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Has the NFL found a way to stop Todd Gurley? What’s it like to match wits with Bill Belichick? And will anything stop the NFL money train? (Spoiler: Not likely.) All that and more in this week’s Super Bowl edition of the 10-Point Stance straight from Atlanta.
1. Stop that man
One thing we know Bill Belichick will spend this week doing—besides playing cat and mouse with the Super Bowl media—is continuing to look for ways to slow down Rams running back Todd Gurley.
Gurley is one of the NFL’s most devastating weapons. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler and was named the 2015 Rookie of the Year and the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year. At times, he can totally wreck a defense.
However, a recent strategy has constrained Gurley. Sean Payton and the Saints used it to near-perfection in the NFC Championship Game, where Gurley rushed four times for 10 yards. Belichick likely has seen the same things other teams have.
Put simply, the idea is to clog up the Rams offensive line. As one NFC head coach remarked, Gurley is a “get-started back.” He needs a clean beginning to get his momentum going.
This is true of many backs, but it is especially true of Gurley. He isn’t shifty like Zeke Elliott.
The Saints, I’m told, used an old defensive trick with great success. Defensive linemen covered the Rams guards and occupied them. Since the guards couldn’t move to the second level and attack the linebackers, the linebackers were free to target Gurley and slow him down before he could get up to full speed.
This strategy is risky, because if the linebackers shoot and miss, the runner has a wide-open field. The Saints felt it was worth the try, and they were correct.
Like New Orleans, New England has a well-coached and disciplined defense.
When asked about his late-season struggles Monday at the Super Bowl Opening Night, Gurley smiled and said, “Things didn’t finish out as strong as they started, but I’m here at the Super Bowl and that’s all that matters.”
In three of his last four games dating back to the regular season, Gurley failed to rush for even 50 yards. But the calm with which he has handled that rough stretch has impressed his head coach, for one.
“You learn about people when they do go through a little bit of adversity,” Sean McVay said at Tuesday’s Super Bowl press conference. “I couldn’t have been more proud or pleased with just the way he handled that. He demonstrated that mental toughness that we expect. You show me anybody that’s great in anything that they do, I’ll show you somebody that’s persevered and demonstrated that mental toughness to overcome some obstacles and some adversity.”
To be fair, the Saints did myriad things to slow Gurley beyond just hustling to the football.
But there is no question the Saints followed a game plan you can bet the Patriots are dissecting as you read this.
2. C.J. Anderson has the right of way for the Rams
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While Gurley is the Rams’ most talented running back, the NFC head coach who discussed his recent downturn felt the recently acquired C.J. Anderson is a better fit for the how the Rams offensive line blocks.
In bulldozing his way to at least 120 yards on the ground in three of his past four games, Anderson has emerged as more than just a lightning-in-a-bottle success story.
Teams who have game-planned against the Rams say Anderson doesn’t need clean lanes to be effective, and defenses have a harder time tackling him—because of his physicality—than they do Gurley.
As strange as that may sound, it’s true. At least, that’s what I’m hearing from some of the best assistants and coaches in the NFL.
However, those same coaches also think McVay will find a way to get Gurley going against the Patriots. He’ll need to against a New England braintrust that is sure to have a plan to slow Anderson.
3. The Patriots’ secret sauce
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For more than three decades, Belichick has posed one of the NFL’s greatest challenges to opposing coaches. But what makes it so difficult to prepare for a Belichick team? We asked former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio.
“This question requires an extremely long answer,” Del Rio told B/R. “It’s the total sum that the Belichick-led Patriots bring at you. The collective preparation. The team-first culture that is cultivated year-round. The personnel being led by the coach, so they get pieces that fit and produce under pressure. Their ability to play any style they want…pound it, spread it, go fast, be methodical.
“Their situational awareness and overall preparedness. Special teams are special and give them an edge in most matchups because they commit true talent to those units. Most teams play backup [players] on special teams, with little thought to those special teams. Defensively, they repeatedly take away opponents’ best players. One thing you see is Bill’s defense improves as the year goes on, especially in the secondary.
“And there is the consistency. Just amazing that in the NFL, where rules are designed to create parity, we are witnessing this record-setting run. Oh, and by the way, Tom Brady continues to lead and produce.
“Sustained success like this just doesn’t happen. You have to appreciate the Belichick-led Patriots, even if you’re sick of seeing them in the Super Bowl.”
4. Brady and Belichick’s future has NFL buzzing
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Tom Brady has made it clear this week during Super Bowl interviews that he isn’t retiring after Sunday’s game. He’s playing a lot better than we would expect a 41-year-old to play. Why would he retire?
But some people I speak to around the league, including several NFL assistant coaches and front office executives, think both Brady and Belichick will retire if the Patriots beat the Rams.
That scenario may be more wishful thinking than reality, but it isn’t an isolated idea. It’s something to watch for after Sunday night.
5. The O-line matters
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
It’s not exactly launching a spacecraft to Mars to say that offensive lines are important and their continuity is vital to operating a successful offense in the NFL.
However, many of us still forget that.
We focus so much on the speed of the skill players and the no-look passes from Patrick Mahomes that we fail to remember it all starts with the lines. One of the big reasons why the Patriots are in the Super Bowl is because the Chiefs didn’t sack Tom Brady once in the AFC title game.
The Rams line has done a similarly good job protecting Goff and opening up holes for the running game.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Rams and Patriots have had their starting offensive lines intact for the longest time this year, according to ESPN Stats & Info (via ESPN’s Trey Wingo).
So while neither line will get much attention—heck, even kickers get more attention, especially when they double-doink—they are sure to play a huge role in which team wins Sunday.
6. Crisis management
Susan Walsh/Associated Press
A league source tells me that during the final days of the recent government shutdown, several NFL owners spoke to President Donald Trump about the effects the shutdown could have on the Super Bowl.
The owners told Trump that if the shutdown continued into Super Bowl week, it could damage the game by affecting security at the event and air travel to and from the game.
“This could badly hurt the Super Bowl,” one owner told the president, according to the source.
Who the owners were remains a mystery, but Trump is close to a handful of them, including Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
7. The mind is a powerful weapon
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The last time I saw a Super Bowl team as confident as the Rams appear to be against the Patriots, it was 2008.
In the week leading up to Super Bowl XLII, Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress predicted his team would beat the Patriots, 23-17. Considering the Patriots had yet to lose that season, his prediction seemed absurd. Even Brady laughed.
But if you knew the Giants, you knew how much they believed they’d win, and sometimes belief is all it takes. Indeed, the Giants won, 17-14.
Until I saw the Rams this week, I hadn’t seen that kind of confidence ever since.
That doesn’t mean the Rams will win, but they think they can. And on this stage, that counts.
8. NFL pension fund falling short
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One day, long after this Super Bowl, many who played in the game will retire quietly. They won’t leave as stars. They won’t leave with millions in their bank accounts. They’ll likely be dealing with a rash of injuries acquired over their careers and will be facing financial difficulties. And they will need their NFL pensions.
They may not get them.
The Society of Actuaries studied the NFL pension plan and found it has $2.2 billion in assets against $2.7 billion in liabilities, leaving a $500 million shortfall.
The plan is only 83 percent funded, according to the SOA’s latest study (which took into account holdings as of April 1, 2017). Last year, it was 78 percent funded, per the SOA.
The analysis states that MLB and NHL pensions are funded above industry average, at 88 percent and 137 percent, respectively. The NBA pension fund was funded at 61 percent as of 2016.
Pensions mean more to NFL players than athletes in other sports because in the NBA and MLB, for example, salaries are guaranteed. That isn’t the case in the NFL. While the money in football is remarkable, most players will spend their entire lives recovering from injuries they suffer while playing the game. Those pensions are crucial to rank-and-file players.
Two other interesting facts from the analysis: If Jared Goff retired today, his pension would be $25,000 per year. Brady’s would be $121,000.
9. The Pro Bowl may be a hot mess, but it’s a popular hot mess
Phelan Ebenhack/Associated Press
This year’s Pro Bowl was typical Pro Bowl. It was fun at times, nonsensical at times and absolutely unwatchable. It was generally as physical as flag football.
As bad as the game was, however, it won’t be going away anytime soon. There are more than eight million reasons why.
According to ESPN’s Bill Hofheimer, more than 8.9 million people watched this year’s Pro Bowl. That’s an incredible number.
If the league keeps getting that kind of viewership for the Pro Bowl, nothing will stop the game from happening. Not even if it’s terrible.
10. Money makes the league go ’round
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Around nine years ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell set a goal that seemed ridiculous: By the year 2027, he wanted league to record $25 billion in annual revenue.
When he made that statement, the league’s revenues were a fraction of that number. Now, according to a Bloomberg analysis, the NFL “generated about $15 billion this past season,” which suggests $25 billion by 2027 is possible.
The NFL continues to rake in advertising money and is beginning to officially monetize the massive gambling market. The league recently signed a deal with Caesars Entertainment to become its official casino sponsor. (Where’s my casino sponsorship, come to think of it?)
But in this writer’s opinion, the NFL’s dogged pursuit of cash and power means it sometimes compromises itself when it comes to decency. The league abused its power when it came to Deflategate. It abused its power when it came to Bountygate. It could not have mishandled the Ray Rice case worse. The league has bungled plenty of other situations because it might be bad for the bottom line.
At times, the NFL’s arrogance has even prevented it from making basic decisions correctly, like its failure to issue a public statement saying its game officials made a mistake in the NFC Championship Game.
As the NFL pursues mounds of cash, it should remember what former commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in the aftermath of Bountygate. He spoke to GQ about Goodell’s relationship with players, but his words could be expanded to include the NFL’s overall view when it comes to money.
“If they see you making decisions only in economic terms, they start to understand that and question what you’re all about,” Tagliabue said.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.