Monday, February 6, 2012

Giants Win

Another football season is in the books, and improbably, the New York Giants, for the fourth time, are the holders of the Lombardi Trophy. I could be churlish and say that collectively, this year's team has a collective horseshoe stuck in their butts, but even as true as that statement might be, there is no denying that the team that won four games in the playoffs bore only the slightest resemblance to the team that played the first 14 games of the season. And the game yesterday was, from the Giant standpoint, a thing of beauty. Although they caught a couple of breaks with a very questionable safety call and two recovered fumbles that could have just as easily bounced to the other team, it also must be said that they played a tremendous game--no missed tackles, no big plays against, no bad decisions, no tipped balls, nothing at all. The Patriots played a pretty damn near complete game themselves, with few mistakes, and didn't win. How often does that happen?
And that was what struck me watching this game. So often Super Bowl contests don't look like they involve championship teams, because of all the mistakes made. I've watched five Super Bowls involving the Giants now. They lost one, back in 2001, and looked pretty amateurish doing it, and the first half of the first one they were in back in 1987 wasn't terribly pretty, either. But the second half of that game was nearly perfect (Phil Simms had three incompletions all game), and the other three they have won have been notable for them playing nearly perfect games--and they had to be to win three games against teams that were probably, on balance, better than they were. The game against the Bills remains the best-played football game I have ever seen; neither team made a turnover, and the Bills were at the height of a sustained run of excellence (what an oxymoron that sounds like in this day and age), with six Hall of Famers playing prominent roles. It took a missed field goal at the end for the Giants to win, but they played a great game against a great team that also played a great game. In 2008, the same two teams that played yesterday played, and the Giants beat a team that had not lost up until that point. Granted, in that game the Patriots clearly were feeling the pressure of trying to go 19-0 and the Giants got some of the most bizarre lucky breaks of all time--but they still played a great game on the big stage to do so. And they did so again yesterday.
I don't do it anymore, but there was a time when I did football analysis well enough so that some people paid me for it. I remember enough of the methods to be able to use them to look at a playoff field and figure out contenders from pretenders. There have now been 46 Super Bowls played, 42 where meaningful comparisons can be made between the teams (the first four were between teams that played in entirely different leagues and hence accumulated their statistics against two entirely different groups of teams, making comparison impossible to gauge relative to one another). Of those 42, 40 have met a group of statistical standards that I won't repeat here; the two exceptions are the last two Giant champions. Of the 42, this is the first champion that has not finished in the top eight in the league in either points scored or points allowed. The two Giant teams of the Parcells era also did not fit the champion mold as well as any teams up until that point in time had... which doesn't take away from the accomplishments at all.
Basically, what it does now is to add a caveat to any predictive significance--"does not apply, necessarily, to the New York Giants." It isn't the first time a team has consistently bucked significant trends; I can remember at two other teams that did so regularly as well, even though they did not win Super Bowls. One I don't remember seeing much of on TV because I was a kid, but the Cleveland Browns were good for the first thirty years of the team's existence, and the last several years of that period were in the late 1960's up through 1973. They were a veteran-laden team with a very old coach that, in the absence of great stats, clearly won a lot of games because they knew how to win. It all fell apart in 1974, and took a decade to right itself. The other were the Bills post-Super Bowl teams; the Bills remained relevant up until the turn of the century because they were another veteran-laden team with an old coach that knew how to win in spite of a team statistical profile that suggested a .500 record. The Bills fell apart in 2000 and still haven't recovered. This Giant team, despite the presence of young stars like Cruz and Nicks, fits that profile rather well--there were a lot of players yesterday wearing white that were on the field during the last Super Bowl win.
The Giants may well fall apart in the next few years. They have a rather pedestrian group of linebackers and running backs, and the offensive lines that are uniformly excellent tend to be very difficult to replace as they age out--it's tough to replace four really good guys within a year or two of each other. It was the biggest factor in the decline of several dynasty teams, most notably the Cowboys of the Johnson years, and it's a reason that the Patriots can't get back over the hump--their offensive line of the championship years all wore out within a couple of years of one another, and it's been hard for them to get back to where they were.
But the Giants and Giant fans will worry about that another day. For now, they are celebrating the accomplishments of a remarkable team, one that is historically unique but at the same time really didn't have the look and feel of a team that was fortunate in the least. Because with the possible exception of the 49er game, you can't look at any of their run through the playoffs and state that the better team lost.

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