Football, our coaches always told us, is a game of inches. Yesterday, that fact was demonstrated with startling clarity by two plays, both of which will be remembered and argued about for years.
The first, of course, was the play that won the game, or at least was key in the game-winning drive. From his own 12, with a shade under 3:50 to play, Eli Manning made a spot-on pass to Mario Manningham at the 50-yard line for a 38-yard gain. (Admire it.)
Besides being spectacular, the play was notable for several reasons. First, one of Manningham’s flaws as a receiver is his penchant for not giving his quarterback enough room to make a completion on a sideline pass — i.e. for cutting to the sideline too quickly. NBC’s astute analyst, Cris Collinsworth, nailed him for it earlier on a pass down the right sideline. It appears to me as if Manningham did exactly the same thing on this play to the left sideline but Eli made the adjustment; I don’t think it would have been possible to throw a pass closer to the sideline marker.
Nonetheless, the debates currently being waged on the internet and on the various ESPN channels about who should get more credit, Manning or Manningham, are irrelevant. Such plays are always — always — the result of timing and teamwork between passer and receiver. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure that Eli and Mario could make that play again in 10 tries. And I mean 10 tries even without any defensive backs on Manningham’s ass. That’s what makes it, and will always make it — all the more impressive: the pressure that on both of them in that situation.
Which leads us to the catch that wasn’t made, Wes Welker’s drop in the 4th quarter. With a little over four minutes to play and the Patriots leading 17-15, Brady faced a 2nd-and-11 from the Giants 46. (Note in the video that Collinsworth sees the trouble even before the snap of the ball: the Giants are confused in their coverage and have two linebackers out there trying to cover Welker, a wide receiver/slot receiver. Brady spots it too and immediately zeroes in on Welker.
There is much heated discussion as to whose fault the drop was; you can probably catch Skip Bayless blaming Brady on ESPN for the next couple of days. But is was not Brady’s fault. It’s true that if Brady had thrown the ball perhaps a foot more to his right, Welker might have caught it over the shoulder and gone beyond the 20-yard line, where he did end up falling. It’s also possible that he might have scored. But all that was necessary in that situation was for Welker to come down with the ball. The Patriots might then have run the clock well under two minutes, kicked an easy field goal, and taken a 20-15 lead. They might also have run the clock down to near nothing and scored a touchdown. In any event, this failure to connect can be properly labeled the play that cost New England if not the Super Bowl, then the odds-on chance to win the Super Bowl.
But whose fault was the flub? I don’t see how you can watch the play rerun and not put the blame on Welker. Baer Bryant used to say, ‘If you can touch it, you can catch it.” That may not be true, but he made his players believe it, and that belief results in a great many catches that otherwise would not have been made.
Welker, the Patriots’ best clutch receiver for several seasons, had 122 receptions this year, many in key situations, and he didn’t just touch the ball — he had both hands on the ball. In the NFL, when you have both hands on the ball, you’re expected to bring it down. As Collinsworth said on the broadcast, “Welker makes that catch 100 times out of 100. Stunning to see him miss that in that situation.”