)
2013: Justin Tucker (Baltimore)
2014: Adam Vinatieri & Pat McAfee (Indianapolis)
2015: Johnny Hekker (St. Louis)
2016: Tyreek Hill (Kansas City)

JERRY JONES PATIENT OWNER OF THE YEAR AWARD. Shahid Kahn (Jacksonville) Kahn's infinite patience with former coach Gus Bradey came to an end with 2 games left in 2012 and a 2-12 record. It would have been understandable if he had cleaned out the entire coaching staff after a brutal 5 year stretch. But Kahn stuck with Marrone, whose strength designing cohesve offensive line play. He was rewarded with a division championship and a spot in the AFC Championship Game as Jacksonville led the NFL in pass protection and finished 3rd in the NFL in pass protection.

2009: Jerry Jones (Dallas)
2010: Arthur Blank (Atlanta)
2011: Bob McNair (Houston)
2012: Jerry Richardson (Carolina)
2013: Jerry Richardson (Carolina)
2014: Jerry Jones (Dallas)
2015: Mike Brown (Cincinnati)
2016: Amy Adams Strunk (Tennessee)

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