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THOUGHTS ON SUPER BOWL 52: DID BILL BELICHICK LOSE THE SUPER BOWL BEFORE IT STARTED?

Kallas Remarks by Steve Kallas – Prior to and at the beginning of Super Bowl 52, this writer, like many, thought this game would be reminiscent of the two Giants-Patriots defense-dominated Super Bowls.  As it turned out, it was much more like the two 2017 Giants-Eagles offense fests, where Eli Manning torched the vaunted Eagles defense but, in both games, the Eagles found a way to win.  And that’s exactly what happened in Super Bowl 52. Or, as Phil Simms put it on Inside the NFL, he watched the Super Bowl “and an Arena Football League game broke out.”

We’ll discuss the Belichick blunder of not starting and not playing Malcolm Butler for even one defensive snap in this Super Bowl.  But, first, a few other thoughts:

1) ALL CREDIT TO THE EAGLES AND NICK FOLES.   AND CHIP KELLY???

Well, if you followed the Eagles all season, like this writer did, you had a feeling what was coming.  Not so much a team of destiny (especially after the Carson Wentz injury), but, rather, a team with the best combination of top defensive line and top offensive line in the NFL.  Add in lots of weapons and an understanding of how good Nick Foles was in 2013, it was easy to like the Eagles against the over-rated Falcons and the Case Keenum-lead Vikings (although Keenum did have a very good year until the NFC Championship game).  As for the Super Bowl?  Well, by then, the snowball was rolling down the hill, getting bigger all the time and it certainly was a distinct possibility that the Eagles could win (especially if you were prone to like the Eagles as underdogs in every playoff game).

Having said that, the Eagles made their offensive change that would help them win the Super Bowl in the second half of the Atlanta game.  After battling the wind in the first half, the Eagles changed their offense to the run/pass option and, as a result, Nick Foles looked like 2013 Nick Foles.  He proceeded to drive the ball down the field enough times against Atlanta to get the win and then torch both the Vikings and the Patriots (in a down year for the Patriots defense even though they were able to mask some of their deficiencies and limit the points that were given up (until the Super Bowl)).

But there has to be some recognition of, at least the similarity, between what Chip Kelly did with Nick Foles in 2013 and what the Eagles did with Nick Foles in the last two-and-a-half playoff games.  27 TDs, 2 interceptions in 2013 and a record-setting 73% completion percentage and only one interception in these playoffs (and even that was on a pass tipped up by his own receiver), Foles seemed much more comfortable running, essentially, a run/pass option offense for most of the playoffs.  Somewhere, one would think, Chip Kelly is smiling.

2) BASED ON 2017 CALLS, THE CLEMENT TD CATCH WAS INCOMPLETE

Many complaints were made by Patriot fans and others on a few big plays.  The Zach Ertz TD catch was definitely a catch, a run and a TD, no matter what anybody says.  The “illegal formation” on the Nick Foles TD catch was probably OK, as Alshon Jeffery motioned to the official before the play which, generally, means that the official was OK with his location, even though he was off the line of scrimmage (this often happens).

The fourth and one pick play (called a “good pick play” by Cris Collinsworth) was a closer call:  Brent Celek wiped out Devin McCourty two-and-a-half yards past the line of scrimmage, enabling Ertz to get open for a huge first down on fourth and one (if a pick is called there, it’s a 10-yard offensive pass interference penalty and the Eagles have to give the ball back to Brady with the Pats up one and about five minutes left in the fourth quarter).  That was arguably a penalty, but a ref has to decide that Celek intentionally ran into McCourty (as opposed to running a route).  Close call but no call was made.

But the Corey Clement TD catch, which put the Eagles up 29-19 midway through the third quarter, a huge play in the game, was, until Super Bowl Sunday, an incomplete pass.  You saw the play: Clement catches the ball as his left foot is down, but clearly the ball moves and, by the time he recovers, he did not get two feet down in bounds.

Yet, on Inside the NFL, there was video of Gene Steratore, the ref, talking with Al Riveron, the NFL replay guy (who has taken a lot of abuse this year), about the play.  We can only here Steratore, who says, “That’s all control, that’s all control, baby, that’s all control, big guy.  I agree with you 100%.”  Shortly thereafter, Steratore is seen talking with another official on the field, saying, “Is there a little ball movement? Yes. But that does not mean loss of control. You know it goes from here [he points to his wrist or hand], sticks on the forearm right back to the hand.  Touchdown.”

Well, not exactly.  On Inside the NFL, both Boomer Esaison and Brandon Marshall said that the call would have been reversed in the regular season.  Esiason also said that the catch rule seemed to have changed in the playoffs.

This writer thinks it’s deeper than that.  The Patriots were the recipients of a number of “bobble calls,” for lack of a better term.  The worst (or best for the Patriots ) was a call against Jets TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins on October 15, 2017. Seferian-Jenkins appeared to catch a pass and then run into the end zone at the pylon.  That catch, called a touchdown on the field, was not only reversed, but was turned into a touchback, a huge swing in the game.

At nfl.com, Al Riveron has a rules video about this call.  Seferian-Jenkins fumbles right before going into the end zone at the pylon.  He regains possession (it was loose in his arms but doesn’t hit the ground) and, as he goes to the ground, according to Riveron, he does not “maintain control of the ball.”

Why not? Well, Riveron says, “Does he maintain control of the ball?  He does not.  THE BALL IS MOVING.” (emphasis added). Therefore, it was a fumble out of the end zone and the Patriots got the ball at the 20.  When asked further by an NFL Network anchor, Riveron reiterates that he did not control the ball because the ball was moving.

Based on that, do you see the problem with the Clement catch when the ball was clearly moving as his left foot hit the ground?  I believe both Esiason and Marshall were right in saying this would have been overturned for sure in the regular season.

There was another play where Kelvin Benjamin of the Bills, on December 24, 2017, had a TD catch called incomplete for not getting two feet in after it looked like he did.  But there wasn’t control until it was too late to keep two feet in bounds. This was also against the Patriots.  Finally, there was that famous Jesse James TD catch (also against the Patriots) on December 17, 2017, which cost the Steelers, arguably, home field advantage in the playoffs.  This call was clearly correct and Al Michaels, in the Super Bowl, was unable, at least initially, to see the difference between James catching the ball as he was falling into the end zone and Ertz catching the ball at the five-yard line and taking three steps before crossing the plane as a runner.

All three of the above catches were correct under the rule and all three benefitted the Patriots, which gave rise to Al Riveron getting killed on social media and in other places and towns (Pittsburgh, New York, Buffalo, to name three).

On the Clement play, the ball clearly moved, and, as Marshall and Esiason both said, that was enough, during the regular season, to rule the pass incomplete.

In addition, a few weeks ago, Commissioner Roger Goodell came out and actually said that he wants the “catch” rule to be changed this off-season.

The real question is whether it was changed for the Super Bowl or did Al Riveron, after intense criticism (not his fault, in all three catches mentioned above, he seemed to abide by the rule as he saw it) during the regular season and after the commissioner said the rule had to be changed, inwardly feel that he would be excoriated again for “giving” the Patriots another perceived gift in the biggest game of all?

As many people believe, the Clement “catch” was a reversible call given the calls that were made all season long.  Finally, when Gene Steratore says the ball “stuck” on his forearm well, obviously, it didn’t stick (if it did it would not have moved). It moved from one part of his arm/body to another part of his arm/body.  Prior to the Super Bowl, that was an incomplete pass. Plus, again, see the Al Riveron nfl.com video where he states multiple times that Seferian-Jenkins of the Jets did not have control because “the ball moved.”

3) LEGARRETTE BLOUNT

Well, anybody who listens to Joe Staszak on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philly or the podcast Kallas Remarks, with Joe Staszak and this writer, knows that, from training camp, we clamored for Blount to get the ball early and often.  It never really happened all year (even after that Kansas City fiasco early in the season when Blount carried only once and even that was called back for a penalty).

The Eagles decided to go with a three-headed running game and, when they got Jay Ajayi from Miami, he eventually became the lead back.  But, with the money on the line and in the biggest game of the year, it was Blount who set the tone early with two scintillating runs – one for 36 yards in the first quarter (setting up Jeffery’s TD catch) and another for a 21-yard TD to make the score 15-3.

Without question, Blount’s two runs set the tone and made Nick Foles’s run/pass option plays all the more effective during the entire game.

The Eagles certainly need to bring Blount back as he was lightly used (173 regular season carries) compared to last year with the Patriots when he led the league in touchdowns (299 regular season carries).  While the three-headed monster worked, Blount never got the chance to carry 25 times and really lay the wood on opposing defenders for an entire game.

But, by limiting him, the Eagles have extended his career.

4) THE TOM BRADY “NON-CATCH”

It apparently has been universally accepted that Tom Brady, on a third and five at the Eagles 35 in the second quarter, dropped or failed to catch a pass he should have caught from Danny Amendola (this was right after Brandin Cooks had been knocked out of the game (for good) by Malcolm Jenkins).

The reality is that the pass was simply too high.  There was no need to lead Brady.  He’s 6’4” tall and the only goal was to get five yards for the first down.  Conversely, the pass thrown by former college QB Trey Burton a few minutes later to Foles was right at his head – an easy catch.

Interestingly, the Patriots have their own college QB, Julian Edelman, but he was lost for the season so they had to rely on Amendola, who should have thrown it right to Brady, not lead him in that situation.

5) DID BILL BELICHICK LOSE THE SUPER BOWL BEFORE THE GAME STARTED BY BENCHING MALCOLM BUTLER?

By now, you probably know all of the stats: Butler played in about 98% of the defensive snaps in the regular season.  He also played in 100% of all the defensive snaps in both the Titans and Jaguars playoff games.  It would make no sense to keep him out of the defensive line-up for the entire game.

While rumors about Butler’s off the field activities were rampant (he denies them all), Bill Belichick simply said it was a football decision.  He told Michelle Tafoya at halftime, when specifically asked about the Butler benching, “I made the decisions that gave us the best chance to win.”

Let’s assume that to be true.  There’s an article out there that talks about how Belichick might have wanted to use bigger defensive backs (than Butler) against the Eagles taller receivers.

Well, the problem with that, of course, is that you had guys like Eric Rowe starting and covering Alshon Jeffery (while Rowe did make a couple of nice plays against Jeffery, he also gave up a 16-yard catch to Jeffery very early and was torched for that early 34-yard TD catch).  And eventually, either Belichick or defensive coordinator Matt Patricia saw the error of that move and put Stephon Gilmore on Jeffery to shut Jeffery out the rest of the game (which Gilmore did).

But it also meant giving a lot more playing time to Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards, two guys who are not nearly as good as Butler – and it showed.

To point out the most extreme examples (and plays that would eventually lead to Eagle touchdowns), Richards (#37) is the defender seen flailing after Corey Clement when, in the second quarter on a third and three, Clement ran a 15-yard wheel route that became a 55-yard catch and run to set up a first and goal that resulted in the Foles TD catch.

Bademosi, on a third and six, with about 11:27 left in the third quarter and the score 22-19 Eagles, had a clear shot at tackling Nelson Agholor three yards before the first-down marker (which would, in all likelihood, have caused a punt).  But Agholor slipped away and turned a three-yard gain, short of the first down, into a 16-yard gain, a first down and, eventually, the Clement disputed TD catch.

So, if these were really the guys who put the Patriots “in the best position to win the game,” it sure didn’t work out that way.  Did you see this ESPN stat: when Gilmore guarded Jeffery/Agholor, Nick Foles was 0-4; all other defensive backs covering Jeffery/Agholor, Foles was 12-14.  Pretty scary.

In any event, the Patriots, the masters, by all accounts, of “half-time adjustments” or general changes, especially defensively, to win games (see taking Rowe off Jeffery and putting Gilmore on him for the resulting shutout the rest of the way), clearly dropped the ball here (no pun intended).

If all of Belichick’s statements are true, then it seems obvious that, by halftime with respect to the terrible Richards coverage on Clement, or less than four minutes into the third quarter by the whiff by Bademosi on Agholor, this “plan” was failing miserably.

Even if there was some team violation (which both Butler and Belichick deny), it should have dawned on somebody (head coach, defensive coordinator?) that they needed Butler in the game to stem the tide.  To think otherwise, by that point of the game, would be, to be kind, foolish.  If that had really been the plan, it wasn’t working, and there was still a chance to, you know, win the Super Bowl.

If Belichick was making a point, that might be fine in week 5 (again, assuming it wasn’t just for football reasons). But, in the Super Bowl, that’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.

For some reason, Malcolm Butler, who, in this writer’s opinion, made the greatest play in the history of the NFL against Seattle (make the play and win the Super Bowl; don’t make the play and Seattle either scores there or, after sanity comes back to the Seattle coaching staff, on the next play when they hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch), has never quite received the respect that he deserves.  Giving Stephon Gilmore four or five times the money Butler was making without extending him was pretty sad (yes, the realities of free agency), but Butler is a tough guy, battles you tooth and nail and might just be the best in the NFL at knocking a pass out of a receiver’s hands after the receiver has caught it (you know, on the way to the ground).

But, maybe, as some have intimated, Butler wasn’t a Belichick favorite.

So, if Malcolm Butler had played, would the Patriots have won the Super Bowl?  Well, Phil Simms thinks so:  When asked by James Brown on Inside the NFL to fill in the following, “If Malcolm Butler played, the final score would have been,” Simms said,

“THE PATRIOTS WOULD HAVE WON THE GAME (emphasis added). Because when he came out of the game, it changed the whole sequence of their defensive backs.  Everybody had to move positions.  It’s like saying, oh, we lost our center so let’s move everybody down the line and move these guys over and I thought it created a lot of bad match-ups.”

Simms continued, “The strength of the Patriots’ defense is their secondary because why, they have no pass rush.  Now you don’t have the pass rush to protect you, the defense is weakened by Malcolm Butler not being in there and they gave up easy plays.”

While this writer won’t say that the Patriots would have won the game if Butler had played (obviously, we’ll never know), it seems clear that they would have had a better or even much better chance to win the game if their starting cornerback had, you know, started at cornerback.  Without him, the secondary became much more average and bore no relation to the secondary for every game prior to the Super Bowl (because Butler played almost every snap all year).

6) FINALLY, WHOSE LEGACY IS HURT MORE BY THIS LOSS: BILL BELICHICK’S OR TOM BRADY’S?

Well, that’s an easy one.  As you may know, Tom Brady became the first quarterback in the history of the NFL in any game (regular season or playoff) to throw for at least 500 yards, at least three touchdowns with no interceptions and LOSE THE GAME.  It’s never happened before. He did this with no Julian Edelman (yes, he missed the season) and, more important than that, no Brandin Cooks (his only real deep threat) for almost the final three quarters.

So, in a 41-33 game, with a starting corner on the bench (actually standing up with his helmet on, ready to go in) while guys who were behind him on the depth chart all year were getting torched, fooled and/or missing tackles, all in the name of “a football decision” that obviously had gone very wrong by halftime, it’s pretty clear who takes the biggest hit.

This one’s on Bill Belichick who, arguably, is the best coach ever.

But after watching the Seattle coaching staff lose their minds and make a Super Bowl-losing call and, then, last year, after watching the Atlanta coaching staff lose their minds and try and throw the ball when they could have run it into the line three times and let Matt Bryant kick a 40-yard or so field goal to put them up 11 (and, that late in the game, clinch the Super Bowl), you have to now wonder if this decision (to not play your starting corner on defense at all) puts a great coach on this list of bizarre, in the first two instances and maybe the third, Super Bowl-losing calls.

© Copyright 2018 by Steve Kallas. All rights reserved.

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