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What did we learn from Super Bowl LIII?

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Sifting through the rubble of the 53rd Super Bowl for answers about what matters in football.

Super Bowl LIII - New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Super Bowl LIII will go down in history as a relative snoozer. Patriots 13, Rams 3 was the lowest scoring Super Bowl of all time and the longest play from scrimmage all night was a 29-yard pass to a tight end that set up the game’s lone touchdown. No one was expecting this year’s game to match the fireworks and back-and-forth drama of Eagles 41, Patriots 33, but we also weren’t expecting this.

I don’t need 70-plus combined points and 1,000-plus combined yards to be entertained either. A good defensive struggle can be fun, but even the defenses were somewhat lacking in the big play department. The two teams combined for just five sacks and two turnovers. The NFL’s newly minted Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald, was quiet, posting just five tackles and one quarterback hit in a forgettable performance.

While the game was relatively uneventful, I do think there are some good lessons to be learned from what we saw in Atlanta.

Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time in any sport

Apologies to John Wooden, Phil Jackson, Pat Summitt, Vince Lombardi, Casey Stengel, Red Auerbach, and Bear Bryant, but Belichick’s dominance of the modern NFL is the most impressive feat in coaching history. Just let some of these stats wash over you for a moment.

  • The Patriots are an NFL-best 225-79 since Belichick took over as head coach in 2000. The second ranked team over that time period, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are 197-105-2. The Patriots could go 0-16 next season and still finish with a 10-game lead for best record of the past two decades.
  • The Patriots are an incredible 30-10 in the playoffs since 2000, doubling the number of playoff wins for the next closest franchise.
  • Bill Belichick has more Super Bowl appearances in the last 19 years — nine — than any other franchise has in the history of the Super Bowl.
  • New England has a +187 turnover margin over the past 19 seasons. The next closest team has a +84 margin (Kansas City).
  • The Patriots have turned the ball over just 386 times since 2000. The Houston Texans (who didn’t exist until 2002) are second with 424 turnovers.
  • The Patriots are “just” second in takeaways, turning over their opponents 555 times which trails Carolina’s 569 for most since 2000.
  • The Patriots have scored the most points in the NFL over this time period. New England’s 8,303 points are 460 ahead of the Saints in second place.
  • They’re also allowing the third fewest points at 5,568 for a staggering average margin of victory of 9.0 points per game over a 19 year span.
  • The Patriots have won the AFC East 16 of the past 19 seasons.
  • The Patriots have had a winning record for 18 straight seasons (and counting).

The context behind all of this dominance makes this run even more impressive. The Patriots roster has turned over multiple times — with the exception of Tom Brady of course — without any sustained dips in performance. They’ve evolved from a risk averse, defense-led team to a pass-happy, aggressive spread offense to a heavy downhill running team seamlessly and sometimes from a game to game basis. There have only been three constants during this Patriots run: Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and success.

It’s a well-worn argument — mostly because it’s true — but the NFL is built to promote parity and destroy teams like the Patriots. The salary cap and the draft system are both designed to keep rosters from becoming too unbalanced and it works for pretty much everyone except the Patriots. The NFL averages 5.6 new playoff teams per year since moving to the 12-team playoff format in 1991, but the Patriots have managed to be a staple of the postseason for two decades now.

Independent of the design of the NFL, football itself is a random game. The term “any given Sunday” — like the parity discussion — exists because it’s true. A bad luck bounce, an untimely injury, or a bad call can derail even the best of teams. Just ask the 2018 Saints. The small sample size — a 16-game regular season followed by a single elimination tournament — gives impossibly small margins for error.

Last offseason I studied the effects of turnovers on the outcomes of NFL games (among several other factors) and found that turnovers were both extremely volatile from year to year and that they explain as much as 43% of a team’s win-loss record. The Patriots were overdue for a “bad luck season” about 12 years ago and fate still hasn’t come to collect. The only logical explanation for that phenomena is found somewhere within the combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

Super Bowl LIII - MVP & Winning Coach Press Conference Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

This statement isn’t meant to take anything away from Brady — who I fully believe to be the best quarterback of all time — but the biggest thing this Super Bowl crystallized to me is that Belichick has been the engine behind the Patriots dominance the whole time. Brady is still comfortably a top-10 NFL quarterback even at age 41, but he’s not the unstoppable force that he once was anymore. That was on full display in Atlanta, but it didn’t matter because Belichick coached circles around the guy many have anointed as “the next Belichick”.

The fact is that there almost certainly is no “next Belichick”, at least not for quite some time. He’s a master tactician, motivator, talent evaluator, and leader all wrapped up in a gruff, hoodie-wearing, down-to-earth package. The most amazing thing about him to me is that he’s never had to fail to adapt. Most teams will stick with a winning formula until it’s proven to no longer work. Belichick has consistently changed before the rest of the NFL catches up to him. That personality trait is special and unique. Whether you like Belichick or despise him, it’s impossible not to respect him and appreciate what he’s accomplished over the past 19 years in New England.

Offense is king in the modern NFL, but defense still matters

One game dominated by defense does not erase a full season of mounting evidence that an effective offense is the most important factor for winning football games in 2019. However, it does show that defense isn’t merely some annoying task you have to get through between touchdowns.

The Patriots defense completely erased the NFL’s second ranked scoring offense on Sunday night. Holding McVay’s Rams to just 3 points and 260 yards of total offense. New England’s defense wasn’t dominant all season, but they stepped up when it mattered, using an array of stunts and blitzes to bother Jared Goff while Stephon Gilmore and the secondary blanketed the Rams receivers.

To be clear, offense is the primary driver behind getting both the Rams and the Patriots to the Super Bowl. The Patriots ranked 5th in Offensive DVOA and 16th in Defensive DVOA over the course of the regular season while the Rams ranked 2nd and 19th, respectively. However, there is also a reason why teams like the Packers and Falcons were watching the playoffs from home and it’s not their lack of offensive firepower.

What’s more important? Pass coverage or pass rush?

This is an interesting debate I’ve spent some time thinking about over the past couple days. For several years now the popular belief has been that a great pass rush is the most important factor in building a great defense. Getting pressure on the passer leads to turnovers, sacks, and incomplete passes and has proven to have a massive impact on the effectiveness of quarterbacks.

However, NFL quarterbacks are now getting rid of the ball faster than they have in any other era of the sport which makes it tougher and tougher for pass rushers to create that pressure. The average time from snap to throw in the NFL this season was 2.55 seconds and that means pass rushers must win immediately to have an impact on the average passing play. The coverage, on the other hand, impacts every play.

The Patriots dominance of the Rams vaunted passing attack was largely driven by New England’s secondary who forced Goff to hold the ball and allowed the Pats various stunts and twists to get home and create late pressure.

I think that you could certainly argue that Jon Robinson’s actions suggest that he believes this train of thought as well. His biggest free agency additions from each of the past two offseasons were both cornerbacks — Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler — and he also spent a first round pick on Adoree’ Jackson over that time frame. Compare that to what Robinson has invested in the pass rush. He spent a second round pick on Harold Landry in the 2018 draft, but outside of that pick, he’s largely left the Titans front alone. To be fair, Tennessee’s pass rush was in much better shape than their defensive backs when Robinson arrived in 2016, but it’s still striking how many resources they’ve poured into the secondary in a short period of time.

There is a pretty stark trend with the Patriots Super Bowl teams recently that relates to this debate.

As with most things, this isn’t a black and white issue. Pass rush and coverage are complementary. A great pass rush will make coverage look better and great coverage will make pass rush look better. Both clearly matter. However, I think I’ve come around on the idea that coverage likely matters more if you are splitting hairs between the two.

Edelman had a great night, but the MVP probably should have come from the defensive side of the ball

Julian Edelman was the best offensive player in the Super Bowl by a pretty wide margin. His 10-catch, 141-yard performance ranks as the 11th most productive game for a pass catcher in Super Bowl history and in a game that featured so little offensive success, his ability to get open and make plays for the Patriots offense really stood out. He certainly wasn’t an undeserving Super Bowl MVP.

However, it’s hard for me to accept a MVP from the offensive side of the ball in a game so clearly dominated by the defenses, particularly the Pats defense. If you wanted to reward a defender there are two guys that I think you could make strong arguments for. First, Stephon Gilmore was extremely active, breaking up three passes and intercepting another one that essentially sealed the game. The interception wasn’t the highest level of difficulty, but he made the play and was generally excellent all night.

My pick, however, would have been Dont’a Hightower. He tallied two sacks and was highly disruptive from start to finish in both run defense and as a third down pass rusher. The Super Bowl always seems to bring out the best in Hightower and I thought he was the most dominant Patriot on the field in this game.

It feels like there is more to the Todd Gurley story, but we will probably never get the truth

The handling of Gurley by the Rams over the past month has been strange to say the least. After missing the final two weeks of the regular season with a knee injury, LA’s star running back returned during the divisional round of the playoffs and promptly ran all over the Cowboys to the tune of 115 yards on 16 carries despite splitting reps with C.J. Anderson. Then came the NFC Championship where Gurley received just 5 touches compared to Anderson’s 17. Despite being off the injury report and declared healthy prior to the Super Bowl, Gurley ended up with just 11 touches to Anderson’s 9 in the biggest game of his career.

The obvious explanation would be that he was dealing with an injury, but there are a couple problems with that. First, both he and his coach have repeatedly stated that he was healthy both before and after the Super Bowl. But more importantly, the Rams leaving him completely off the injury report opens them up for penalties from the league office that would almost certainly include the forfeiting of draft picks if it turned out that Gurley was, in fact, injured. It’s a massive unnecessary risk for them remove him from the injury report if he was actually healthy.

If it’s not injury related, it’s really hard to imagine what it could be. Surely the Rams didn’t decide that more C.J. Anderson and less Todd Gurley was what their offense needed these last two weeks. After all, this is a running back that they just signed to a 4-year, $57.5M contract extension with $45M in guaranteed money less than 8 months ago.

I’m not sure that we will ever know what truly happened with Gurley in the Super Bowl, but I’m also not sure that it truly would have mattered if he got another handful of touches. He averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and was mostly bottled up by the Patriots defense.

The three worst hot takes that were all over Twitter during and after the game

1. Julian Edelman deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

Look, Edelman was great last night and is a very good football player. However, the rush to put him in the Hall of Fame is a massive overreaction. He’s had just two 1,000 yard seasons in his 9-year NFL career and at 5,390 career receiving yards he’s still nearly 10,000 yards behind Isaac Bruce (one of the top receivers currently waiting to be enshrined in Canton).

There is no denying that Edelman’s playoff statistics are great — he now trails only the great Jerry Rice in playoff receptions and receiving yards — but if you’re talking about the best receivers in the NFL over the past five years, how many do you name before you get to Edelman? I think Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., and A.J. Green are pretty much no-brainers and arguments could easily be made for guys like Jarvis Landry, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Golden Tate, Demaryius Thomas, and Brandin Cooks as well. At best I think Edelman ranks in the top 10 to 15 range among current wide receivers. That’s still very good, but it’s not the Hall of the Very Good.

2. Jared Goff is terrrrrrrrible.

Don’t get me wrong, Jared Goff was terrible in this game, but many of the takes I saw floating around had determined that Goff was retroactively bad during the regular season and playoffs as well. He wasn’t. You don’t put up 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns if you’re a terrible quarterback regardless of how good your coach is. Here is the full list of quarterbacks who have ever eclipsed 4,600 yards and 30 touchdowns in a single season:

Drew Brees (8 times)

Peyton Manning (4 times)

Tom Brady (4 times)

Matt Ryan (3 times)

Ben Roethlisberger (2 times)

Dan Marino (2 times)

Dan Fouts (2 times)

Patrick Mahomes

Matthew Stafford

Kurt Warner

Andrew Luck

Daunte Culpepper

Philip Rivers

Warren Moon

Jared Goff

Carson Palmer

Aaron Rodgers

Stats aren’t everything, but there isn’t a single quarterback on that list that’s “terrible”. Daunte Culpepper is probably the worst of that group and he was at least above average.

Goff clearly has some limitations and is a guy that seems to struggle playing outside of structure right now, but he’s also 24 years old and coming off one of the top 50 quarterback seasons of all time so let’s pump the brakes on the “Goff sucks” narrative. He is pretty comfortably somewhere in the 10 to 15 range if I’m ranking current NFL quarterbacks.

3. Sean McVay is overrated.

This pretty much falls in line with the Goff take above, but all it took was one bad offensive showing for the “McVay is overrated” takes to come out of the woodwork. As a reminder, the Rams were 4-12 with the worst offense in the NFL in 2016 before McVay arrived. They’ve gone 11-5 and then 13-3 in his first two seasons while comfortably scoring more points than any other NFL team. McVay was out-coached by the GOAT in his first Super Bowl at age 33. Let’s not make it out to be anything more than what it is.