Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Super Bowl Preview - Statistics, Legacies, and Gambling

Loyal readers, take a breath. We are almost there. The forty-fourth Super Bowl lies but four laborious days ahead. Come Sunday evening in Miami, arguably the longest fortnight on the sporting calendar will finally come to a much anticipated end. But unfortunately, that end marks the onset of one of the other most arduous stints on the sporting calendar: football offseason. For seven character-building months, our weekends and Mondays will be bereft of the pigskin. And worse, NFL related story lines -- merely a tease -- will irrevocably still dominate the headlines, only exacerbating our football depravity. Sure, there are many other offerings worth garnering our interest besides the glory of the gridiron (as detailed in my 2010 prospectus: Part 1 & Part 2), but without football, the world of sports is a less lively locale. That, no one can deny. Sigh. Now I'm getting all verklempt. Moving on.

Just as marathon runners must battle the beast of exhaustion, so too must all football fans battle the beast of the dreadful Super Bowl bye-week. Though not as soul-crushing as the offseason, it is still an insufferable stretch in which every story, yarn, and anecdote that bears the slightest hint of relevance to the big game gets beaten to death worse than a piƱata at fat camp (that, my friends, is the very definition of a Rick Reilly joke -- my apologies, I couldn't help myself). Although your eyes and ears are undoubtedly nearing their respective saturation points with the interminable bye-week media coverage (in case you haven't heard, the Colts and Saints are playing this year), I urge you to fight through the pain and peruse my appraisal of Super Bowl XLIV as well. For those of you who simply cannot subject themselves to another ounce of pre-Super Bowl tedium, I'm sure you will find this to be a welcome change of pace. For the rest of you, kindly press on.

They Call Me Nostradamus

In a previous column (Nov 5, 2009), I compared the 2009 New Orleans Saints offense to that of the 1999 St. Louis Rams, or as they are more affectionately known, the Greatest Show on Turf. In the dawn of an impending Super Bowl that features the aforementioned high-octane Saints offense, let's take a closer look at how this assessment panned out over the course of the regular season (and playoffs). Also, in a related story, I am bestowing the '09 New Orleans offense with a new nickname. Instead of the previous and rather uninspired denotation of Greatest Show on Turf 2.0, they shall hereby and forever bear the title of Greatest Sheaux on Turf. See what I did there? Thanks, I'm here all week. All right, painfully trite monikers and bad puns aside, let's move on. Here is a glimpse of how the '09 Saints statistically compare to the historic '99 Rams.

Greatest Show on Turf Offensive Statistics
32.9 ppg (NFL Rank: 1st), 400.75 yds/game (NFL Rank: 1st)

Greatest Sheaux on Turf Offensive Statistics
31.9 ppg (NFL Rank: 1st), 403.81 yds/game (NFL Rank: 1st)

Fancy Visual Aid

Kurt Warner 1999 Passing Statistics
4353 yds, 65.1 comp %, 41 TD, 13 INT, 109.2 QB Rating

Drew Brees 2009 Passing Statistics
4338 yds, 70.6 comp %, 34 TD, 11 INT, 109.6 QB Rating

Fancy Visual Aid

1999 Marshall Faulk Statistics
1381 yds Rushing, 1048 yds Receiving, 12 Total TDs

2009 Saints RBs (Thomas, Bell, Bush) Combined Statistics*
1447 yds Rushing, 637 yds Receiving, 16 Total TDs

*In this analysis, the top two statistical contributors out of the three most widely used New Orleans running backs were chosen for each rushing category, such as to make a more realistic comparison to the dynamic dual threat of Marshall Faulk (as the Saints do not possess a player of his caliber, but two second-tier players statistically resemble his prolific output). Essentially, the greatness of Marshall Faulk is not equaled, but comparatively approached in the statistical sense by two of the Saints deep stable of RBs (per rushing category).

So I'd say that comparison held up fairly well, eh? Now, the remaining question is whether or not the Saints will continue their uncanny parallels to their one-decade-removed NFC counterparts. Those '99 Rams concluded their season with a victory in one of the most memorable Super Bowls of recent memory (ironically, on a key defensive play). How will the '09 Saints finish their '09 campaign? Read on and be enlightened.

Relevant Super Bowl Subplots

Like City, Like Team

By now, you surely have heard the notion of the success of the once-moribund Saints as a metaphor for New Orleans' rising from the ashes of the calamitous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Although I personally find this to be a slightly parochial, naive viewpoint that glazes over the fact that much of the Lower 9th Ward is still in complete shambles, the comparison is apropos nonetheless. Take a look at this sensational piece by Wright Thompson -- a man who knows both the sports and cultural landscapes of the city of New Orleans as well as anyone -- to gain true insight into the palpable sense of spiritualism that exists between this team and its city (for widescreen, click here). If you are a fan of a team not represented in Super Bowl XLIV -- and thus do not harbor a vested rooting interest in this game -- I dare you to watch this piece and not come away from it pulling for the fellas from N'Awlins. Fleur de lis for all!

Dueling Quests for Greatness

 This game features one of the most impressive and compelling quarterback match-ups of recent Super Bowl memory. Each quarterback has much to gain from a victory, especially in the historical sense, with respect to their individual legacies.

 Let's begin with Peyton Manning. The level at which he is currently performing is nothing short of staggering. I can say with relative confidence that I have never seen the quarterback position played better than the clinic that Manning is currently exhibiting on a weekly basis. Though he does not boast the video game-esque stats put up by Tom Brady in his historic 2007 campaign, considering what Manning is getting out of the level of talent that surrounds him, no level of hyperbole can overstate his greatness. Just look at what happened when Darelle Revis -- the best defensive back in football -- shut down Manning's best receiver (Reggie Wayne) in the AFC Champhionship game. Manning turned his sights to an unheralded rookie from BYU (Austin Collie) and a former Division III player (Pierre Garcon), providing each of them with over 100 receiving yards. And this was against the best defense in the NFL. That just isn't supposed to happen in the NFL playoffs. Scott Van Pelt recently quipped on his radio show that Peyton Manning is playing like "an advanced form of being" that has "mastered the art of the quarterback position." Watching his play this season -- the playoffs in particular -- it is difficult to argue otherwise.

If Peyton Manning were to win and hoist the second Lombardi Trophy of his illustrious career, an argument could be made that we are witnessing the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. Yes, there are other field generals with more titles (Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana each have four, Troy Aikman and Tom Brady each have three), and I wasn't even alive to witness the likes of such heroes of sports lore as Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitis, Bart Starr, Roger Staubauch, or Otto Graham. But the historical significance of what Manning is doing cannot be ignored. Plus, he avoids the physical pounding that befalls more run-happy quarterbacks due to his pocket-style play and uncanny affinity for avoiding massive hits. Such attributes are conducive for long-sustained success, even into the dotage of his NFL career (see: Brett Favre, Kurt Warner). If you are anticipating (or hoping for) a precipitous decline in Manning's performance in the near future, you will be either wrong or disappointed (or both). His stranglehold on the league isn't going to end any time soon. And if he were to maintain this absurdly high level of play for a few more years -- and win another Super Bowl or two along the way -- his place in history as the greatest ever would be all but assured.

Now let's take a look at Drew Brees. Whether justified or not, Brees is not viewed in quite the same light as Manning, or even the other so-called "elite" quarterbacks in the game. The ascent to the zenith of the quarterback position is forged in the postseason, an honor reserved for those who have raised a championship banner. That is why no matter how eye-popping Brees' statistical output has been and regardless of the fact that he resurrected two franchises from the brink of obscurity (San Diego and New Orleans), he is viewed as a second class citizen compared to the likes of Manning, Brady, Warner, Roethlisberger, and other championship quarterbacks. But that can all change on Sunday. Should he defeat the Colts, he will instantly vault himself into the uppermost echelon of his esteemed colleagues, he will forever garner an Archie Manning-like reverence from all New Orleanians (demonyms are so much fun), and he'll never have to pay for a drink in New Orleans again.

The Unlikely Underdog

New Orleans started this season 13-0. As detailed above, their offense is a veritable mirror image of the Greatest Show on Turf (one of the most prolific and celebrated offenses in NFL history). Yet, they are the underdog. Five and a half point underdogs. That is outrageous. Either the Colts are historically incredible, or something fishy is afoot. Either way, their underdog status sets the stage for a David vs Goliath match up, which always makes for compelling Super Bowl theater. (Crap, I just walked myself right into thinking about Pats/Giants. Damn it all.)

The Pick

As I said, at the time of this writing the Colts stand as 5.5 point favorites over the Saints. This line is ludicrous. But to play devil's advocate for just a moment, I should acknowledge that Las Vegas does not necessarily choose the betting lines based on what they should be, but rather what will cause the public to put down the most money. It's all about profit, people. Additionally, the lines move based on what the vast majority of the public is doing (I believe the line originally opened up at 3.0 or 3.5). Furthermore, the obscenely high level of play Peyton Manning is currently displaying juxtaposed against the public's perception of the perennially pathetic Saints (as well as the Saints excruciatingly close call victory over the Vikings in the NFC Championship game) has resulted in the Colts being decided favorites. The Colts are -210 on the money line, whereas the Saints are +175 (meaning if you successfully place $210 on the Colts, you will win $100; if you successfully place $100 on the Saints, you will win $175). Football savvy gambling degenerates should be licking their chops at this proposition.

The people of New Orleans know how to make merriment in the worst of times. To that end, imagine the sheer, unbridled euphoria that will erupt from the French Quarter and beyond if their beloved Saints attain Super Bowl glory in Miami this Sunday. Well guess what, New Orleans: this is your year. Despite the abject insanity of the proposition of betting against Peyton Manning, that's exactly what I'm going to do. Take the Saints against the spread and straight up. From South Beach to Bourbon St, and wherever the spirit of New Orleans can be found, be prepared for the party of a lifetime. After the last strip of confetti falls in Sun Life Stadium on Sunday night, a beleaguered fan base will be vindicated, a devastated community will be galvanized, and a deserving quarterback's legacy will be duly cemented. The Greatest Sheaux on Turf will not be denied the glory it rightfully deserves.  

Final Score: New Orleans 37 Indianapolis 34.  

MVP: Drew Brees.

Laissez le Bon temp rouler, New Orleans.

As always, stay tuned and stay classy.

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