Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Super Bowl And The Death Of The Balanced Offense

The carcass of the Super Bowl is now a week along in the decomposition process, and most of the pack has moved on to more burning issues, such as whether Plaxico Burress is truly healed or merely incubating, or whether Cam Newton’s deal truly breaks the record for Most Money Paid A Future CFL Quarterback To Schlep Underwear.

I would prefer to linger on the Super Bowl an instant longer, in part because I’m a Packer fan and realize these moments will not come along every day, every year, or every decade (though it will come along more frequently for Packer fans than for, say, Jaguar fans), and in part because it validates what’s been repeatedly stated in these electronic pages.

That is: The balanced offense is a myth. And more than that, it’s irrelevant.

Think about the Packers and the Steelers. The Steelers ran a reasonably balanced offense and lost. The Packers ran an unbalanced offense and won.

Okay, that’s as misleading as the GOP budget. Beyond offensive strategy, the Steelers did a billion things and lost. The Packers did a billion things and won.

For instance: The Steelers turned the ball over three times and lost. The Packers didn’t turn the ball over and won. The Steelers sacked Aaron Rodgers three times and lost. The Packers sacked Ben Roethlisberger once and won. The Steelers lost a wide receiver and a defensive back and lost. The Packers lost a wide receiver and two defensive backs and won.

You can play these games ‘til the cows come home, which in Wisconsin these days is around 6:20 CST.

But here’s why I think the balanced-offense thing is so important. The Steelers did everything conventional wisdom says you should do to be effective offensively. They ran for 126 and passed for 263, with a TD each way. Perfection. If Katherine Hepburn was a series of offensive stats, she’d look like the Steelers’ line in Super Bowl XLV.

The Steelers ran to set up the pass, and to set up more runs. Their second-half-opening drive was as impressive a series of smash-mouth running plays as I saw the entire 2010 season.

They passed to set up the run, and to set up more passes. Their second TD drive of the second half was a paean to the multiple offense, right down to the faux option of the two-point conversion.

But the Steelers lost, and they deserved to lose. Play the game another 10 times and the Steelers lose most of them.

And here’s why: In modern football, it is far more effective to do one thing very well than to do two things well, especially when that one thing is passing the football.

There are several huge reasons for this. The first is that when things get tight and you need a big play it’s far easier to put your finger on the play to call. When the game was absolutely on the line, the Packers were deep in their territory and needed to hold the ball and bust out, what’d they do? Pass. Seam route to Greg Jennings. Thirty-one yards.

There was never any question the Packers would pass their way down the field, even with a set of fresh legs in James Starks in the backfield (though Starks did contribute a huge 14-yard run in that clinching drive).

When the Steelers got the ball with a little more than a minute left, the choices were not so obvious. There was time to run, and Rashard Mendenhall had run the ball well. There was time for short passes against a depleted secondary. There was time for the bomb.

There was time for the Steelers to balance their way down the field, in other words, but their indecision was palpable. It was a Brett Favre press conference of a drive, and it ended the way it should have, with an incomplete pass.

The Packers are a comically bad running team. Their rushing offense often appears to have been choreographed by Mr. Bean. On stretch plays it always appears like the running back is three yards further away from Aaron Rodgers than Rodgers expects him to be. In other instances the Packers load the backfield with fullbacks with the same heavy hand of Ted Nugent optioning a Hummer and scream, “We’re running the ball now!” For all the shout-outs to Lombardi executed by Packers during SB XLV, Vince would find the Packers’ running game as appealing as Hawg Hanner in a dirndl.

The Packers pass. Their best offensive players are in the passing game. There are only so many plays an offense can run in a game. Biggest game of the year, you use most of those plays to put your best players in position to make the biggest plays.

The Steelers … well, the Steelers do a little of everything, and their best offensive players are a quarterback, a running back, and a wide receiver (Mike Wallace). When a play absolutely has to be made, how’s it going to be made?

Hmmmm. You look at this and say, “Ben Roethlisberger is either going to galumph for a first down or he’s going to do laps in the pocket, shed tacklers like Lady Gaga sheds costumes and make an impossible heave downfield.”

He did it earlier in the game but couldn’t do it late, which should surprise no one. As a basis for an offense it’s sketchier than Twitter’s value proposition.

There’s a reason why six of the last seven Super Bowl teams (counting the Steelers once) have run unbalanced offenses unbalanced in the direction of the pass. It makes sense. It’s the most efficient way to make the most of the plays an offense is allotted, and gain a few more plays in the process.

Rave all you want about the Steelers offense, but like one of the robots in the eponymous (and largely lousy) movie, it’s an outmode. That doesn’t mean it’s destined for the scrap heap, but it’s going to take more than an animated movie and the voice of Robin Williams to save it.

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