Thinking Out Loud: Super Bowl 50 Prediction

Super Bowl 50 presents a compelling matchup. Many people pick the Vegas-favored Carolina Panthers to win. Here are my two cents. Below are the factors I believe will most likely determine the outcome.

BRONCOS PASS RUSH VS CAM 

Denver’s pass rush did an outstanding job against Tom Brady. Will it be as effective against Cam Newton? Newton’s athleticism extends plays and provokes defensive nightmares. Will he be as effective against Denver?

When writing The Game before the Money, I asked Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood what he found effective against Roger Staubach. Jack said the key to limiting Roger was maintaining pass rush lane integrity.

The Broncos did that while rushing Brady, collapsing the pocket around him rather than forcing him to the outside. Von Miller or another linebacker would then be waiting around the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field, forcing Brady to hurry. A similar strategy could contain and frustrate Cam. If the Broncos do this, I think they’ll win.

For contrast, think of the Packers not staying in their rush lanes against San Francisco a couple of years ago in the Divisional Playoff. Colin Kaepernick ran all over the field. If Denver tries to over pressure Cam, forcing him outside of the pocket, I think Cam will have an outstanding day and make several big plays running.

Cam

THE BYE WEEK EFFECT

The Panthers offensive rolled like the Southern Railway through the NFC playoffs. What could slow them down? Perhaps a week off. That’s a week off featuring the heavy distractions Super Bowl week brings. Couple that with the Panthers post-bye week history under Ron Rivera, and that may spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E. Before this year, the Panthers were 0-5 coming off bye weeks under Rivera, and were outscored 125-46. That includes getting dumped by the 49ers in the 2013 playoffs.

Carolina seemed to vex that monkey by narrowly defeating Seattle both after their regular-season and post-season byes in 2015. The Panthers came from behind to win after a slow start in the regular season game, and almost came from ahead to lose after a dominating start in the playoffs.

If Carolina wins SB 50, I’ll be impressed enough to say the bye week doesn’t matter as much to them anymore. Until then, I find it a factor.

ONE MAN GANG

Football is the most team-driven sport of the major four, because you need all 11 people on the same page every play. Everybody needs to contribute. The Panthers are 90% Cam Newton on offense. He needs to play an exceptional game for them to win. Johnathon Stewart, Fozzy Whittiaker, and Ted Ginn Jr. are highly unlikely to carry the team on their shoulders should Cam be less than spectacular. In professional sports, rarely does a one-man gang win a championship. Indeed, I can’t think of a Super Bowl champion that fits that category. The only two championships that might fit that category would be the 1964 Browns with Jim Brown and back to the Sammy Baugh days in Washington. In the Browns case, Jim Brown didn’t have that great of a championship day, it was Frank Ryan‘s three touchdown passes to Gary Collins that did in the heavily-favored Colts.

Now, anything’s possible and there’s a first time for everything. Historically, Super Bowl 50 would be an exception to the one-man gang rule should the Panthers win. Really, it would be an exception in all major sports, as Kobe never did as well without Shaq, Lebron needed Wade and Bosh to win, and Oliver Kahn got Germany to the World Cup final, but couldn’t take home the hardware alone.

Worst case scenario leaves the Panthers similar to the John Elway 1980s Broncos. You might say Carolina has a much better defense, but remember those Broncos had Karl Mecklenburg, arguably the best linebacker not named Lawrence Taylor in the mid-80s, along with an exceptional pass rush. Best case scenario has Cam playing his best, Ginn catching the ball when open (instead of letting it fall to the ground), and the Panthers somehow get a solid running game together. Bottom line, more things need to go exactly right for the Panthers than they do for the Broncos. I don’t want to forget Greg Olsen, but the Panthers need gamebreakers.

SUMMARY AND PREDICTION

manning

As we’ve stated before, for whatever reason most Super Bowls are won by quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl wins. Peyton Manning would win his second Super Bowl, continuing the trend. Of course, Cam could win multiple championships in his career, but I think this aspect favors Denver.

Both teams have great defenses, but the Broncos have more experience in low scoring games like their playoff win against Pittsburgh. My hunch is this could be one of those type games. That also favors the Broncos.

Although Carolina has an explosive offense, they haven’t faced a defense like the Broncos. You might remember when Green Bay visited Denver this year. A blowout in the Broncos favor. I believe a similar game is possible. Not necessarily likely, but possible.

Therefore, I highly expect Denver to win. If Carolina manages to commit fewer than two turnovers, then I think they have a chance, especially if Denver gets loose with the ball. And we all know how Peyton Manning can turn the ball over in crucial situations in big games. If it’s close near the end, there’s a good chance Manning would throw a game-losing interception.

However, I expect Carolina to make at least two turnovers, and the Broncos won’t have to rely on Manning avoiding a terrible late-game decision. Most likely one of the teams will turn the ball over early, and I expect that to be Carolina.

Unless the Broncos give Carolina extra scoring chances with mistakes, I’m picking the Broncos.

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An Appreciation: Austin “Goose” Gonsoulin

 Austin “Goose” Gonsoulin passed away early Monday morning, September 8, 2014. I had the good fortune of getting to know him. We spent several hours on the phone together over the past couple of years, Goose spinning yarns about the old days. He was tremendously friendly, open, jovial, and I’m very grateful that I had a chance to connect with him.

Austin picked up the “Goose” moniker in college: “We had a coach named Hayden Fry, who went on after Baylor to other colleges. My senior year, I was running a punt back and he hollered, ‘Come on, Goose!’” he explained.

Goose wasn’t particularly fond of the name at first, but over the years he came to appreciate it.

The Dallas Texans scooped up Gonsoulin in the first ever AFL draft in 1960. The San Francisco 49ers selected him in the NFL draft. He signed with the Texans for $8,500. The Denver Broncos promptly traded for him, and he’s widely regarded as the first member of the Broncos franchise. Goose surmised Dean Griffin, Denver’s general manager, liked what he saw of Goose in a college all-star game called the Copper Bowl.

Goose quickly impacted the fledgling league. He intercepted the first pass ever thrown in the AFL, and his second interception of the game stopped the Boston Patriots’ potential winning drive. Gonsoulin amassed 7 interceptions in the first 3 games.

Goose recalled: “We came in the dressing room, and guys interviewed me. I said, ‘What’s the record?’

‘14.’

I said, ‘Gee, I’ll beat that no sweat.’”

Goose chuckled about the comment, noting that his league-leading total topped out at 11 interceptions. While not a professional record (Dick Night Train Lane still holds it with 14), Gonsoulin still holds the single-season mark in Denver.

Goose retired with the most career interceptions in Bronco history, a mark he held until Steve Foley snagged it away in 1987. “Steve Foley finally beat my career record by one interception, but he played in 150 games and I played 108. I wish they’d put a little asterisk by that like they did with Roger Maris beating Babe Ruth,” Goose noted with a laugh. Nobody, however, will eclipse his AFL career mark for interceptions by a safety. Such feats landed Gonsoulin on the AFL All-Time team roster (2nd team).

Goose only played with the Broncos from 1960-1966. He returned to Denver for the 1967 season, coming off a Pro Bowl-decorated 1966 campaign. He received an anonymous phone call telling him he had been released. Goose couldn’t believe it.

“I said, ‘Released? What are you talking about?’

‘You’ve been cut.’

I wasn’t sure. When somebody just calls you on the phone, you don’t know if they’re pulling your leg. I got into my car and started driving. I was listening to the radio, and a guy comes on said, ‘Well, we lost ol’ Goose today.’”

The 49ers still held Gonsoulin’s rights from the 1960 NFL draft. Goose bolstered their secondary at safety in 1967, although a neck injury caused him to miss a couple of games. Goose returned for 1968, but the team told him the neck injury prevented him from playing. The move surprised Goose after he had played 9 games after the injury. His excellent career ended on that note.

In 1984, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen established the Broncos Ring of Fame. He selected Goose for the inaugural class. A bronze pillar of Goose stands outside Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium. Other Bronco Ring of Fame members include Floyd Little, Lionel Taylor, John Elway, and Tom Jackson.

I’ll close this piece with an excerpt from Goose’s chapter in The Game before the Money. It’s one of my favorite Goose stories.

“I played in another exhibition game, against Oakland at the Los Angeles Coliseum. After the game was over, this guy comes in our locker room and says, ‘Hey Goose. Good game.’

‘Thanks.’

He handed me a piece of chalk and said, ‘What’s the hardest play for you to cover?’

I thought, ‘Somebody’s up to something.

I drew an easy play to cover.

Our general manager walks in and says, ‘Al! What are you doing in our dressing room? Get out of here!’

That was the first time I met Al Davis.”

 

NOTE: All quotes in the above post are from The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

"AustinGoose Gonsoulin” width=”300″ height=”237″ />Austin William Goose  Gonsoulin

 

 

 

The Story of the NFL Draft and Recent Super Bowls

Last week we looked at the starting lineups of last year’s Super Bowl teams, wondering how much the draft led to the Seahawks’ and Broncos’ success. We found that while the draft was important, it appears to be equally important to find talent from other sources, likely because the draft is only seven rounds.

Now we take a look at Super Bowl teams (including the Seahawks and Broncos) from the past 5 Super Bowls, plus the first Giants/Patriots game after the 2008 season. Turns out last year’s teams were below the average number of starters to be drafted for the period, although the Seahawks were only slightly under (54.2%). Of the Broncos 22 starters only 10 were originally drafted by the franchise, a figure equaled by the 2011 Giants as the lowest in our survey. The 2010 Packers led all teams with 17 of their draftees in their Super Bowl lineup. Only the Seahawks and Packers won the Super Bowl with more of their draftees in their starting lineup than their opponent.

HOW TEAMS WERE BUILT

About 60% of Super Bowl starters from these 6 Super Bowls were starting for the team that originally drafted them (a total of 157 over 7 years). Although this era is commonly called the “Free Agency Era,” the number of veteran free agents bested the number of undrafted players only by a slim total of 7 players in those 6 games. The 2013 Broncos started 9 free agents, the highest total. No other team started more than 6. The 2011 Patriots started the most undrafted players (8), followed closely by the 2009 Colts with 7. The Colts were the only team we surveyed that didn’t start a veteran free agent on Super Bowl Sunday.  Here is a composite of how these 12 Super Bowl teams were built. Note that some players included in the “Veteran FA Signings” category are also in the “Total Undrafted Starters” category.

FIRST TWO ROUNDS AND THE REST OF THE NFL DRAFT

The first and second rounds dominated the makeup of Super Bowl starters playing for their original team. Those two rounds outscore all other rounds combined, 92-65. The 2008 Patriots and 2012 49ers tied for the most number of their first-round picks starting, with 7. The 2008 Giants had the lowest number, as only 2007 first-round pick Aaron Ross started for them in the Super Bowl. The 2011 Giants, however, started four of their first-round draft choices, as Kenny Phillips (2008), Jason Pierre-Paul (2010), and Hakeem Nicks (2009) joined Ross. All teams started at least one of their first- and second- round choices, but three teams (the 2011 Patriots, the 2009 Saints and the 2008 Giants) lacked a third. The fourth round surprising outscored the third overall, 16-15.

SUMMARY

I found these totals to be fairly consistent with last week’s percentages. The draft remains vital to championship-level NFL teams, but not as much as the hype surrounding the 2014 NFL Draft might lead one to believe. A strong dose of veteran free agents and undrafted players, possibly mixed with a trade and/or waiver pickup, work together as the recipe for success in today’s National Football League.

How Much Will the NFL Draft Help Your Team?

Like children going to bed at night on Christmas Eve are NFL fans in the weeks leading up to the NFL draft. Wishes of draftees dance in their heads. Mock drafts are read with excitement or worry depending on the prediction. Calendars get marked with plans days before the big event at Radio City Music Hall.

And like Christmas, some fans go to bed afterward elated about receiving the main object of their desire while others lay down disappointed, unable to have telepathically communicated to their team’s general manager whom they should have drafted to ensure divisional championships for years to come.

How important is draft day? Surely it’s quite important, but is it truly the watershed moment it’s built up to be? I started to ponder this question through fantasy football. I found that in seasons I reached the championship, several of my starters weren’t drafted. This year was no exception as Zac Stacy and Julian Edleman were two of my highest scorers late in the season. While there are historic NFL draft success stories – John Elway, Peyton Manning, the 1974 Steelers draft – I wondered how often the draft was the reason behind championship teams’ success. I decided to take a look at last year’s Super Bowl teams and how they were constructed.

The Seahawks

The Seahawks drafted many of their biggest stars of 2013, including Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman. Only Thomas was drafted in the first round, however, and he was the team’s second first round pick in 2010 after Russell Okung. Toss in draftees Kam Chancellor, Golden Tate and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, and first impressions point toward Seattle being built from the draft. Closer inspection shows that their Super Bowl starting lineup contained only 13 players (59%) drafted by the Seahawks, 6 on offense and 7 on defense. Four players (18%) of Seattle’s starting 22 weren’t drafted at all, including defensive line anchors Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons. In total, only 25 players of the 63 listed on the Seahawk roster found on http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sea/2013_roster.htm were drafted by the Seahawks, while 24 were undrafted free agents (38%), men overlooked on draft day by all 32 teams. Of the 46 players Seattle drafted from 2009-2013, only 25 were on the Super Bowl roster (47%). Of those 25, 15 were from the 2013 or 2012 drafts.

*NOTE: “Total Undrafted Starters” includes 2 players who were also “Veteran Free Agent Signings.”

 

The Broncos

The Broncos grabbed their biggest star, quarterback Peyton Manning, in free agency. Manning’s agent wasn’t alone in doing business with the Broncos. Nine of Denver’s Super Bowl starters were acquired as veteran free agent signings (41%). Only 10 of their 22 starters were drafted by the franchise. Of the 58 players listed on their roster at http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/den/2013_roster.htm , only 23 (about 40%) were players originally drafted by the Broncos. Nearly as many players (20) were originally drafted by another team and acquired via free agency, waivers or by trade. Contrasting with the Seahawks, that same roster included only 15 players who were undrafted, although three of them started on Super Bowl Sunday. The Broncos did draft some of their key players, including Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Von Miller, the Broncos’ first-round pick in 2011, has been a tremendous force when active, but has missed significant time with both a league suspension and knee injury.

*NOTE: “Total Undrafted Starters” includes 2 players who were also “Veteran Free Agent Signings.”

Summary

While both teams picked up impactful players in the draft, it was necessary to supplement much of the starting lineup from other sources. The Seahawks trading for Marshawn Lynch and Denver’s free agent pickups of Manning and Wes Welker were essential moves on the road to the Super Bowl.

The seven-round draft stands as a crucial element to this fact. When the Steelers drafted their 1974 class which included Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster, the draft lasted seventeen rounds. When the Packers drafted players who would later dominate through the Lombardi-era dynasty in the mid-1950s, there were 30 rounds.

Today’s NFL requires a combination of drafting, smart free-agent signings, and finding overlooked undrafted players. The draft remains an important component to winning in the NFL, but the seven-round system limits its influence.