Before we turn the page to move onto a new season, let’s take a moment to consider what some of the critics have been saying in an attempt to devalue a significant part of the New England Patriots dynasty.
And to refute them.
Specifically, there are those who believe the Patriots’ last two championships, in the 2014 and 2016 seasons, were gifts that were not earned and resulted simply from screwups by their Super Bowl opponents, Seattle and Atlanta.
Well, guess what?
That may be so, but it also is quite normal, exactly what happens frequently with great teams. The Patriots are not the first and they won’t be the last to succeed not only on their own merits, but because just the sight of their greatness on the opposite side of the field will cause an opponent to melt down.
The pressure sometimes makes opposing coaches do things that are dumb, dumb, dumb. But they don’t go stupid in a void. They go stupid because of the opponent.
Interestingly, both Patriots recent Super Bowl victories involved an opponent not content to play conservatively (or smart) near the end of a game it seemingly was ready to win. Seattle chose to have Russell Wilson throw the ball rather than let Marshawn Lynch score on a run from the one-yard line. Atlanta’s strategy was even dumber since all the Falcons needed to do was fall down three times and kick a field goal to clinch the game. Instead, the Falcons lost yardage trying to pass and had to punt.
Perhaps a cynic would point out that Atlanta’s only previous Super Bowl appearance came about simply because a previously perfect Minnesota kicker, Gary Anderson, missed a clinching field goal in the NFC championship game.
But it is not likely that was on the mind of either Dan Quinn, the Falcons coach, or Kyle Shanahan, their offensive coordinator. What is more likely, quite simply, is that great teams scare their opponents into mistakes, whether they are physical or mental or, frequently, both.
Of course, teams don’t like to admit they were intimidated by an opponent. But the late Hall of Famer Jim Finks, who was general manager of several NFL teams, once admitted that was exactly what happens.
Finks made the comment when he was GM of the New Orleans Saints. It followed a 1990 victory by the Saints over the 49ers — at the time two-time defending Super Bowl champs — at Candlestick Park.
In the season opener that year, the 49ers had won at New Orleans, 13-12, in part because with 1:41 remaining, the Saints ahead by two points and the 49ers out of timeouts, New Orleans allowed a backup quarterback, John Fourcade, to throw deep on third down rather than run the ball, waste time and punt.
The pass, of course, fell incomplete, and the extra 40-45 seconds the 49ers gained from that blunder were just enough. Starting from their own 19-yard line, Joe Montana drove San Francisco to kick a game-winning field goal with nine seconds remaining.
Jim Mora, the Saints coach at the time, said what so many have said before and after, that he called for the deep pass because he feared giving Montana the ball no matter how little time would be remaining.
Later that year, the teams met again in San Francisco, and this time Montana was held out of the game nursing a minor injury and was not in uniform. With Steve Young at quarterback, the Saints won the game, 13-10, and afterward, Finks proclaimed that if the 49ers had simply put Montana in uniform on the sidelines, they would have won, instead.
He had that much effect on an opponent, Finks said.
Of course, there was also the 1987 game when the Cincinnati Bengals chose not to punt with six seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and instead attempted to run a sweep on fourth down, which failed. The two seconds that remained was all Montana needed for one play, a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice that won the game.
There’s a famous picture of the late Bill Walsh, the 49ers’ legendary coach, literally skipping off the field after that gift.
And then there was the time in 1990 when Green Bay used a short, pooch kickoff rather than kick the 49ers deep after scoring 38 seconds before halftime, and that was all the break San Francisco, down 10-0, needed to score in the little time remaining, and turn the game in its favor.
The Packers said they were concerned about giving Montana the ball, even with so little time remaining and plenty of field to cover.
None of these situations exactly covers the mess Seattle and Atlanta made for themselves, but the thinking — or lack of thinking — behind their blunders comes from the same mindset. Or, perhaps more precisely, because the Patriots managed to force their opponents out of their minds.
It happens more often than you might think.