Sunday 24 February 2019

Opposites collide in Super Bowl showdown

Season of major change in NFL but Patriots and Brady still standing as Rams' new kids aim to upset old order

The fresh-faced LA Rams coach Sean McVay is hoping to get one over on the legendary Bill Belichick despite being half the age of the New England Patriots supremo. Photo: Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports/File Photo
The fresh-faced LA Rams coach Sean McVay is hoping to get one over on the legendary Bill Belichick despite being half the age of the New England Patriots supremo. Photo: Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports/File Photo

Ed Malyon

How does you cap off a season that has tested a sport's limits? By pushing them further.

After an NFL year that stretched and pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible, the Super Bowl appears set to break down another set of barriers, providing the spectacle and history to go with the star power that comes as a guarantee.

The records are already sat there in Atlanta waiting to be broken, even if they're principally on one side.

The New England Patriots head to their eleventh Super Bowl tomorrow - the most of any team ever - which is the ninth of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's reign and their third in a row.

Brady already holds the record for the most Super Bowl appearances by any player, while Belichick is the only coach of the Super Bowl era to win it five times.

The quarterback already boasts more NFL wins than any other player in history. He has the most consecutive post-season passes without an interception, the most Super Bowl MVP awards, the most Pro Bowls, the most division titles, the most conference championship wins, the most everything... it's almost fitting that if he becomes the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl at 41 years old this weekend, then he will break another record: his own from two years ago.

Perhaps predictably the Patriots have dominated the build-up but the Los Angeles Rams are, in many ways, more interesting. We all know how the Patriots have managed to keep their dynasty going against all rhyme and reason. Brady isn't the key, rather it's Giselle Bundchen, who earns so much independently of the Pats QB that he can afford to take contracts well below market rate and his team can thus use their salary cap room to surround him with better players. It helps that they're both also elite at their crafts, of course.

In a league where the entire structure and player pipeline is designed to maintain competitive parity, what the Patriots have done under Belichick and with Brady at the helm is defying gravity.

Another Super Bowl, following a far-from-vintage season where their unstoppable grind to victory actually looked old-fashioned compared to the NFL's new breed of explosive offenses, would surprise nobody. The Rams, though, are a rising star.

Humiliated

They might have humiliated themselves just a few years ago as the Hard Knocks cameras were allowed behind the scenes to witness the chaos of moving from St Louis to Los Angeles, but the way the organisation has flipped on its head since then is a remarkable reclamation project.

Jeff Fisher was the face of that show, an old-fashioned coach whose infamous rant about being tired of "7-9 bulls**t" ended up being the words engraved on his NFL headstone. Fisher will never get another head coaching job after a dismal showing which saw first overall pick Jared Goff posting the worst season ever by a rookie quarterback. Fisher was fired and has not resurfaced since.

Goff's stock could barely have been lower either after that first year, with his own gaffe on Hard Knocks hardly helping things. As the Californian struggled to work out where the sun rose and set, viewers cringed. Goff was relaxed around jokes about sunsets this week as he prepared for his first Super Bowl. Why wouldn't he be? A lot has changed since then.

NFL teams routinely bounce from one style of coach to a complete opposite. In the NFL more than ever we are seeing teams flip from a defensive mind to an offensive guru.

It is how the Rams went from a dinosaur like Fisher to the youngest head coach in NFL history, 31-year-old Sean McVay, and whether by luck or judgement, they managed to stumble across the prototype that the rest of the league is now following.

Watching the Rams explode past unwitting opponents on offense, it is easy to think that playcalling is a simple endeavour. Fisher's struggles with broadly the same personnel show that it is, in fact, a complex science but one that more and more young coaches are finding ways to push boundaries in.

McVay's offense revolves around misdirection, deception and simplification. If you can keep defensive players on their heels by confusing them, you can give your quarterback - who knows already what he should be looking for - more time to find a man with a pass.

At the same time, he has done much more than that. McVay hired Super Bowl winner Wade Phillips, one of the highest-regarded defensive minds of this generation, to take care of that side of the ball. It is a formula we are seeing repeated around the league by general managers looking for a McVay clone to pair with a wise owl on defense. Indeed, this off-season it became clear that McVay, still just 33, has spawned his own coaching tree.

Matt LaFleur was McVay's QB coach in that first season in LA and is now the Green Bay Packers' head coach, charged with bringing Aaron Rodgers - one of the league's best-ever passers - a Super Bowl to round off his career.

Zac Taylor was McVay's QB coach this season and will, after the Super Bowl, take over in Cincinatti as head coach, filling the enormous shoes of Marvin Lewis who spent 16 years atop the Bengals.

Dinosaur

Looking wider than that, the effect that McVay clearly had on the previously hopeless Goff ended up convincing Chicago to jettison their own dinosaur, John Fox, to opt for a young offensive guru last year. Matt Nagy would guide the Bears to the playoffs in his first season in charge.

The Bears have been one of the teams this year - along with the Rams, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs - who have further tested the limits of playcalling in the NFL. From Patrick Mahomes' double-motion flip pass in week one to the Bears throwing a touchdown to a linebacker with numerous defensive linemen on an offensive play, nothing is too ingenious.

Mahomes himself should be crowned the season's MVP tonight after an incredible first year as an NFL starter. The Chiefs quarterback came in after sitting out a season to learn his craft and blew everyone away with over 50 touchdowns and 5000 yards in a season defined by the offensive revolution that defensive coaches are yet to react to.

Lamar Jackson, another rookie, is testing the limits of what the league is ready to accept at quarterback with Baltimore making the playoffs off the back of his run-heavy offense.

This season tested the limits in so many other ways too - one of the biggest trades we've ever seen, a quarter of the league sacking their head coach, more good quarterbacks in the league than we have seen in years, more inventive coaching than we have ever watched and skill position play that has generated elite production from some of the most athletic players to ever set foot in the league.

Le'Veon Bell has broken through the limits of player power, sitting out an entire season during the prime of his career to do what was right for him, his family and - he hopes - his bank balance.

Walls are being broken down.

The Patriots have spent nearly two decades testing the league's very mechanisms designed to ensure competitive parity and the Rams, the new kids on the block, are keen to show that new ideas and new faces can prosper.

In a Super Bowl of opposites; the 24-year-old QB against the 41-year-old, the 33-year-old head coach against the 66-year-old, there is one thing these two teams indisputably have in common.

They are both so good because they push the boundaries of the sport. For that reason alone, either will be a worthy winner. (© Independent News Service)

New England Patriots v LA Rams, live, Sky Sports/BBC1, 11.30pm tomorrow

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