Jan. 20, 2004
Nothing really surprised me about the NFC and AFC championship games because the two best teams won in convincing fashion. The Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots are merely proving that defense still wins championships in the NFL. Teams must be physical and play like teams to win because this is the ultimate team game.
Officially, you might have seen that I picked the Colts to defeat the Patriots, but I made that pick on Friday before I was able to analyze the game with real "insiders." After talking to them, it was evident to me that New England was going to win quite convincingly.
Manning's four-interception performance doesn't lessen my opinion that he's the best quarterback in the game. No other quarterback runs a more physically or mentally demanding offense and he does things that few, if any, quarterbacks can do.
|Bill Belichick does an excellent job frustrating opposing quarterbacks with his defense.|
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel are the best in the business at making most quarterbacks suffer. In fact, my favorite quote from Sunday's action came from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who said after observing his defense's game plan earlier in the week, "I'm glad I'm not playing quarterback against us."
The Patriots reduce most quarterbacks to obscurity by taking them out of their rhythm. Against the Colts, they disrupted the receiver's routes, which bought more time for the pass rush to get Manning on the move. They also made the Colts wide receivers pay a physical price whenever they caught the ball. The Pats mugged wide receiver Marvin Harrison to the point of flaunting NFL rules that prohibit illegal contact and holding and the officials basically let it go. But even if they had thrown two or three flags, I have a feeling nothing would change in the strategy because Belichick and Crennel realized the officials weren't going to throw 40 flags in a championship game.
Of course to be successful with that type of game plan, a team must have the correct personnel and that's Belichick's unspoken gift. He has an amazing eye for talent and specifically the type of physical, mental and psychological makeup that it takes to play for his teams. Other teams should be worried about the future because the Pats have a bunch of picks in the April draft.
Cunning like a Fox
So how good is John Fox? Think about it. Just two years ago the team had no identity, borderline talent at the critical positions (quarterback, running back, defensive end and cornerback) and had lost an NFL-record 15 straight games to end the 2001 season. Owner Jerry Richardson's 1995 declaration that his expansion franchise would experience a Super Bowl within 10 years was looking like a delusional campaign promise.
Personally, I thought Fox's rookie year as a head coach went unappreciated when the Panthers were 7-9 with Rodney Peete playing quarterback and running backs Lamar Smith and Brad Hoover sharing the rushing load.
Fox and general manager Marty Hurney have made some bold moves in two seasons. They bypassed the glaring temptation to take quarterback Joey Harrington with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft and went with defensive end Julius Peppers. By taking the best player at an impact position, they sent a message to fans and players that defense was going to matter and also gave birth to their identity.
During the offseason, they stayed true to their philosophy and signed two key free agents: running back Stephen Davis and quarterback Jake Delhomme. Then they used their first-round pick on Utah tackle Jordan Gross. Those three moves went hand-in-hand. Whether the quarterback was going to be Peete, Delhomme or Chris Weinke, the burden would fall on Davis and a physical O-line.
This season fell nicely into place for Fox because the Panthers started fast while the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers stumbled. Because they clinched the NFC South early, Fox was able to rest injured players during the final games. Also during that stretch, offensive coordinator Dan Henning was expanding his passing game with Delhomme and preparing him for the playoff challenge.
Henning's success brings me back to a final thought on Fox: He understands today's NFL. He assembled a terrific coaching staff by hiring Henning and retaining guys like receivers coach Richard Williamson and special teams coach Scott O'Brien. Even when Paul Boudreau, an excellent offensive line coach, and Henning had philosophical and personal differences during the first season, Fox maneuvered a terrific solution. He basically traded line coaches with the Jacksonville Jaguars, sending Boudreau south while picking up Mike Maser, who had served under Tom Coughlin. Henning and Maser have been a formidable coordinator/line coach combination -- a key to all championship teams. Throw in a running back coach like Jim Skipper and well, across the board on both sides of the ball, the entire Carolina staff is excellent.
Oh, has anybody mentioned that this is Fox's second Super Bowl in four seasons? Remember, he was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, who lost to the Ravens in the Super Bowl to close out the 2000 season.
Delhomme's the key
Before we get into the hype of Super Bowl XXXVIII, I have just a basic observation. This game is going to hinge on Delhomme. Belichick and Crennel are masters at taking away the primary strength of an offense, so as they focus on Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, I believe Delhomme will need a fairy-tale ending to a fairy-tale season. But you know what? It can happen. In fact, it happened for the Rams' Kurt Warner during the 1999 season. Delhomme knows about that. The year before the two played on the same Amsterdam team in NFL Europe. Warner was the starter, Delhomme the backup. Delhomme thought he was worthless for being a backup on an NFL Europe team. He understands his worth a little better today.
Reid shouldn't catch flak
If Eagles coach Andy Reid is catching flak (which I'm sure he is) for losing his third straight NFC championship game, then it should be dismissed as the Philadelphia culture, where it is stylish to blame, blame, blame.
The best team won because the Panthers were the simply the better team going into the game. If running back Stephen Davis had been healthy this would've been an even more lopsided game.
This season was Reid's best coaching job of the past three years because of the significant adversity he had to coach through. It started with quarterback Donovan McNabb's poor start then went onto include the Rush Limbaugh controversy, injuries to defenders Brian Dawkins, Bobby Taylor and Carlos Emmons. But the biggest blow may have been running back Brian Westbrook's season-ending injury in the last regular season game. If he'd played against the Panthers this would've been a different result. But despite the adversity, Reid and his staff did a masterful job staying strong, patient and prepared.
Where you can find fault with Reid is the exact same place where you find praise for Belichick. Reid's personnel skills are good but flawed as is proven in his selection of the Eagles average receiving corps of Todd Pinkston, James Thrash and Freddie Mitchell. That doesn't mean he has to go out and sign Terrell Owens, but he does need to get a greater physical presence at receiver. That may mean combing free agency or possibly being overly ambitious and trying to get into the first five picks of the draft to nab a Roy Williams or Larry Fitzgerald. Of course, that's often easier said than done, but the Arizona Cardinals found rookie of the year wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the second round of last year's draft.