Super Bowl LI takaways: greatest comeback, worst choke in Super Bowl history

Super Bowl LI takaways: greatest comeback, worst choke in Super Bowl history

Not really many new or more sweeping superlatives to offer for what was, in this observer's opinion, the greatest Super Bowl ever. The New England Patriots may be the Evil Empire to some detractors, but the 34-28 overtime win at the expense of the spent Atlanta Falcons revealed a character and greatness, no matter what's said about PSI or anything else.

What you have after an event like this are snapshots, impressions left by this play or that.

Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Five Super Bowls won, two lost (both to the New York Giants, both involving freakish pass receptions), and more important, this one won by directing a comeback from 28-3 that involved shaking off an anemic first half and responding with a historic second. Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning – all relegated to the discussion as to who is No. 2 all-time.

Difficult not to put a harsh second-guess on Atlanta coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. In a game that saw their players streak to a 28-3 lead in the third quarter, the Falcons ran the football a total of just 18 times despite averaging 5.8 yards per carry for the game and 4.6 ypc on the season.

Pass plays were called that resulted in sacks, one call an inexplicable empty backfield package on a third-and-1, resulting in a strip-sack that was turned into the New England touchdown that made it a one-score game. The Falcons were struggling to run with center Alex Mack operating on a fractured leg but the strategic coaching imperative is to put players in the best positions to be successful, and that call against an energized Patriots front was a game-changer.

The last time I can recall a gag job of this magnitude, the Houston Oilers run-and-shoot offense was choking away a 35-3 lead in the 1993 wild-card round to the Buffalo Bills.

Collectively, the Falcons, players and coaches, conspired to choke away a Super Bowl. And add owner Arthur Blank to the role of foul-ups, too. With his team blowing out the Patriots, Blank left his box and was down on the sideline for what appeared to be some camera time celebrating for the whole fourth quarter. Idiotic jinxing.

If John Fox ever needed an object lesson to impress upon his Bears teams the intrinsic importance of never quitting, Tom Brady and his bunch provided one. Playing 60 minutes (or more, in this case) is supposed to come with being a professional, and it doesn't guarantee anything if you're simply not good enough. But without that never-quit component, Super Bowl LI is over at the 45-minute mark. Things like this never happen.

If there was a quirk of the game, it was that the Patriots turned the football over twice inside the Atlanta 35, one on a pick-6, without which this game probably doesn't reach overtime. The Atlanta offense only stayed on the field a total of 46 plays, less than half New England's (93), and the 344 total yards were the third-fewest the Falcons put up all season. Matt Ryan's passer rating was stratospheric (144.1) but the Patriots held him to 240 passing yards, third-fewest of the season.

An underrated element of Super Bowl LI was the Atlanta Falcons defense, which was on its way to being the story of the game until the fourth quarter, when suddenly the four-man pass rush ran largely dry, not really surprising in a quarter when the Patriots ran 28 plays, including two-point conversions.

The Atlanta offense was on the field exactly 3:44 of the second quarter and only 4:49 of the pivotal fourth. Easy to say that the defense could've helped itself by holding the Patriots to less than 7-14 on third downs and gotten off the field, but the real culprit was the Atlanta offense that converted exactly one of eight third downs, none of its five in the second half.

It obviously has to be the right people, but the general template employed by the Patriots and Falcons is one the Bears are loosely following – defense-based coach, commitment to strong run games (New England No. 3 in attempts, Atlanta tied for No. 4 in rushing average), even taking an undersized edge rusher the Bears left on a draft board. The Bears have the defensive-coach thing in place, they've got the foundation of an A-list run-game even if they didn't always use Jordan Howard like they mean it, and they think they've got in Leonard Floyd what they passed on to take Shea McClellin and Kevin White in those drafts.

Now, the quarterback thing, that's something else. Atlanta and New England have A-list quarterbacks, something the Bears are finally going to get around to seeking this offseason.

Open competition might be what Mitch Trubisky needs to salvage Bears' career

Open competition might be what Mitch Trubisky needs to salvage Bears' career

I used this space on Friday to explain why I see Nick Foles as the clear favorite to be the Bears’ starting quarterback in Week 1 of the 2020 season. Based on the information we have, it’s easy to see why Foles should beat out Mitch Trubisky in the Bears’ “open competition.” 

And I very much believe that'll happen. But I do want to acknowledge something here, an unknown of sorts: We don’t know how Trubisky will handle a legitimate competition. 

“The competitor that Mitch is, the way that he was with us was really neat to see because he embraced it,” Matt Nagy said. “It wasn’t about excuses, it wasn’t about anything other than, ‘OK, I understand that, I’m gonna give you everything that I’ve got, we’re gonna compete, and you’re gonna get that best that I’ve got.’”

Nagy and Ryan Pace both talked up Trubisky’s competitive nature when discussing the Foles trade over about 40 minutes on Friday. It’s all they can talk up at this point — anything else about his game or past results would’ve been hot air. Maybe the competitiveness thing is hot air, too. 

But this brings up a question that’s lingered as Trubisky’s career has drifted into disappointing territory, so follow my tangent: Why wasn’t he North Carolina’s starting quarterback sooner in college? 

Trubisky sat behind Marquise Williams for two and a half seasons before taking over as the Tarheel’s QB1 in 2016. Williams spent one training camp with the Green Bay Packers before being cut and spent the next few years as a backup in the CFL, AAC and XFL. 

Trubisky -- the second overall pick in 2017's draft -- couldn’t beat that guy out? Huh?

The thing is, though, there wasn’t really a competition in Chapel Hill for the Tarheels’ starting gig. Williams QB’d five consecutive wins to get North Carolina to a bowl game in 2013, then was pretty good in six-win 2014. North Carolina went 11-1 in 2015, Trubisky’s third year on campus, with Williams as their guy. 

Former UNC quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf explained to me after the 2017 why there wasn’t truly a competition for Trubisky to win. 

“That success we had as a team with Marquise made it hard for us to pull him out of the lineup,” Heckendorf said. “And I think if (Williams’ success in 2013) hadn’t happened, there may be a completely different conversation. It was not for a lack of talent, it was not because (Trubisky) wasn’t capable, but it’s hard to take a guy who had the success — not only as the team winning but individually — as Marquise had and put him on the bench for an unproven commodity.”

Of course, if Trubisky were lighting things up in practice and limited game reps, he would’ve forced UNC’s hand. He didn’t. 

But the point is Trubisky’s failure to win a starting gig in college sooner wasn’t necessarily the product of him losing an open competition. He pushed Mike Glennon as a rookie in 2017, but he didn’t show up to training camp in a true “battle” (especially as he QB’d the third-team offense so much). He took over for Glennon because, first and foremost, Glennon was a disaster. 

So we don’t really know how he’ll handle a competition the Bears are framing as fair and even. 

Could Trubisky all of a sudden grow with the challenge to his job? Could the mere presence of Foles get him to start hitting more deep balls, or make the right reads at the line, or help him avoid those head-scratching interceptions? 

Probably not. Football types love to say competition brings out the best in everyone, but it’s hard to see it erasing three years of inconsistent tape. 

But we don’t know for sure. For what it's worth, this worked for Kyle Fuller three years ago, when the Bears signed Marcus Cooper and Prince Amukamara and he wound up winning his old job back, and then keeping it. 

Trubisky, too, still has more upside than Foles. The Bears would much rather start the version of Trubisky Pace hoped he was getting in 2017 rather than a 31-year-old with 13 starts over the last four years. 

Still, Foles is most likely going to be the Bears’ starter when the 2020 season begins (hopefully on time). But the Bears should at least take a look at Trubisky in a true competition. 

It may not need to be a long look. But it should be a look. 

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Vic Fangio: Draft process will be tested this year

Vic Fangio: Draft process will be tested this year

Former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator and current Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio has long been known as an old-school coach who brings a tough and grizzled approach to the locker room.

He's also an old-school talent evaluator who said the disruption to the 2020 NFL Draft process caused by the COVID-19 outbreak will test the scouting adage that suggests a prospect's college tape is the majority of his final grade.

“I think every year you hear people say — scouts and coaches and personnel people — that 90 percent of the evaluation is off the tape,” Fangio said during a conference call with reporters on March 31. “The other 10 percent is the combine and pro days and all the other stuff that goes on with it. This is the year it will really be tested.

“A lot of times you can guess how fast a guy runs generally speaking. It’s more important what the tape is. That’s what everybody says. This will be the year that it is really put to the test."

With team headquarters closed around the league, front offices can't hold prospect visits or workouts at their facility. Similarly, teams can't put prospects through medical re-checks to finalize their 2020 draft grade. There are going to be uncomfortable leaps of faith taken by general managers this year.

But as Fangio said, it's mostly about the tape anyway. At least, that's what the NFL wants you to believe.