Sports

Last night, the best team did not win (and I'm a Giants fan)

by Matthew Record

There’s a feeling that’s sat next to me all season as I’ve watch my beloved Giants from strong start to an almost complete meltdown to a rebranding of themselves as tough-as-nails fourth quarter warriors. It’s an odd feeling but I wouldn’t say a negative one. What is this team? I don’t mean these past few weeks or even this season. Going back a few years – what is this team?

This is a team without a personality or flavor… usually elite as a pass rushing unit combined with what is probably among the worst secondaries in the league, six or so years running. The Giants are team that occasionally gets superb years out of cast-offs like Ahmad Bradshaw but still can’t convince Brandon Jacobs to run like he weighs 260 lbs. This is a team that literally can’t find enough space for all their phenomenal defensive line talent (notably lining up Jason Pierre-Paul at tackle to make room) but hasn’t drafted an all-pro linebacker since Jessie Armstead in 1993. This is a team that, in 2003, drafted what turned out to be the best quarterback in the draft but packaged him with other picks (one of which became Shawne Merriman) in order to get a lesser quarterback with more name recognition.

And, yet, it’s all almost genius in its own way, isn’t it?

We’ve now won two Super Bowls in four years, which is a very, very impressive feat given that this team really isn’t very good. Or are they? Seriously, what is this team?

This is the era of Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning. My thoughts one the latter are more complicated so we’ll start with the coach.

Tom Coughlin

A mere three years after taking his team to the Super Bowl, Coach Jim Fassel was unceremoniously fired following the abortion that was the Giants 39-38 playoff loss to the 49ers in 2002 and the injury-wracked 2003 season. The line on Fassel was always that he was too friendly to his players, led a sloppy show and most importantly of all, that his players lacked discipline. I like that word discipline a lot – it covers all manner of sins when discussing the failings of a football team without really meaning anything. It’s as if these players – these unbelievably fast, strong machines with bodies carved out of wood immediately devolve into freshmen at a fraternity kegger without a stern, business-like coach to keep them honest.

Enter Tom Coughlin, a man who’s primary claim to fame up until that moment had been his leading the Jacksonville Jaguars to an entirely improbable AFC Championship performance for the perception around the league that he didn’t take any guff from his players. Almost immediately Coughlin alienated veterans Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber with his dogmatic approach of instilling discipline through mandatory fines for being late to meetings and two-a-day practices designed to, I don’t even know, kill the players, I guess. For this, of course, the old grumpy white guy sports media could not praise him enough. Discipline was the watchword of the new Coughlin administration in Giants land.

There’s a funny thing about discipline in football. Unlike most of the other bullshit intangibles sports guys like to mouth off about, discipline is more or less a measurable quantity. A disciplined team should not get hit with penalties. While it’s not fair to look at one year and say whichever team got the least number of penalty yards was the most disciplined, over a period of years it gives a fair assessment of the culture of a team. Over the last seven years the Giants have ranked 13th, 16th, 19th, 27th, 11th, 26th, 27th and penalty yards where higher is better, out of 32 teams. I want you to read those numbers again. Not once did the Giants even luck into accidentally being a disciplined team.

Besides demonstrably failing at the one thing which was supposed to be his strength, Coughlin is among the least creative play-callers and formation designers in football. Coughlin calls a solid, unspectacular game that rarely embraces the particular strengths of the team and has not substantively changed at all during Coughlin’s eight-year tenure. Now, I’m not saying I want Coughlin to jump on every idiotic bandwagon that rolls through the NFL (I’m looking at you, Wildcat formation) but Coughlin is just an old-school guy locked fast in an outmoded way of thinking, especially offensively.

I was, for example, shocked – fucking shocked – to learn that Brandon Jacobs holds the team record for rushing touchdowns with 52. Of these 52 touchdowns, 27 of them , or a little over 50%, have come from rushes within 2 yards. This is despite the fact that Jacobs fails in short yardage situations 20% more often than the average running back. Any average NFL running back would have more luck scoring in short yardage situations and yet Coughlin has been beating his head against that same brick wall – not for one year, not two… seven years. In seven years Coughlin has not learned this blatantly obvious lesson. For what its worth, of Ahmad Bradshaw’s 18 touchdowns, only 17% have come from within 2 yards.

Coughlin will, from now on, receive favorable comparisons to a lot of great coaches… Parcells, Belichick, etc. But I found a piece in particular that had a comparison I really like: Coughlin is Tim Tebow. While that author meant it as a compliment: “When the critics put his back against the wall and put his job in jeopardy all he does in win,” I don’t. I mean it in the least complimentary way possible. In the same way that Tebow is lauded with credit that belongs to others (namely, his defense) and in the same way that Tebow manages to fall ass-backwards into dramatic, memorable wins, then yes, Coughlin is the Tebow of coaches. The problem with this Super Bowl is what it means for the Giants long-term. Somehow, Tom Coughlin is a multi-Super Bowl winning coach, which means it’s going to be some time before we’re able to get rid of him. Which means, the Giants yearly ritual of starting strong before running the gamut from mediocrity to more than one complete collapse in the second half of the year will continue indefinitely. Indeed, the Giants have never – not once – done as well or better in the second half of the season as they did during the first under Tom Coughlin. They are 47-17 through the first 8 games under Coughlin and 28-36 in the second 8.

Kevin Gilbride and Tom Coughlin are not the worst offensive minds in football, but they might be the worst to have ever received their particularly egregious brand of extended tenure.

Eli Manning

Eli Manning constantly makes us question the nature of what it is to be great. Eli is not a great quarterback. In 2010, I had him ranked 12th best in the league, this year I would say he cracked the top 10, but not the top five. He vacillates between mediocre and far more often simply “good.” He will occasionally ratchet that up to “very good” and that above all else is what’s so maddening about him and why I’m not sure what to make of him as a player, or how I feel about him as my team’s quarterback, both historically and moving forward.

I never understood what it was that people liked so much about a player being “clutch.” First of all, as a person who tried not to blindly ignore observable facts, I’m a scion of the idea that while clutch performances exist, clutch players do not. Though, more to the point, listening to sports talk radio guys laud players for having that “extra gear” they can shift into “when it counts,” I’m left wondering why anyone would want that. If a guy has an “extra gear” shouldn’t we be pissed he isn’t using it all the time? Doesn’t that imply “clutch” players aren’t always trying their hardest?

Eli isn’t exactly considered “clutch” but much has been made of how much better he played this year in the 4th quarter. While others congratulate him for that, it drives me nuts. Eli clearly has all of the tools, both physical and in his surrounding personnel to be an elite quarterback but he’s held back by bad decision-making. He throws way too many stupid passes and a lot of them are picked off. Watching him these last few weeks, though, really drives home – he fucking could be the best quarterback in the league, but he just isn’t. Why? I honestly have no clue. Maybe he’s just not driven by that phantom desire for greatness. Maybe he realizes he’s going to luck into a shot at the Super Bowl every four years and the years when the team really is great – like in 2008 – they don’t actually make it past the first round.

Now, however, we have to endure the interminable questions of whether Eli is better than his brother Peyton. Peyton Manning, for my money was, up until probably three years ago the unquestioned greatest quarterback of all time. With the good statistical years Brady had in the championship days giving way to some absolutely stupid performances since 2007, I think the gap has closed such that either one has a fair argument for the crown.

The Eli vs. Peyton debate is different, though, and more insidious. It says something about us and what we believe “greatness” is. Peyton Manning is not only a great athlete, but a brilliant football tactician who basically served as his team’s de facto offensive coordinator. Without him, a 10-6 Indianapolis team only two years removed from a Super Bowl win with roughly the same roster descended to the unquestioned worst team in the NFL in 2010. Peyton’s credentials should be absolutely beyond reproach and yet the question will be asked over and over again – is Eli better than his brother because he has more championships.

The answer should be, of course, FUCKING NO, MORON, HE’S NOT BETTER! But it’s not, and this becomes the insidious referendum on greatness I referred to earlier. Somehow, all the work – all the fantastic, unprecedented work Peyton Manning has done gets erased by a lucky two months for the Giants. This is the same impulse that lets us look at a Donald Trump on the one hand and a hardworking family man laid off and on unemployment on the other and declare one a success and one a failure without in any contextualizing the reality that lead to their respective places in the world.

We don’t care about the journey, we count up the Super Bowl rings or we tabulate a guy’s bank account and we declare a winner. And it’s fucked up.

Why do we bother keeping track of these athletes statistics to the third decimal place if we intend to ignore them? Joe Montana is better than Dan Marino. Why? Well, Joe Montana has four rings. Well, Joe Montana also had Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice. Joe Montana had a better tactician for a coach. You know, they guy who invented the offense they were using. Forget a nuanced examination the facts, let’s get something quick and dirty, like Super Bowl wins and move on.

Eli Manning is the living embodiment, for and against, of all of our worst and most reactionary impulses. I’ve never thought he was good enough to be a Championship quarterback, even after 2007 – a Super Bowl victory I thought belonged to the Giants line and Steve Spagnuolo and, in my head, only incidentally involved Eli. But tonight, having watched my team hoist their second trophy in four years? I don’t have the slightest clue what to think anymore. He must be a championship caliber quarterback but, if he is, than that designation has been devalued.

Eli Manning could be one of the greats, but now that his legacy in that regard is sort of locked in, I have a hard time believing he’s going to be pushing himself much harder to achieve that Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady level of elite since his place in their company has been, right or wrong, guaranteed by the number of rings he’s now won even if that ring belongs a lot more to Jason Pierre-Paul, Hakeem Nicks and Chris Snee than it does to him.

The Super Bowl is meant to be the culmination of a long process of planning and execution. You amass the pieces over a period of years and when the moment is right, with a little bit of luck you charge at the prize against your elite peers. The Giants, however, are more like this constant rebuilding projects with these short, staccato burst of greatness that just happened to be timed correctly. I don’t believe in the idea of sports momentum but having watching the Giants these past few weeks it’s definitely hard to say I’m as steadfast an un-believer as I once was. Similarly, I don’t ever believe a team “owns” another team but damned if it doesn’t seem like the Giants own the Patriots in a big spot.

Last night’s Bowl victory is probably not the start of a long dynasty. If anything, it’s as likely to make the Giants complacent and lazy but it feels wonderful for now just the same.

The magic of sports is that since it’s not pre-determined, the best team doesn’t always, or even usually win. Last night, the best team did not win. I just wonder about the way we experience sports, rationalize it, drench it in hindsight bias and devalue the achievements of people just because they didn’t achieve the one moment the one time. The fact that less than great men are capable of great moments should be a sign of hope to all of us who are not, strictly speaking great. But if we are all defined by a few moments when we were at our best or worst than we risk losing the flavor of what real life actually is. Sports it’s supposed to be this amplified competition that reflects real life so I for one, even as a Giants fan, refuse to be taken in by the hype. I know I’m going to have to have the same argument over and over again with other Giants fans explaining how I could possibly not see the obvious greatness of Eli Manning. Those late game picks may be long forgotten memories to them but I remember the failures – the late season swoons and one game doesn’t erase all that. Eli is not any one narrative — they are all right and they are all wrong in equal measure. One game doesn’t change who he is as a person or a professional.

I thank you, Eli Manning and the Giants, for the championships, the fun and the moments of joy but you still suck.

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23 replies »

  1. So, what do you do when reality refuses to align with your theory?

    I get the underlying points. The best team doesn’t always win (although we either give the team that wins the trophy or introduce the BCS to the pro game). Sometimes luck matters a lot. But damn, I have never seen a more pissed off, sour grapes WINNER in my life.

    There’s a huge flaw in your Coughlin/Tebow argument. To wit, get back to me when Tebow wins his second Super Bowl. I’ll still hate him, but I won’t be saying he’s not good enough to win a Super Bowl because, well, he’ll have won the Super Bowl. Twice.

    With Tebow you’re talking about a very few games with demonstrable support for the blind luck argument. For instance, if Marion Barber stays in bounds Oakland probably goes to the playoffs. But a few games and several seasons are different things because you get statistical anomalies like “the best team lost” and “they’re playing over their heads” in one-game or five-game bursts. Over time, though, what happens averages out and approximates what ought to have happened. It’s damned hard to luck into a Lombardi trophy and impossible to luck into two of them.

    And if it’s such a run of unthinkable blind luck, why can the guys on my sports list go back to week 16 of the regular season and show you where I warned them about this very thing?

    I don’t think Eli is as good as Peyton, who’d probably have two rings if it weren’t for a certain idiot kicker swallowing his tongue against Pittsburgh. But I do think the record makes clear that he’s one of the top six QBs in the league right now. As for TC, can you name any other bumbling doofus coaches who have won it all twice?

  2. I didn’t mean this to come off as sour grapes. I’m very happy about the Giants win. This is more a screed one our black and white interpretation of what it means to be “great” and how, if we start simply counting championships and saying Tom Coughlin is the equal of Don Shula or Eli is better than Peyton than we devalue the idea of what it means to be great.

    I’m not sure “bumbling doofus” is fair way to summarize my characterization of Tom Coughlin. I would prefer lucky anachronism, who wins in spite of his supposed coaching philosophies and strengths, not because of them. I think the 2005-present Giants are, from a talent standpoint, as good as any team in football, so the fact that the have two super bowls is just about right, but the WAY they got them is sort of backwards and doesn’t reflect well on what the team COULD be with better coaching.

    Winning it all twice is impressive but I still think it was mostly luck.

    I want it to be clear, I love my Giants but the prevailing reality is that Coughlin has only fielded one truly great team (in 2008) in his entire tenure. In a way the Giants have outperformed their actual offensive and defensive rankings for a good 7 years now. One could interpret that as Coughlin actual coaches the team to be better than it actually is, but I actually think the team’s have been talented enough to win 8-12 a year through talent alone and Coughlin actually holds them back.

    As far as Eli, I don’t know how I feel about him… I guess I’m an Eli agnostic. He’s good, but he’s not great. I’m not sure I would call Eli a top 6 QB but the important thing is he’s definitely not top 5 — but he probably SHOULD be.

    Again, I hope it doesn’t sound like sour grapes, this is just my reflections on a team that I loved to watch but probably shouldn’t have been able to win the Super Bowl without a TON of luck.

    • You’re arguing at cross-purposes with yourself. On the one hand you’re telling me measurables like rings are overrated, but in the next breath you’re bitching about Coughlin’s measurables.

      Like I say – it’s hard to luck into a championship. You can luck into winning a game or putting together a short streak, but over the course of a season it’s like Parcells said: you are what your record says you are. With the Giants this year, they were a tough as nails team that overcame MASSIVE injuries early in the year and the truth shone through once they got a little bit healthy. (Your analysis left out the part about them playing with a fourth-string secondary early on.)

      Doing it twice? That ain’t luck. You might not like it and it may not make sense to you, but that’s more a comment on how you make sense of things than it is anything else.

  3. “Which means, the Giants yearly ritual of starting strong before running the gamut from mediocrity to more than one complete collapse in the second half of the year will continue indefinitely.”

    That’s pretty funny. As for their identity, the Giants are simply pass-happy like any other top team. Offensive coordinator Gilbride said after the game yesterday that he considers an attempt at a downfield pass a necessary component of a long drive.

    What makes it difficult to assess Coughlin — many coaches, in fact — is that nobody, including sports journalists, seems to know just how much input he has into the game plan and play-calling. For the last few years, Giants fans have heaped tons of hate on Gilbride and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, but the latter two have shown the capacity to adjust and adapt, especially recently.

    Finally the New York Daily News featured an article about Gilbride a couple of weeks ago that I’ll never be able to find. It focused on how much pressure — more than perhaps any team — it put on the quarterback and receivers to change plays and routes on their own. That might give you some insight into how they sometimes (though not lately) seem to hit or miss, but when they hit, they hit big.

    (Spoken as a Giants fan who’s been watching the team since they had a QB who was remarkably similar to Manning — Y.A. Tittle.)

  4. I think any hate heaped on Fewell is a little misplaced. The Giants are a lot more creative with their blitz packages and their front pressure than they are with their offensive sets.

    However, the Giants total inability to field even an average secondary and linebacking corps is very frustrating and I’m sure makes game-planning on behalf of the defense difficult.

    You know its funny, you calling them “pass happy” because, I kinda wish they had passed more this year. I respect a team that commits to its running game, but the Giants running game was really bad this year. Like REALLY bad. They never really seemed to change how they did it either. Like, maybe they couldn’t started running with the FB in short yardage situations. And their use of the delays in passing situations drove me nuts. It never once saw it work in an important spot.

    This year, it sure seemed like the more they gave the ball to Manning, the better they did and I would’ve rather taken my chances with that even more than we did than spending 3/4 of every game hedging our bets with the run game only to find ourselves down in the 4th quarter over and over again because of it.

    I know Eli set the franchise record for passing yards this year, but that’s kinda like congratulating Alex Rodriguez for hitting 57 HRs in 2001… EVERONE hit 50 something HRs in 2001 and EVERYONE threw for at least 4500 yards this year.

  5. Matthew, where I disagree with you is in downgrading Eli, particularly after what he’s proved this year.

    Where I wholeheartedly AGREE with you, is that Coughlin (an offensive coach by background) and his offensive coordinator,Keviin Gilbride, leave a lot to be desired, not only in the creativity department, but in logic. In fact I would venture to say that Eli’s success and the Giants’ offensive explosiveness this year has largely been in spite of Coughlin and Gilbride.

    Case in point: the reason the Giants are so frequently in the position of having to mount 4th quarter comebacks is that they far too often settle for field goals instead of touchdowns in the red zone, last night’s Super Bowl being a prime example. And if you review the play calling in the red zone, particularly in goal- to-go situations, you’ll see that far too frequently Gilbride “wastes” plays, as where he calls for runs on second and goal from the nine yard line, where even a “successful run” of five yards down to the four doesn’t really make the third and goal play markedly easier.

    What Coughlin and Gilbride fail to grasp is that limiting the quarterback’s passing plays into the end zone and putting everything on one third down pass constititutes nothing less than “offensive play-calling malpractice.” That’s not to say that running plays between, for example, the ten and five yard lines should never be tried, depending on the match-ups, etc., but their insistence on constantly mixing in running plays for the sake of “mixing it up” has, in this writer’s opinion, greatly reduced the number of touchdowns scored instead of field goals.

  6. Sam – I’m arguing about the persistence of certain narratives in the face of counter-factuals.

    Super Bowl rings aren’t a countable, they’re a complex story with complex realities behind them. They’re not a good measurement of success because the way you get them is so divorced from what it means to play football on a day to day basis. Sure, they’re the ultimate goal in the same way that any endeavor works towards some distant achievement, but normally, the distant achievement is totally absent from the daily goals and targets we have to hit in order to do what needs to be done.

    I’m sure you understand the point I’m making and yet you keep making the traditional argument — that winning two championships can’t be accomplished through luck. The opposite is true, two championships can’t be won without enormous, copious amounts of luck – that’s true of everyone, not just the Giants. But its hard to watch a team, who twice now won Super Bowls after barely making the playoffs, win the Super Bowl without a bye-week or homefield in either instance, and without a top 20th percentile quarterback and think “man, that took even more luck than usual.”

    I just don’t think winning rings, in and of itself is a reliable metric for determining greatness. If it is, than nothing else matters but those few dramatic moments that only the very few of us will ever experience. It devalues what it means to be great.

    The fact that Peyton Manning player superbly, day in and day out over and over again over a period of years should not be undone by Eli playing not even THAT well over two 8 week periods 4 years apart. That’s just not fair. It doesn’t make sense. It turns greatness into a useless, reductive and arbitrary moniker.

    Doing it twice isn’t luck? I just don’t agree with you.

    • MATT: See, now you’re arguing with a point I’m not making.

      Let me be clearer. “Luck” isn’t systemic. It isn’t programmatic. It isn’t predictable. Luck is a one-off, individualistic thing. If you’re in a casino and you put your life savings on 32 and 32 comes up, that’s luck. If you do it five times in a row, two large gentlemen in subdued, yet tasteful suits are going to materialize at your side and ask if they can have a word with you.

      There was plenty of “luck” in last night’s game and Tyree’s helmet-pin catch in the previous SB was one of the luckiest things I have ever seen. Over the course of a season there are plenty of moments of luck – both ways. But the course of a season tempers the luck. It averages out because luck isn’t directional. As I said before, and as I explained in a recent Tebow post, over time reality tends to approach “what ought to happen.” Flip a coin five times. You might get five straight heads. Flip it a million times and you’re going to be within the confidence interval of 50 percent unless the coin is unbalanced.

      If it happens over the course of MULTIPLE seasons, it isn’t luck, even though there are individual moments of luck along the way.

      DON: That “early failures necessitating late heroics” dynamic reminds me of another QB. Go back and examine the first three quarters of all those games where John Elway mounted 4th-quarter comebacks. Then Google “Dan Reeves.”

  7. @ Don

    Beautifully said, I couldn’t agree more. Remember, I don’t think Eli is bad, it just seems like he could be truly amazing. Truly elite. I’m sure you’ll agree that Eli has solidly been a second tier QB with the tools to be one of the greats. Its true, he’s never had a coach who wasn’t Coughlin so that could be why. My number 1 gripe against Eli, though, is the picks and its not fair to blame THAT entirely or even mostly on Coughlin.

    But to your point that Gilbride seems to “mix it up” for the sake of being able to say he “mixed it up” that really rings true to me. I get so irritated when he runs a delay on 2nd and 9 for a 1 yard gain and it seems to happen WAY too often. I think that’s why the other commenters assertion that the Giants are a “pass happy” didn’t really feel right to me.

  8. @Sam

    Yeah, I get what you’re saying and I don’t agree with you. I understand your point that a long football season should have a team regress to the mean and a team can’t luck into 2 championships. The reason I disagree with you is because in the Coughlin era, the Giants have never put together a totally, holistically realized season, save maybe 2008.

    The Giants were bad more often than they were good for the first 14 weeks of the season and that was largely true of the 2007 as well (though they did put together an early 6 game streak). If the Giants never even made the playoffs in 2007 or this year, no one would have batted an eye or been shocked. The Giants didn’t need to be lucky all season, they only had to be lucky for the last 8 weeks or so — and so they were. The fact that the two Super Bowl victories happened under such similar auspices strikes me as an accident of fate, not any kind of grand design. Unless Tom Coughlin planned to tank 3/4 of two seasons, back into the playoffs thanks to inferior competition and then became white hot against the best teams the league had to offer at exactly the right moment — I just don’t see how you think Coughlin could just turn on that magic at the exact moment it was needed.

    I think a team could luck into championships over multiple seasons. I could win betting on 00 playing roulette five times in a row… and I think that’s what the Giants did. Football seasons are very short — we didn’t flip a coin 50 million times. The Giants two runs in 2007 and 2011 are more like flipping a coin 8 times and getting tails each time – very unlikely but wholly conceivable. If I went around telling the story of how I twice flipped tails 8 times in a row absolutely no one would doubt me, despite there being a fraction of 1% chance of that happening. On the other hand, no would call me a coin-flipping virtuoso or warlock either.

    Just because the Giants pulled off something very unlikely doesn’t inherently mean they did it primarily due to skill. Tom Coughlin has coached the Giants to being a top 10 defense exactly once and a top 10 offense exactly once and they weren’t even the same season. For his trouble, he has two Super Bowl rings. If you think that’s a testament to his skill then I don’t know what to tell you. You just have a supreme faith in outcomes as a measure of skill that statistics and reason don’t bear out.

    If we let the 2011 NFL season play out 100 more times, how many times do you think the Giants win the Super Bowl again? 1? 2? 3? Maybe 5?

    Again, the delight of sports is that sometimes, often even, the best team doesn’t win. You’re letting hindsight color too much of your perception. You don’t think a team can luck into 2 Super Bowls and I just don’t agree with you. Was it all luck and no skill? No, of course not. But the ratio way favors the former, in my opinion.

    • Well, I’d make two points. First, what you’re describing isn’t unique to the Giants. We’ve had a lot of SB champs without “totally, holistically realized seasons.” Pretty much any wild card entrant who wins it fits that description and there have been some divisional winners who weren’t gangbusters during the regular season. This is an artifact of the system, though. The more teams you let in, the more teams that fit your description have a chance.

      It’s less likely in sports like hoops, where you have too many teams in the postseason but they have to win a series to advance. In a single-elim system it’s really “on any given Sunday.” Last year the Seahawks took out New Orleans but do you think they’d have won a best-of-seven?

      This is why I prefer the Euro football system. You play everybody twice and the team with most points wins the league.

      The other point is more of a test of your hypothesis. If what you’re arguing is true, then doesn’t it suggest that every so often (some statistical likelihood) a truly dog-butt team should somehow stumble and bumble to a Super Bowl? Think about this year’s Rams, for instance.

  9. I see Matt’s point. And since i’m not a fan of either team, and generally dislike the NFL and how a boring game last night gets called “exciting” by the media pisses me off enough to see this whole thing through a different lens.

    If you stopped and counted all the times the “analysis” talked about Eli going down in history or Manningham’s catch being talked about for 50 years, you’d get even more bored than watching football on any given Sunday. Nobody’s going to be talking about Manningham’s catch in 50 years…except maybe Mario. Sure, the game wasn’t decided until the very end, but was anyone (not a diehard Pats or Giants fan) on the edge of their seat?

    The NFL is simultaneously designed so that there are no truly great teams and also to be hype machine so that every time might be “great” in the fuzzy, over-hyped definition of greatness used by the NFL. Hell, the players on the podium didn’t even seem that excited … why should i be?

    • You’re being pretty harsh. I thought it was a great game, although that comes with an era asterisk. As you say, it’s a league built for parity (ah, the irony, that America’s #1 sports league is openly and rabidly socialist). But within that context it was about as good as Super Bowls get. (Although the Rapelisberger pass to beat Jesus Warner and the Cards a few years back was pretty high drama, too.)

      Still, nothing has yet unseated the ’58 championship game as the best ever, I don’t think. Gods, John Unitas was the man…..

  10. I don’t think i am. I’m not saying it was a bad game, as Super Bowls so often are, but the game won in the last 4 minutes isn’t something out-of-the-ordinary in the NFL these days. I wouldn’t call either team great by any soft-definition of the word. Matt’s broken down the Giants, and the Patriots have a swiss-cheesy defense to go along with an offensive weakness or two.

    It was neither a shoot-out nor a defensive battle. There was no great comeback. It may have been the two best teams in the league by this point on the calendar, but was it significantly different than what you might well have seen in Week 6? Was it great because it was the Super Bowl?

    As horrible as this is to say, there wasn’t even a compelling story line to give it any emotional depth. Which is probably why the announcers had to keep reminding us that some sort of history was being made that will come in handy on trivia night in 15 years. The most compelling thing about this game was Bellicheck letting the Giants score … which he should have done at 2:00 minutes rather than 1:00.

  11. @Lex

    I’ma have to go with Sam on this one. It might not have been a perfect game, but I thought it was pretty exciting and I’m confident that would still be the case were I not a fan of either team.

    Sounds like your beef is with football in general rather than this game in particular. I don’t think the NFL precludes greatness, I just think the really ignorant and shortsighted media are way too quick to grant greatness with the one hand and slap it away with the other. For example, I saw it debated on PTI the other day that maybe the Patriots would have to win ANOTHER one to go down as one of the great teams. That’s fucking insane. I just don’t understand how some of these narratives get such downhill momentum when their is no reality to back them up, to wit, the Tom Coughlin’s teams being “disciplined” narrative I discussed in the article.

    The fact of the matter is, we’re tracking sports to an insane degree with metrics and stats and scorekeeping for every possible occurrence. The fact that we’re so willing to toss those stats out and just apply whatever narrative we like best doesn’t bode well for other endeavors that matter more, like public policy and education where we DON’T have stats and metrics for every contingency — imagine how it easy it must be to invent a narrative and further it in THOSE arenas. It just unsettles me how small-minded we can be when we have our blinders on, so I wanted to write an article that said to all the Giants fans “Enjoy the hell out of this victory but don’t become blind to the realities that led us here.”

  12. I found your article to be quite thought provoking so I thought I would share some of my thoughts that were…provoked.

    First of all, just to get it out of the way, I don’t really care for Kevin Gilbride, and I think Brandon Jacobs is one of the most over-rated Giants of all time. The rest of this response is dedicated to my feelings on Coughlin and Eli, and my feelings on your feelings.

    Let’s start where you started, Tom Coughlin. You stated that,

    “Coughlin is among the least creative play-callers and formation designers in football. Coughlin calls a solid, unspectacular game that rarely embraces the particular strengths of the team and has not substantively changed at all during Coughlin’s eight-year tenure.”

    Coughlin style of coaching is exactly that, unspectacular. But perhaps that is one of his biggest strengths, play-calling that has been relatively consistent since Eli was drafted, and as the Giants run game has deteriorated over the past couple of years has allowed Eli to seamlessly take over the load with a group of very young receivers. Here are the Giants Total Offensive ranks and Rushing Offensive Ranks since 2005:

    Year Total Rushing
    2005 4th 6th
    2006 14th 7th
    2007 16th 4th
    2008 7th 1st
    2009 8th 17th
    2010 5th 6th
    2011 8th 32nd

    Despite a running game that jumped from 1st to 32nd in four years, the total offense went from 7th to 8th. Now, a lot of that has to do with Eli’s maturation, but a lot I believe a lot of Eli’s maturation has come with Coughlin’s patience, and the fact that they didn’t hold Eli back early in his career, he’s taken chances deep since he got here and the QB and the coach both took their lumps for the many mistakes he made in stride. Unlike the Jets who seemed like they wanted to follow that route with Sanchez but after the first couple signs of trouble, have completely taken a step back. Since Eli has been drafted, I’ve always had the feeling that the coaching staff has had complete confidence with the ball in his hands at the end of a game, for better or for worse, and that patience for his learning curve only got us two Super Bowl wins, each featuring an Eli-orchestrated last possession drive. And while NY fans are quick to jump ship after a disaster, (as I was after the Redskin game), I know those same fans felt confident at the end of that game Sunday, down 2, on what we knew would most likely be our last drive. The only thing Eli did wrong was he drove down the field too easily, and made us sweat out a hail-mary pass.

    As for measuring discipline in penalty yards, I see your point but I don’t know if I quite agree with it. While some penalties are born out of lack of discipline, I don’t believe that looking at total penalty yards is a fool-proof measure of how disciplined a team is. As you showed, Coughlin’s teams have never been among the league leaders in penalty yards. But here are the penalty yardage ranks of the NFC and AFC champs over the past 4 years (before this season): 4th and 25th, 17th and 2nd, 25th and 29th, 11th and 16th. We’ve had more Super Bowl representatives in the bottom 10 than in the top 10 over the past four years, but it’s hard for me to call those teams “undisciplined”, and if you are to use that as a measure for discipline, then it shows almost no correlation between discipline and success.

    Tom Coughlin is not a brilliant X’s and O’s coach, he hasn’t invented any new and exciting formations, but perhaps his biggest strength is, he’s not going to lose the game for you. He’s put in place a simple system and allows his players to win or lose the games. I can point to plenty of instances where a coach’s bad decision, bad time management or lack of awareness cost a team a game. I can’t think of too many instances where that is the case during Coughlin’s tenure. So while it’s easy to point to things like inventive formations, or creative play-calling, as a measure of a good coach, I believe it’s equally if not more important but far less obvious to have a coach that is never going to cost you the game. So I guess you can say the measurement I prefer for measuring a coach is “Not being a bad coach”.

    Now let’s analyze the 3 collapses in between the Super Bowl runs. 2008, the Giants are the best team in the league, Plaxico shoots himself in the leg and the team gets completely derailed, never regains their stride and loses their first playoff game after the bye. I don’t know if I can really pin that on Coughlin, they lost their number one receiver and the leader of their defense, Antonio Pierce, was now part of a criminal investigation, what coach would be able to keep his team focused through that? 2009, first year without Steve Spagnuolo, Bill Sheridan comes in and turns a 5th ranked defense into 30th ranked defense, and allows 40+ points in 5 games including 3 of the last 4. A year in which the Eagles and Cowboys both made the playoffs, and the Giants were still in the hunt, beating the Cowboys for the second time go into a tie at 7-5. Then, the Eagles come to town. Bill Sheridan, meet Desean Jackson. 178 yards, 2 TDs later (one receiving, one return) the Giants had been all but eliminated from the playoffs. 2010, another new defensive coordinator in Perry Fewell, another defensive collapse, another year where Eli and Coughlin put the Giants in position for the playoffs and then, Matt Dodge, meet DeSean Jackson. Sometimes you can pin it on the coach, but in sometimes it really just comes down to the guys that are on the field. Especially last year, a fourth quarter collapse that so transcended what you could attrinute “bad coaching” and a collapse that was still salvageable when Tom Coughlin went over to Matt Dodge and “coached” him to KICK THE GODDAMN BALL OUT OF BOUNDS. Sigh.

    I’m not saying Tom Coughlin is free from blame for those late season collapses, or he’s Vince Lombardi, but I am saying he has been steadfast since he got here, he’s always put faith in his quarterback, he never costs you a game with bad decision making, and he’s done it all while being extremely over criticized in the toughest sports town in America.

    Now as for Eli. He drives me crazy, he can have an absolute meltdown of a game against teams they should beat with their eyes closed. As far as regular season stats go, he couldn’t touch his brother with a ten foot pole. He’s not even the best regular season QB in his class, that distinction belongs to Philip Rivers. But he is one of the best when it matters. This brings me to you point I most wanted to debate, that clutch players do not exist. First of all, while that Baseball Prospectus study may be accurate, to apply that to football, is literally insane, for one HUGE reason. As every Red Sox-Yankees game over the past 10 years has taught us, THERE IS NO CLOCK in baseball. Outside of the additional pressure, an at-bat in the 9th inning is exactly the same as an at-bat in the 1st inning. However, getting the ball down 4 with less than 3 minutes left is completely different than getting the ball down 4 in the first quarter. Also, clutch isn’t necessarily raising your performance in late-game situations or playoff games, it’s being able to continue to play at a high level and consistently not make mistakes in those situations. Derek Jeter is highly regarded as one of the greatest if not the greatest post-season baseball player of our generation. His post-season batting average for his career is .307, his regular season batting average? .313. Being clutch is not raising your game, it’s not allowing your game to fall. Most people would agree, Adam Vinatieri is perhaps the greatest clutch playoff kicker of all time. His regular season FG percentage is 82.9%. His postseason percentage is 83.3%. A difference of 4 tenths! So my point for being clutch is similar to my point about coaching, it’s not about being visibly better, it’s about not being bad.

    To illustrate this point, here are 5 Quarterbacks’ (Eli, the two immortals Brady and Peyton, and the two “These guys are definitely better than Eli” QB’s, Rivers and Romo) QB ratings in the regular season vs. in the playoffs:

    Reg. Playoffs Difference
    Peyton 94.9 88.4 -6.5
    Brady 96.4 87.8 -8.6
    Romo 96.9 80.8 -16.1
    Rivers 95.5 79.2 -16.3

    ELI 82.1 89.3 +7.2

    Eli is the lowest by far in the regular season. And even though he is better in the playoffs, his playoff rating is still not as good as any of these guys regular season numbers. I’m not going to argue that he is a better quarterback than any of these guys, because I’m not an idiot, he is easily 5th on this list. I am going to tell you I DON’T FUCKING CARE. Your line about Eli that most bewildered me was,

    “Eli Manning could be one of the greats, but now that his legacy in that regard is sort of locked in, I have a hard time believing he’s going to be pushing himself much harder to achieve that Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady level of elite since his place in their company has been, right or wrong, guaranteed by the number of rings he’s now won…”

    First of all, to insinuate for any second that Eli doesn’t have the desire to be the best that any other quarterback has, is absolutely crazy. A guy who has played through injuries, and more criticism than any other active quarterback, and a guy who came into a league where his father and older brother had already established themselves and therefore caused fans and critics to put unjustified expectations on him (expectations he has already surpassed) and has never let any of that affect him. And then you almost make it sound like you resent him for winning two super bowls despite not being as good as Rodgers or Brady. Well you were right about one thing, he is not as good as Rodgers or Brady, he’ll never throw 50 touchdowns, he’ll definitely never throw only 6 interceptions. I agree, he is not the best. But since when is that the most important thing? That’s what makes sports, especially the NFL great, the beat up wild-card Packers go on to win the Super Bowl, the 15-1 reigning champ Packers lose their first playoff game. The wild card Giants beating the 18-0 Patriots.

    So maybe, you’re right, maybe the best team didn’t win last night. But that is literally the whole point of a playoff system. If we wanted to find the best team each year in any given sport, the most effective way to do it would be to have every team play every other team an equal amount of times and then crown the team with the best record as champions. The team that is the champion is not the best team, it’s the team that wins the Super Bowl! That’s why they play the games! That’s why we watch the games!
    I think that the increasing accessibility of every statistic under the sun, and the modern day ease of communication, have lead to the mindless over-debating of who is the best or who is better than who, which I know I have contributed to in this post, and to a certain degree, I enjoy. And I am not trying to say Eli is one of the best or that Coughlin is now a Hall of Famer, but when your team wins a Super Bowl and you question how you should feel because you don’t feel they were the best team!?!?!? That’s the whole point of sport! You COMPETE to be the champion, you don’t dump the players play in a vacuum and then analyze who has the best numbers, you compete, you have two entities each trying to defeat each other in isolated events. I love to debate, but not at the cost where we completely lose sight of the actual point of sport.

  13. No, it’s not about the game of football, though it is to some degree how i feel about the NFL in general. I much prefer Saturday football, even if i don’t have any emotional stake in the game, to Sunday football.

  14. @Pat

    I agree with probably 70% of your points so I’m going to pick the two that I think are misunderstanding my point.

    The traditional definition of a clutch player is a player that RAISES his level of play in a big spot, not plays the same. But even if I agree with your definition, if you see this seasons breakdown of Eli in the playoffs vs. Eli in the regular season, or Eli in the 4th quarter vs. Eli in the first three you’ll see he’s not just maintaining his level of play but playing much, much better in those bigger spots. Part of that could easily be sample size problem, but I mean, its quite a coincidence… If I Eli can be that guy he was in the 4th quarter of games…. throwing 6 Tds to every pick, why can’t he be that all the time? The most likely view in my mind is probably intellectual laziness. His picks rarely come from mis-throws, usually just from straight-up bad decisions. You could not say that about Rodgers, Brees, Brady or his brother… you CAN say that about Matt Ryan, Schaub and Rivers and I think that’s who’s class Eli is in. What bothers me is that it certainly seems he could be as good as Rodgers ALL THE TIME but he isn’t but it certainly doesn’t seem as though its for lack of skill or receiving weapons and for his part, Rodgers didn’t have a great running game to support him either. I don’t Eli be better in the 4th quarter, I want him to be play consistently at a high level and maintain that in a big spot.

    My only other quarrel with your comment is the easy separation of regular season and playoff games. It’s just not fair because the sample size is so microscopically small. Unlike, say, the NBA, there’s not a lot of evidence that an NFL playoff game is THAT different from a regular season game. Furthermore, just like his brother Eli has mixed horrendous playoff performances with some brilliant ones. Go to football reference and look at the game logs… Peyton is BETTER than Eli in the playoffs over his career. But even at that, it doesn’t matter because its such a small sample size. Even smart guys like you fall for this way too easy furthering of pre-conceived narratives even if they have no basis in reality – “Peyton chokes in big spots, this guys a gamer, that guys clutch. These guys are roughly the same players in the playoffs as they were in the regular season. In a league where each individual regular season game counts for nearly 7% of all the play that will happen in a given season an NFL regular season game is a very rigorous test of a players ability. To write off Peyton’s accomplishments because of a perceived downturn of play in the postseason – a downturn that DOES NOT EXIST, mind you, is exactly what I spent 2500 words railing against above. I just don’t get why these bullshit narratives are so important to sports fans or why they’re so unwilling to take a trip over to football reference and find out whether or not they’re actually true.

    There’s a lot of nuance in this world and if we can’t appreciate it in sports, where we have logs of games and stats for EVERYTHING, what chance does everything and everyone else have to get a fair shake?

  15. Matt,
    Maybe traditional perception of a clutch player is someone who raises their game, but I’m saying that that is not actually the case. And I understand why one would be frustrated with a player that seems to try harder in “clutch” situations (4th quarter, playoffs) but is not as focused in other game situations. While my comparison of Eli vs. the other QB’s might make it seem that way, I wasn’t trying to prove that Eli plays better in the playoffs, I was trying to illustrate that these other QB’s allow their game to fall, not so much Brady and Peyton, but definitely Romo and Rivers. And if you really look at and analyze Eli’s career, you’d find the differences between the regular season vs. playoffs and 4th quarter vs. other 3 is not that different. If you take out his first two and a half seasons where, let’s admit it, he was going through the learning curve that all QB’s should be allowed to go through (I’m talking to you Jet fans/management) , his QB rating in the past 5 seasons is roughly 86.3. Now weigh that against the 89.3 career rating in the playoffs and an 88.0 QB rating in the 4th quarter over those same 5 years and you’d see that since he’s established himself he has been relatively the same in all situations, regular season, fourth quarter, and playoffs.

    As for Peyton playing better than Eli over their playoff careers, I’m looking at the stats and I don’t know how you can really say that. I’m not saying by any means that Eli is better, if anything they are pretty equal, their ratings differing by less than 1 point. And believe me I know Eli has thrown up some stinkers but let’s analyze those stinkers, his first playoff game coming off his first full season (0 td’s 3 int) which, to me, falls under the learning curve bracket, I didn’t expect much of him in that game and he definitely met my expectations. Stinker #2 (0 td’s 2 int) in a year in which a few weeks prior, his number 1 receiver SHOT HIMSELF, not only completely derailing the team’s focus but also leaving Eli with an aging Amani Toomer in his last year, and a developing Steve Smith in his first full year as his only real weapons. His only other playoff loss, he threw for an 85.6 rating pretty much right on par with his career numbers. I’m not saying those games don’t count, I’m just saying, as great as stats are, some times you have to weigh them with a little bit of context.

    For instance, look at some of Peyton’s stinkers. How about a 1 TD, 4 int performance in the 2003 AFC title game at New England, a year in which we won an MVP! And anyone that says Eli’s ring belong to the defense or other various players and not to him, go take a look at Peyton’s numbers in his Super Bowl playoff run, 3 TD’s, 7 INTERCEPTIONS. Eli’s number’s in his 2 Super Bowl runs that, in some people’s opinion, have nothing to do with him, 15 TD’s, 2 interceptions. Now, again, I’m not saying that he is the greatest post-season QB ever, I’m just saying how dare anyone think that Eli didn’t have a huge part in each of those runs, or chalk up either of those wins to luck.

    I don’t intend any of this to put down Peyton, in my book, he is easily one of the top 3 QB’s of all time if not the best. And I am not trying to argue that Eli is better than him, in regular season or in the playoffs, and you are right that NFL playoffs for any player are too small a sample size to argue who’s better than who, if you think I’m trying to Eli is better than anyone in the playoffs or regular season you are missing my point. I’m trying to say that I don’t care whether or not he’s better. You say, “yeah he won a Super Bowl BUT he’s not as good as these other guys”, I’m saying “Yeah he’s not as good as these other guys BUT he won a Superbowl”. You are right that Peyton’s performance in a small sample size doesn’t make him a “worse” player and that Eli’s performance in a small sample size doesn’t make him a “better” player. But that’s where I think the whole vernacular of sports debate need to change, just as the Super Bowl winner is not always the best team, we should not be always be asking “Who’s the best quarterback?” but rather “which quarterback would you rather have?” Eli is not a top 5 quarterback in the context of stats, that’s clear as day, but he is easily a top 5 quarterback in who you would want competing for a Super Bowl, which, last time I checked, was the ultimate goal, and therefore is what the emphasis should be placed on.

  16. I’m a Giants fan. You are not, but thanks for opinion.

    Your “fucking shocked,” about the ” “bullshit intangibles” that Coughlin is a good coach.

    “Eli is not a great quarterback,”And “[you] never understood what it was that people liked so much about a player being clutch.”

    I feel a little bit sorry for you, as I think you dont understand what a team philosophy can acheive, Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning do.

    And you are not a Giants fan bro…