NEW ORLEANS – Kristin shot J.R. and Bobby Ewing is still alive.
And Tom Brady will start.
Whew. Don’t know if we could have lasted another two minutes. Guess the valium can wait, at least until Saturday night.
In what might become the most momentous decision in the history of the franchise, Bill Belichick pronounced Brady fit to start for the Patriots at quarterback for Super Bowl XXXVI, and start the game he will. Belichick could be forgiven for making everyone wait as long as possible for his decision (that’s not bad because listed somewhere on the “everyone” roster is one Mike Martz), and Patriot Nation didn’t need to know this to sustain life. But now you know, and you can now relax a bit, unless your peace of mind is predicated upon how many lawsuits and grievances Terry Glenn files on any given day.
In naming Brady as the starter, Belichick is tempting fate, in a way. This decision, which this writer believes that it gives the Patriots the best chance at winning on Sunday, might remind some fans of 1985, and Raymond Berry’s decision to play Tony Eason in Super Bowl XX instead of Steve Grogan.
If you compare Brady and Drew Bledsoe to Eason and Grogan, the comparison is not that dissimilar. In each case you have established veteran and second-year youngster (Eason was actually in his third year, but it’s close enough). The youngster came in when the vet went down with an injury. The vet healed up, the youngster kept his job. 1985 went a little different with the Eason/Grogan injury pattern, but the end result makes the case similar to this year.
Bledsoe and Grogan are two different quarterbacks. Bledsoe has the huge passing numbers, Grogan was more of a scrambling/running quarterback. But in each case, they were replaced with young guns with great upside, and both young quarterbacks showed an instant propensity for winning.
Eason, as you all know, gagged in the Super Bowl. He came off looking totally meek and scared. Grogan had to come in to relieve him, but the game by then was hopelessly lost. Whether Grogan starting could have averted the 46-10 blowout is total conjecture. But there are lots of people who swear that Grogan gave the Patriots a better chance of winning that game. Listed among those people are the Patriots themselves who played in that game, and who were reportedly freaking out when they found out that Berry decided to start Eason and not Grogan.
Will the same thing happen this year?
Before we dare to compare, let us review one of the darkest days in Patriot history, a day which everyone thought would be an historic day for the Patriots, but instead turned into one of their most ignominious.
Two days before the space shuttle Challenger exploded just over a minute into flight, the Patriots graced the Super Bowl for the first time in team history. But the Patriots came into the Superdome matched up against the best one-season defensive team in history. The Chicago Bears brutalized the Patriots from start to finish, and at the time it was the most lopsided Super Bowl in history.
Eason started the game for the Patriots, and he was on a roll, sort of. The Patriots had to win three straight road games to get to that Super Bowl, and win them they did. Against the Jets, Raiders and Dolphins, Eason put up some snazzy numbers. His passer rating against the Jets was 132.0; against the Raiders it was 102.4; against the Dolphins it was 179.5. Looking at these incredible passer ratings, how could Eason not start Super Bowl XX?
People who live and die by stats (to wit: baseball statnerds who swear by Bill James) don’t always understand that stats don’t tell the whole story. In each of the three games, Eason attempted 16, 14 and 12 passes respectively. Yes, we did say “attempted”. Eason threw five touchdown passes in the 1985 postseason, but three of those scoring tosses were four yards or less, and all of them were against Miami. In each of those three games, Eason suffered no picks, which also skewed his passer rating.
The Patriots did not advance to Super Bowl XX because of Eason. They advanced thanks to 16 opponent turnovers and Craig James. James ran for 104 yards against Los Angeles and for 105 yards against Miami. Meanwhile, all three playoff opponents bumbled their way through each game, practically giving away each game to an inferior Patriot team on paper. Los Angeles and Miami each suffered five fumbles, and lost a collective seven of them.
Going into Super Bowl XX, Patriot Nation did not know that the players showed such consternation over Berry starting Eason and not Grogan. The players were afraid that Eason would wilt under the pressure of the Bears’ 46 defense, and that a tougher Grogan might give the Patriots a fighting chance. Add to that the fact that Grogan was a superior runner who might be able to scramble away from Richard Dent, Otis Wilson and Dan Hampton, and the choice to start Grogan seemed to make sense despite Eason’s winning record in the conference playoffs.
In the final analysis, the Patriots simply won with Eason. Like we said the other day, Berry had to dance with what brung him.
The problem is that the players knew better. In the Super Bowl, Eason went 0 for 6 passing, was sacked three times for minus-28 yards, and had a passer rating of 39.6. Grogan came into the game with 5:08 left in the first half, but by then it was 20-3 Bears. Grogan would come in and complete 17 of 30 passes for 177 yards and a touchdown. But Grogan was sacked four times for minus-33 yards, and ran the ball only once for three yards.
Saying that Grogan fared poorly is not being fair. Coming into a 0-0 game versus a 20-3 deficit are two completely different things. Leading by 17, the Bears overplayed the pass and teed off on Grogan. He had no chance at that point in the game.
But what if Grogan had played from the outset? Might it have caused the Bears to respect the run a little more than they did? One can only speculate.
The problem goes back again to the perception of Eason by the players. They all had an innate sense of how Eason would do and were correct, even though the stats in the three conference games might have suggested otherwise.
Now, is Brady Eason and is Bledsoe Grogan?
What I’d say is to do what Berry should have done sixteen years ago: ask the players.
And they’ll tell you that they believe one hundred percent in Brady. Brady exhibited an incredible amount of poise this year, clearly more than Eason had in ’85. Brady has been in tough situations where he’s had to bring his team back (San Diego, second Jets game, Oakland), whereas the other team self-destructed in Eason’s playoff games.
Meanwhile, Bledsoe has prior Super Bowl experience. Despite leading the Patriots on three scoring drives five years ago against the Packers, Bledsoe fired four interceptions and was unable to get away from Reggie White (though Max Lane had a lot to do with that). Bledsoe had a much better day than either Eason or Grogan had, but he was in no position to defeat the Packers on that day.
So, are the Patriots tempting fate by starting Brady, who will become the least-experienced starting quarterback in Super Bowl history?
Given their opponent, given their previous meeting this season, and given all the other positive tendencies he has exhibited, starting Brady is the right choice, and Super Bowl XX should have no relation or bearing on this decision. Eason is no Brady (though both hail from Big Ten schools), and Brady is a lot tougher mentally than Eason as he approaches the biggest football game of all his 24 years.
Brady has shown a knack all season long for staying poised and focused, and does all the right things to win. He is less prone to the impulsive play like Bledsoe is. He has shown an incredible knack for reading defenses and possible blitz packages. He exhibits a great ability to not get flustered when the heat is on.
And Brady has shown off quite an arm lately. Though Bledsoe may always have the better cannon, Brady is no slouch in getting the ball in there. If David Patten and Troy Brown can shake Aeneas Williams and Dexter McCleon, Brady can zip it in there and thread the needle much like Bledsoe can. Again, Bledsoe might be better at this sort of thing, but Brady will be plenty good enough at getting a dart to find its mark.
Brady’s biggest problems on Sunday will be Grant Wistrom, Leonard Little, London Fletcher and Adam Archuleta. If the Patriots can block well enough to keep these guys off of Brady, he ought to be able to find his receivers downfield, especially who McCleon is covering. Brady will not have to worry about the four linebackers Pittsburgh threw at him, but then again, except for Jason Gildon, they weren’t much of a factor anyway.
The perceived feeling is that Brady will be just fine Sunday, as long as his ankle holds up. And if it doesn’t, Bledsoe will be at the ready for some super redemption.
The Rams have a good defense, but it is nothing like the ’85 Bears. The Ram offense is, unfortunately. But Brady doesn’t have to worry about Kurt Warner or Marshall Faulk. This is a defense that the Patriots can deal with. And Brady should be more than up to the task. He will need to play smart and not suffer any interceptions, but he won’t have to deal with a ferocious pass rush like Eason and Grogan had to.
Okay, Mr. Martz. We just played our ace in the hole. Now it’s your turn.
And it isn’t Tony Eason.
Or Drew Bledsoe.
But not Tony Eason. Repeat: Not Tony Eason.