Silver Linings From A Lackluster Super Bowl 53

Normally the day following a Super Bowl feels like it should be a national holiday. But given the experience that was Super Bowl 53, work might be a more enthralling option this year.

A Super Bowl can be both a defensive coaching gem and dreadfully boring. The 53rd version of the culmination of an NFL season certainly checked both boxes. Super Bowls in the modern era are typically watched by an average of over 100 million viewers, most of whom are casual fans or only watch this one game. Thus Super Bowl 53, which went to halftime with a 3-0 score and ended with the least amount of points ever scored in the big game, will go largely go down as the most lackluster Super Bowl of all time.

A more avid fan might appreciate Bill Belichick and Brian Flores’ ability to widely out-scheme Sean McVay who admitted to being outcoached. Jared Goff looked like a deer in headlights all night as  Dont’a Hightower and company kept him off kilter, while Stephon Gilmore was a beast and made a game-clinching interception off a ill-advised Goff deep pass that floated too long for Brandin Cooks to make a play. Despite being blitzed half the time, the Rams never adjusted.

Wade Phillips and the Rams held the Patriots in check for most of the night. They largely stopped the run game, at least in the first half. Aaron Donald sacked Tom Brady for the first time this postseason. But the Rams had no answer for Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman who was able to create space even when double-teamed.

Yet all told this game offered little reason for a causal fan to morph into an avid one.  No explosive plays. No enthralling halftime act. No newness in the champion.  After about the 37th punt it was impossible not to wonder what Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes were doing at the moment and whether they could gather their teams for an impromptu alternate performance.

Before I keep going down this rabbit hole of negativity, which would be quite easy, this was a Super Bowl with many components and I’m here to spotlight the aspects that didn’t make me want to poke my eyes out. Welcome to the no Maroon 5 zone!

Bill Belichick’s finest hour

As mentioned, this was a game for the defensive enthusiasts. Belichick’s (and Brian Flores’s) ability to establish such defensive domination early set the tone for the entire game. The Patriots were well-prepared,  spooked Goff from the start and made perfect adjustments throughout. McVay was unable to reach deep into his usual bag of tricks which defined a Rams offense that averaged 421 total yards per game in the regular season. The Pats defense held them to just 260 yards.

Of the six Super Bowls, this was Belichick’s most impressive performance given that it was Brady’s worst Super Bowl in terms of productivity. The Pats defense had to control this one, which they pretty much did from start to finish. One constant question during Super Bowl week was whether Belichick or Brady is more paramount to the Pats’ run. While they form one of the all-time great partnerships in sports, Super Bowl 53 showed that Belichick’s beautiful football mind is irreplaceable.

The Gronk Factor

Over the Pats nearly two decades of dominance, Belichick has been a wizard at plugging holes and shuffling guys in and out of his system while still finding himself deep in the postseason every year. In Super Bowl 53 (and this entire postseason) Gronkowski showcased that he’s the only current Pats player other than Brady that is irreplaceable.

Big players come to life in big moments and that’s exactly what Gronk did in the only touchdown drive of the game. Both of his catches, an 18-yarder to open the drive and the 29-yard catch up the seam that set up an easy Sony Michel 2-yard touchdown, were vintage Gronk. Outsizing. Outmuscling.

Gronk wasn’t always a factor – no one was in this game – but he was when it counted and reminded us why Brady’s completion percentage is almost five points higher when Gronk is on the field versus when he is not.

The Best Defender You Haven’t Heard Of

Rams linebacker Cory Littleton will make the wrong side of Super Bowl imagery trying to prevent Gronk from catching the aforementioned 29-yard yard catch that was perfectly placed by Brady, but that play should not define his performance. Littleton was a disruptive force in this game, snagging an early interception on Brady’s first pass, breaking up other passes and hitting HARD.  Undrafted, Littleton not only won a training camp battle to replace Alec Ogletree, but also became the Rams’ leading tackler this season. A great story and a vicious player to watch moving forward.

McVay Owns Up

Kudos to Sean McVay for graciously admitting that he was outcoached and expressing that he was numb. It was a moment of honesty and accountability you don’t often see in other coaches decades older. While McVay hardly looked like the wunderkind we were use to seeing in the regular season, there should be no shame in being outcoached by Belichick.

Romo Delivers

For fans of teams other than New England and Los Angeles, Tony Romo was a massive draw. The game action proved limiting but Romo, along with Nantz, tried to liven up the broadcast with energy and humor.  Romo’s opening line of the broadcast, “I’ve been waiting to hear, ‘Welcome to the Super Bowl’ my whole life, “ was perfection. He approached a ho hum game with curiosity and passion. At one point, the Patriots called a play named “Reagan,” in which Romo immediately said, “Reagan, as in Ronald Reagan?” with his signature childlike enthusiasm. He also had a sweet pregame interview with Brady.

Appreciating the Punters

Belichick has long expressed his admiration for Rams punter Johnny Hekker. Hekker did not disappoint, setting a Super Bowl record with a 65-yard punt. But the Patriots had their own superstar punter in Ryan Allen who saw far more action than he could have predicted. Allen’s three punts that pinned the Rams inside their 20 were crucial.

NFL 100-Year Commercial

Here’s a prediction no one made: A spot involving Roger Goodell would win the night. The kick off commercial to celebrate the NFL’s 100th season is an absolute masterpiece involving 44 players ranging from Jim Brown to Odell Beckham to Brady and recreated some of the NFL’s greatest plays including the Immaculate Reception. It also included three empowering, glass-shattering women: Sarah Thomas, the first female official, Beth Mowins, the first women to call a nationally televised NFL game and Sam Gordon, the 14-year-old football phenom. All told this ad is absolute perfection.

Tracy Wolfson Gets The Interview

Tom Brady didn’t make it easy for the intrepid CBS sideline reporter. As Wolfson repeatedly tried to grab Brady in a sea of Patriots in tight quarters, he eschewed her to go from one embrace to another.  In patiently muscling her way Brady postgame interview, Wolfson showcased exactly why the sideline reporter isn’t quite as glamorous as most think. Terrific work asking him all the right questions.

Officials Stay Out of the Way

Aside from am early frustrating helmet-to helmet call on Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman who appeared to make a clean, well-timed tackle on Rex Burkhead, we didn’t talk much about the officiating. For the most part John Parry and his crew let the players play and didn’t miss or call any other penalties that have us steaming the next day.

Midnight Train to Glory

Like all parts of the body, vocal cords age but you wouldn’t know it from 74-year-old Gladys Knight who rocked the national anthem. Her sweet vocals, proper intonations, grace and stylish sparkling booties provided 2:01 seconds of chills.