Thursday 27 June 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Super night to be a young pretender'

Tonight the Patriots and the Rams get down to what it’s all about in Georgia. Photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports
Tonight the Patriots and the Rams get down to what it’s all about in Georgia. Photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It's showdown time tonight in Atlanta. Between experience and youth, achievement and promise, the old master and the young prodigy. We've seen this one before. It's Fast Eddie Felson going up against Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, the Cincinnati Kid trying to prove himself against Lancey Howard, hungry upstarts pursuing Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter and John Wayne as JT Books in The Shootist. There's a compelling quality about these oedipal battles which makes them a recurring theme in American culture.

Tonight we've got a classic confrontation. The contrast between the contestants could hardly be greater. In one corner we've got Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, the greatest coach in NFL history, the only one to win five Super Bowls, a 66-year-old who's been working in the league for 44 years.

In the other is Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams, the youngest man to coach an NFL team, the youngest to coach in a Super Bowl, a 33-year-old who's not just half Belichick's age but is eight years younger than Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

When Brady and Belichick were winning their first Super Bowl in 2001 McVay still had three years to do at his Marist high school in the Atlanta suburbs. In a movie, some gap-toothed old timer would be asking who this snot-nosed punk thinks he is.

He's a young man in a hurry. Like Fast Eddie and the Kid and Steve Jobs, Michael Corleone and Jay Gatsby, Sean McVay wants it all and he wants it now. When he took over the Rams last season, after a highly praised stint as defensive co-ordinator with the Washington Redskins, they hadn't posted a winning record since 2003. The previous year they'd finished 4-12.

Improving a team like this, everyone imagined, would be a gradual process. Not a bit of it. McVay brought his team to the play-offs with an 11-5 record and was named Coach of the Year. It was a stunning debut and this season the Rams have kicked on to reach a first Super Bowl in 17 years.

Back then they were the St Louis Rams having upped sticks from LA in 1994 before returning three years ago. The Rams had been one of the NFL's great underachievers. Handed a poisoned chalice, McVay turned it into gold and filled it with champagne.

Breeding might have had something to do with the youngster's success. His grandfather, John, was one of the great general managers in NFL history, building the San Francisco 49ers teams which won five Super Bowls between 1981 and 1994. Sean played his college football at Miami, Ohio, a university known as the Cradle of Coaches which produced Super Bowl winners John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens and Weeb Ewbanks of the New York Jets.

Yet all this background would have meant nothing had McVay lacked the right stuff himself. Failure at the Rams would have seen him dismissed as a boy with a silver spoon who'd been given a premature chance.

Instead, all has been plain sailing. But had the officials not missed a clear foul in the NFC Championship game which cost the New Orleans Saints victory over the Rams, for the first time there would have been questions about McVay's judgement.

That's because of the Todd Gurley problem. Running back Gurley is the Rams' best player, a stunning athlete who ran 10.7 for 100m as a 16-year-old and has led the NFL in touchdowns for the last two seasons. The 21 he scored this season is the most by any player since 2007 and that's despite his being rested for two games because of a knee injury.

But things haven't been the same since the lay-off. Gurley was replaced in those games by CJ Anderson, who'd been released by three clubs in 2018 and had decided to concentrate on working with the Dreams Never Die foundation he'd set up in his native city of Vallejo before the call came from McVay. Anderson did so well that McVay has kept faith with him in the play-offs, the journeyman carrying the ball 49 times to Gurley's 20.

Anderson insists the Rams are still "Todd's team," and Gurley swears there's nothing wrong with his knee. Against the Saints, Gurley made two handling errors early on and spent most of the game pedalling a stationary bike on the sideline, bearing a slightly bemused resemblance to Achilles staying in his tent during the Iliad. There's something slightly mysterious about it all. The most obvious explanation is that McVay has lost a certain amount of faith with the league's best running back at the most crucial part of the season. But this can't be so. Can it?

There's no mystery about the Patriots. In a league whose draft system and salary caps are expressly designed to prevent teams enjoying sustained spells of dominance, Belichick has consistently bucked the system. He has done so largely by trusting in Tom Brady. In the fourth quarter of the AFC title game, the Kansas City Chiefs' phenomenal young quarterback Patrick Mahomes finally cut loose. Brady matched him step for step and the result was the highest-scoring final quarter in play-off history, with the Patriots winning in overtime.

As Mahomes worked his magic the cameras would pan to Brady on the sideline as though hoping to detect some slight sign of doubt. As if. Looking at that unflappable figure on the bench, Chiefs fans must have felt the way a hypochondriac would if a lad dressed in black and bearing a scythe knocked on the door.

Tom Brady may be the greatest sportsman of the modern era. He embodies the most important quality in elite professional sport, the ability to get the job done under extreme pressure. In last year's Super Bowl the Patriots were shocked by the Philadelphia Eagles. But Brady could not be blamed as he'd actually set a Super Bowl record for passing yards.

The problem was the weakness of the Patriots' defence. Charged with redressing that in this year's game is another young man in a hurry, Brian Flores, a 37-year-old of such promise that after the Super Bowl he'll be named coach of the Miami Dolphins. This is Flores' first year in charge of the Patriots' defence after previously being linebackers' coach.

The Patriots don't attract much neutral support, the steely ruthlessness of both Belichick and Brady makes them about as lovable as Don Revie's Leeds United. Yet who could begrudge Flores a big Super Bowl night? The son of Honduran immigrants, he grew up on the 20th storey of a housing project in Brownsville, the roughest neighbourhood in New York which a couple of years ago saw 15 murders and 72 shootings within a two-mile radius. Flores' parents arrived in America without a word of English, yet saw all four sons graduate from university. His presence tonight eloquently rebukes Donald Trump's libel against immigrants.

If the Patriots get the defensive side right and prevail tonight it would be Brady's sweetest victory. The withdrawal of troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon and the decline of tight end Rob Gronkowski means Brady hasn't the first cousin of an elite receiver to throw to. Some early season wobbles even prompted premature predictions of the great man's demise. This is one of the weaker teams Brady has played on, yet he is only one game away from what would probably be a spectacular career finale.

He will have to overcome the best defensive player in the league, Aaron Donald, who has averaged more than one sack a game this season and will be itching to get at Brady. Donald's ferocious desire was honed in a childhood where his father woke him at 4.30 each morning to work out for two hours before school.

There seems something uniquely American about that as there does about the off-field misadventures of Donald's defensive colleague, Aqib Talib, who once shot himself in the leg outside a strip club a couple of years after being charged (the case fell through) with firing a gun at his sister's boyfriend. Yet Talib is a wonderful player who, against the Saints, completely neutralised the league's best wide receiver, Michael Thomas, and will hope to pick off a Brady pass at some stage tonight.

Then there's Jared Goff, a hugely promising quarterback who's 17 years younger than Brady and was born just 50 miles up the road from the veteran's Silicon Valley home town of San Mateo. Only three players threw for more passing yards than Goff this season and Brady wasn't one of them. The Rams' quarterback has the ability to rip Flores' best laid plans to shreds.

This is how it is. The kids keep on coming after you. Fast Eddie beats Minnesota Fats in the end. Jimmy Ringo and JT Books die because finally the numbers against them are just too great.

On the other hand, Lancey Howard holds on to his crown against the Cincinnati Kid by beating a full house with a straight flush after which Edward G Robinson lights a cigar and says, "Gets down to what it's all about, doesn't it?"

Tonight the Patriots and the Rams get down to what it's all about in Georgia as Sean McVay coaches the biggest game of his life a dozen miles from his old secondary school and Bill Belichick tries to win his last Super Bowl against the same team he beat to win his first one.

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