Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Who Dat? ......Drew Dat!

Forty-four seconds left on the clock in the 4th quarter. Drew Brees of the Saints takes a knee to let the clock run out. That was it! The Saints had accomplished the improbable. The 5.5 point underdogs had just slayed the juggernaut that was the Colts. Not only were the Saints fans at the stadium in South Beach going berserk, the entire "Who Dat" nation all over the country were set to embark on a never-ending streak of celebration. It truly is 'Lombardi gras' season down Bourbon street in New Orleans. As the clock was winding down to zero, the Saints players completed the ceremonial gatorade shower of coach Sean Payton and along with their friends and families started flooding on to the field. Meanwhile, the Colts players quickly disappeared into the tunnel, dejected and disappointed. In fact, Peyton Manning did not even wait around looking for Brees to congratulate him as is typical football sportsmanship etiquette.

Brees with his teary eyes and his little baby boy in his arms stood around as if in disbelief. You could imagine the surreal feeling inside him, as well as other Saints players and residents of the New Orleans Saints. The city got the ultimate shot in its arm, while still on its road to recovery since that devastating hurricane Katrina, 6 years ago. There were many heroes for the Saints in the game, none bigger than the MVP of the Super Bowl, Drew Brees. It was clinical display for Quarterbacking on his part. You might even say he "Manning'ed" Peyton Manning on this day. After the half, everytime he touched the ball, there seemed to be an imminent threat of the Saints marching down the field and scoring. Every time the Colts scored, he kept coming back and kept the pressure on Peyton until he folded. Brees is, deservedly, now a legend in "Who Dat" Nation.

With all the pre-game talk for 2 weeks about this game, all eyes were on Manning rather than Brees. The most asked question before the super bowl was only if Manning would be in the top 3 QBs ever list. But after the game, he finds himself in a lower level group of QBs with only one championship, which is still a great list to be in, along with the surging Drew Brees, Brett Favre and a host of other QBs. Forget about the history of the NFL, even among his peers he is lagging behind folks like Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. The surprising thing is it was not like he was stuck with some average teams through his 12 years of NFL football, unlike Dan Marino or to a certain extent Brett Favre. Most years, he has been on teams that have been favorites in their playoff game match ups (like this one) and the majority of the times his Colts have entered the Playoffs as the No.1 or No.2 seed. The only super bowl win he had was against Rex Grossman (I bet 95% of football fans won't know if he even plays now). Lets look at some of the great QBs in the playoffs, Manning's peers and Manning's performances in the playoffs:

Montana, playoffs: 16-7
Brady, playoffs: 14-4
Elway, playoffs: 14-8
Favre, playoffs: 13-11
Warner, playoffs: 9-4
Manning, playoffs: 9-9
Roethlisberger, playoffs: 8-2

No doubt Manning is probably the most cerebral QB ever (outside of Johnny Unitas) and has an impeccable regular season record. But aren't legends made at clutch moments in big games in the playoffs. The year the Colts won their only Super Bowl with Manning (2006 against the Bears), the entire post-season of 4 games Manning threw only 3TDs and 7 INTs. In fact, the game against the Ravens and the Patriots (plus the inability of one Patriot Reche Caldwell to hold on to the ball multiple times), the Colts had to win in spite of Manning. Manning might still have a few years to correct the ship. But till them he should be relegated to being in just 'the greatest regular season QB' conversation. And jokes about him choking in the final minutes will live for as long as it takes for his "clutch" moment in a big game. And the Colts fans know it in their heart, they just won't admit it. What more proof you need than the fact that the Colts were received by a mere 11 fans in the airport when they returned home Monday after the super bowl?

Enough about Peyton Manning. This moment belongs to Drew Brees. Coming out of Purdue he was surrounded by questions about his abilities because of his size. Although he had a pretty good stint with the Chargers, he suffered a major rotatory cuf injury that scared the Chargers into jettisoning him from San Diego. He then as a free agent wanted to sign with Miami. But Miami, also concerned with his injury decided to go with Daunte Culpeper (How did work out for u Miami?). And then Sean Peyton got him into New Orleans and ever since, he has been a true citizen of the City helping the rebuilding of the city not only morally through the exploit of the Saints, but also physically spending time in actual rebuilding processes. The whole story gives this championship win by the Saints a "meant to be" vibe.

Now to the actual football part of the game. It turned out to be a pretty conservative game offensively for both teams with no big plays from either teams. But the problem for the Colts was that they were conservative in all phases of the game. The Saints made a couple of bold calls, including a 4th down conversion attempt at the Colts 2 yard line. Although, they were unsuccessful on that attempt, it was a aggressive signal from the Saints and did not cost them because the Colts took over at their own 2 yard line and had to punt soon, letting the Saints anyways kick a field goal, which they would have got if they kicked on that 4th down. The more gutsier call was at the start of the second half. The Saints were supposed to kick off, and decided to do an onside kick, which they managed to recover. This play helped shift the momentum back to the Saints when they were trailing 10-6. Plus a number of uncharacteristic drops by the Colts receivers did not help.

The Colts, under rookie head coach Caldwell also made some tactical mistakes, at times being too conservative for their own good. One instance is when they got the ball after the failed 4th down attempt by the Saints. They got a first down, and then called 3 running plays before punting it back to the Saints. Why take the ball away from Peyton when its time for the 2 minute drill? Later in the game, with the Colts leading 17-16, they had 4th and 11 at the Saints 33. It was obvious to almost everyone that the 51 yard attempt from there by Matt Stover was not realistically possible. He has never made a kick more than 50 yards since 2006. Still, instead of punting and pinning the Saints down inside their own 10, Caldwell called the FG unit and boom, the kick went wide left, giving the ball to the Saints at their 41 yard line. The Saints went on and scored a TD on that drive and also converted a 2pt conversion to make it 24-17 Saints. When the Colts were moving down to potentially tie the game, it felt like that could be the defining "big game" moment that Peyton has been missing in his career. Turns out, on the contrary, it was the nail in the coffin when Tracy Porter intercepted a Peyton pas and took it all the way (74 yards) to the house.

The least talked about thing in this game is the Saints Defense. They were not dominant by any means, but they had a game plan for Manning. Their D coordinator, Gregg Williams knew that if you keep putting pressure on Manning, even if you have initial success, he is eventually going to make that in-game adjustment and tear you apart. to counter that, Williams had 3 different game plans for Manning. In the first half, he surprised Manning by not blitzing at all (except on one play); surprising for Manning because the Saints were blitz-wacky all season long. This, in a way explains why the Colts had some initial success going up 10-0. Then in the 3rd quarter, Willaims mixed up his defense with some new formations. It took Manning a while to get a hang of it. By the time he was comfortable with those new looks, in the 4th quarter, Williams brought back the blitz-wacky play calling of the Saints, which again came as a surprise to Manning. In fact, that Tracy Porter INT was also on a play where the Saints blitzed.

Overall, it was an entertaining game, and it also turned out to be the most watched program on television ever, beating out the MASH finale in 1984 with a total viewership of 154+ million viewers. And I am sure most of the people watching the game outside of Indianapolis were happy for the Saints. A successful sports franchise probably cannot support a city economically, but with a run like the Saints have had it could give so many citizens of the city the emotional charge they need.

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