ST. PAUL, Minn. — We've finished just one day in Minneapolis and this is already the dumbest Super Bowl week when it comes to media coverage.
First, you had the coverage of Alex Reimer's comments about Tom Brady's 5-year-old daughter, which were obviously dumb, ignorant and indefensible. But it's Brady's business, and he is a big boy with enormous power if he wants to use it. And he did when he cut short his weekly interview on WEEI and said he wasn't sure if he wanted to continue his relationship with the station.
You'd think that'd be the end of it, but instead, we were treated to round-the-clock coverage, including some reporters giving hourly reports on how long parent company Entercom had remained silent on the issue.
Brady finally had to say, "I certainly hope the guy isn’t fired. I would hate that," to quell the fervor among the media and social media warriors alike.
That's 12 hours none of us will get back or remember, except Reimer and Brady.
But wait, there's more.
At 9:37 p.m., the New York Post — always a beacon for reputable and responsible journalism — published this breathless headline:
Spagnuolo emerges with claim: Patriots stole Super Bowl signals
The crux of the story (DO NOT click that): the man responsible for coordinating the Giants' defense that ended the Patriots' quest of a 19-0 season in 2007 said that while he was a defensive assistant with the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX against the Patriots, Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson thought the Patriots had figured out the Eagles' blitz.
"I remember through the course of the game Jim saying, ‘They’re getting our signals. They know when we’re blitzing … try to hide it,’" Spagnuolo recalled. "I remember distinctly thinking. ‘I don’t think so Jim, just concentrate on calling the game.’ In hindsight, he was right. When you go back and look at that tape, it was evident to us.
“We believe that Tom [Brady] knew when we were pressuring him because he certainly got the ball out pretty quick.”
Well, this "story" was one big pile of clickbait garbage. Let me show you the ways.
Given Spagnuolo's provocative comments, I'm sure the author followed up with some probing questions to get Spags to narrow down what, exactly, the Grafton native was trying to say.
One problem: this wasn't a New York Post story. This was from a radio interview on 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia. The Post's author, Hannah Withiam, is two years out of college and lists producer in her Twitter bio (don't go hounding her, someone's telling her to do this, and we're all better than that here at BSJ). She performs the role of an aggregator, which basically is an entry-level desk job where you try to scour the internet for copy to produce traffic to the site. Yes, clickbait with a capital "C." Boston.com and WEEI.com do it, among others, locally.
This is what stands for "journalism" at "free" sites. No follow up. No research from an experienced NFL reporter to see if the allegations actually hold water. Just grip it and rip it, and watch social media freak out and the clicks to rise.
When people ask you why you pay to subscribe to BostonSportsJournal.com, point to this story and what I'm about to do, which is actual journalism.
A) I reached out to Spagnuolo, but he did not answer a late-night text.
B) I've had numerous conversations with Spagnuolo over the years about the Patriots and he's never hinted that the Patriots did anything out of the bounds of normal gamesmanship.
C) "Getting" an opponent's signals — which is how Johnson termed it to Spagnuolo — is not illegal. It's been going on in every sport since the dawn of organized competition. If you're dumb enough not to change your signals at some point, then a relatively smart opponent is going figure out that, for example, making a lasso motion with one hand means a strong-side blitz.
The other part of decoding signals is that teams send advanced scouts on the road to, among other things, look through binoculars from the press box and record signals from the bench that can later be matched up with game film. This is what's called football. They do this in high school.
D) The Patriots were caught cheating in Spygate because they repeatedly violated an NFL rule that prohibited teams from using electronic equipment to record the opponent's coaches from the sidelines. That's something different.
Game film does not match up
E) I've watched the TV copy of the game and if the Patriots had the Eagles' signals, they sure waited long enough to use them: the game was tied 14-14 into the fourth quarter, and the Patriots converted 1 of 5 third downs in the first half.
And here's the bottom line: the Eagles' pressure was effective for most of the game. Against the blitz, Brady was 13 of 20 for 132 yards (83.8 passer rating), and he fumbled once in the red zone. Brady also had just one completion for 5 yards on his final five attempts against the blitz.
Let's also not rewrite history. Johnson, who died in 2009, was known for bringing more pressure than his peers. He was aggressive, and he was a gambler. The double A-gap pressures that you see in today's NFL (with linebackers lined up over the center) were practically invented by Johnson.
In the first half alone, Johnson blitzed Brady on 11 of 19 dropbacks (57.9 percent — a huge amount). Even TV analyst Cris Collinsworth could sense what was going on after the first drive.
"Now you're seeing some of the strategy for Tom Brady and the Patriots: they know the Eagles are going to blitz," Collinsworth said.
Johnson sent the exact same pressure on the first play of the game, and the first play of the third quarter. And the Patriots picked it up each time through execution, not any secrets.
And if the Patriots' knew the Eagles' signals, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have nearly gotten Brady killed on this pressure.
If there were two plays that you might point to where the Patriots might have had some inkling as to what was coming from the Eagles, it would be these back-to-back screen passes to Corey Dillon for a combined 29 yards in the second quarter:
But, for one thing, the Patriots had two screens late in the third quarter that went for a combined 25 yards against no pressure. Secondly, those screens against pressure came right after the Eagles' first score of the game. I'm willing to bet that the Patriots' advanced scouting showed Johnson liked to bring pressure after offensive scores to build on the momentum — that's the type of coordinator he was. And the Patriots used that information against them (ultimately to no avail because Brady's fumble against pressure at the Philadelphia 4-yard line ended the drive).
The biggest reason why the Patriots were moderately effective against the Eagles' pressure was that their linebackers kept tipping their hands when Brady used cadence against them. Both Collinsworth and Troy Aikman said on the telecast that Brady was baiting the Eagles and then resetting his protection as a result. In fact, the Eagles telegraphed 15 of their 20 blitzes, including on these two big plays:
The last play is an example of the other problem the Eagles had against Brady: they often used zone coverage behind the blitzes. As we all know by now, Brady has carved up zone blitzes from the likes of Dick LeBeau and others since about 2004. Why? Because if you have a smart quarterback and the players around him execute the protection, then there are gaping holes to throw into. Spagnuolo mentioned that in that same interview as well, but it was left out of the Post's clickbait.
"We had a lot of overloaded pressures, which we still do now and Jim was great at that," said Spagnuolo, in the meaningful football portion of the interview if you've covered the game. "And there's a couple of different ways to attack an overloaded pressure. You can keep people in to protect, your back or tight end, or you get all five (receivers) out. When you get all five out, you have to trust that your quarterback knows where the free blitzer is coming from and he gets it out in time, and Tom certainly did that.
"When you're bringing zone pressures — which we did a lot of in '04, '05 — there are some holes in there, you're really banking on the pressure getting there in time and knocking it down or preventing the QB from getting it out. And when he does get it out, it gets a little dicey (for the defense), you have to rely on guys rallying to the football."
Zone pressures, outside of a few plays here and there, are largely extinct in today's NFL because of quarterbacks like Brady and smart teams like the Patriots.
But don't let that get in the way of a good (clickbait) story.
And to think, this was just the first day of Super Bowl week. I can't believe we still have six more days left of this.