Tuesday, February 06, 2007

QB, or Not QB

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, February 7, 2007:
When the Sloppy Bowl was blissfully over, the Colts had more points than the Bears. This entitled them to hold the Lombardi Trophy high, but sheepishly; they had earned it largely by giving opposing quarterback Rex Grossman enough rope to hang himself along with his teammates. At least that’s the way the stories were written for the Monday morning papers. DysRexia cost the Bears a shot at the title. Fumbled snaps, intercepted passes, lack of downfield vision and nerve, a limp arm, poor powers of concentration ... we could go on.

And we will. If only backup Brian Griese had been named the starter. If only Grossman had squelched his gunslinger instinct and played a caretaker role throughout — no turnovers, let the backs run the ball — then middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and his defensive Monsters of the Midway would have found a way to win. All of this appeared in the press in the days that followed.

We’ll admit it: Rex was lousy. But he had company, especially on the sideline.

Those cheering for the Bears, seven-point dogs going in, hoped against reality and past performance that when it came down to the inevitable moment when Grossman must produce, that he would. This hope was not unfounded; not only had the Bears somehow made it to the Super Bowl, they had gone 15-3 with the kid QB. True, they had won many a bruising game by virtue of their extraordinary defense and special teams, and their offense was built around a battering run attack. Yet Rex’s 23 touchdown passes testified to his ability... didn’t they?

Good defense beats good offense. Ask Bill Parcells. Ask Brian Billick. They won Super Bowls with Jeff Hostetler and Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Relying upon a great defense to hold opponents down, one may hope for a kickoff return for a score, turnovers that provide field position, and a bit of luck. But luck is not enough, or last year’s Oakland Raiders might have been the AFC representative at Dolphin Stadium Sunday night. Borrowing from another sport — in which it is said, by the way, that good pitching tends to beat good hitting — John Kruk opined that “you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”

To a degree, that is what the chefs in the Bears’ kitchen had been attempting to do (with a laudable level of success) all season. But that could have been said about the Colts’ experiments in the culinary arts, too. The Bears were way better than average on defense; the Colts way better on offense. The Bears could run the ball; the Colts couldn’t stop the run. The Bears had to scramble to score 20; the Colts were hard pressed to hold opponents under 30. This could have been a classic matchup if both teams had played to form. That they didn’t was a coaching decision, not simply an atheltic failure.

Also, did you hear that this was the first time two black coaches have met in the Super Bowl?

Chicago’s special teams dynamo, rookie Devin Hester, returned the opening kickoff 92 yards to give Da Bears a 7-0 lead before ten seconds had elapsed. That alone should have insured that the game would still be close at the half, and that those who had bet on the Colts and given seven would suffer from restless leg syndrome all game long.

This lightning bolt proved to be as unimportant as Ted Ginn Jr.’s opening return TD had been for Ohio State in the BCS Championship against the Florida Gators. The Colts’ Peyton Manning, he of the Alfred E. Neuman visage, in effect said, “What, Me Worry?” Two weeks ago Indianapolis had been pronounced dead on the table when trailing New England by 15 at the half in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots. Compared to that, this was nothing.

A botched coverage in a blitzing down left Reggie Wayne wide open downfield and Manning found him for a 53-yard score. There were turnovers aplenty to follow, giving Bear fans not only hope but also a 14-6 lead in the first quarter — but they were happening with such frequency that the first half seemed not to matter, ending with the Colts up 16-14.

Even though the field was wet, the Bears were so scared of a potential barrage of long scoring plays (knowing that its offense would stand no chance in a shootout) that their plan from the outset was to drop Urlacher back into the secondary, thus denying him any chance to exercise his customary impact on the game. In the NFC Championship against New Orleans, he had played a prominent role in neutralizing Reggie Bush as a rusher.

Not only did dropping Uhrlacher back against the Colts fail to stop the feared long ball (see Wayne, above), it also enabled running backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes to make play after play in the flats and underneath. The two combined for 191 yards rushing and Addai alone caught ten passes, one short of the Super Bowl record.

Nickel and dime completions aren’t what made the Colts AFC Champions. However, if they are plainly being offered up to any QB, he will graciously accept. As Phil Simms stated, “even I can still complete three or four yard passes.” Now if only Peyton could only forget how to do the arms-raised-in-complaint gesture he does after every unsuccessful play, more people would like him.

Lovie Smith’s Cover 2 defense encouraged Manning to run a dink-and-dunk passing game, conceding yardage between the 20 yard lines then stiffening inside the red zone. This works only when your offense can be relied upon to score some points, because you have ceded control of the ball and he clock to the other side. We thought the Bears should have played to their own strength and dared Manning to beat them from his side of the field, thus securing enough three-and-outs over the course of the game to gain good starting field position. When Grossman is playing a short field, he’s not panic-stricken.

After the Colts’ first two touchdowns they were limited to field goals on their next three entries into the red zone. In other words, once the foreshortened field forced the Bears to play their accustomed in-your-face defense, they looked like themselves again. With the score 22-17 three minutes into the fourth quarter, the Bears were well positioned to win ugly, as they had so many times before.

And then Grossman lofted a wounded duck out toward the sideline, in the general direction of receiver Muhsin Muhammad; the Colts’ Kelvin Hayden picked it off and returned it 56 yards for the killing touchdown. The Bears are not built to come back from two-score deficits in the fourth.

This was the turning point of the game in the press coverage the next day. To us, however, the turning points had occurred earlier: first, when Lovie Smith decided that the Colts’ strength (offense) was superior to his own team’s (defense), and made a fatal adjustment; second, when Bears running back Cedric Benson was injured.

Chicago needed to run the ball in order to slow the pace of the game, to keep the Colts’ offense off the field with seven-minute drives, and put off for as long as possible that moment when an inspired play by a quarterback decides who goes home a champion.

Thomas Jones ran well in Benson’s absence, but the Bears need to get more than the 17 rushes they got from their backs combined. (Indianapolis got 40 rushes from their combo pack of Addai and Dominic Rhodes). Once the injury occurred, the Bears began to throw the ball far more than they ran it. This cannot be chalked up merely to having fallen behind in the score; again, the soft defense underneath permitted the Colts to march up and down the field in so dominating a fashion that they ran off 81 plays from scrimmage to Chicago’s 48. Time of possession: Colts, 38:04, Bears 21:56.

You can’t blame Rex for that; Lovie, take a bow.

--Isaac Thorn & John Thorn


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