Peterson 101: How to Win Football Championships

While it's long been decided that contemporary hot mediums diminish the general public's attention span, all too seldom is it noted that media messengers and football coaches are every bit as b

Jan 16, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

While it's long been decided that contemporary hot mediums diminish the general public's attention span, all too seldom is it noted that media messengers and football coaches are every bit as badly afflicted. Hence, one can predict with the calendar which questions are about to exercise coaches and columnists, as if history hasn't already given the answers.

One always knows when training camp starts in July that NFL commentators will spend the regular season's final week debating whether teams locked into playoff spots should rest their regulars or play it out to win. No one ever checks the record or their deposits of common sense.

Any junior high school coach will say he wants his team sharp and synchronized entering the playoffs. But in the NFL, somehow, it's a philosophical puzzle.

We'll grant that the NFL season is quite long and those teams pay their playmakers a lot of money. Fatigue and injury concerns enter the equation. But unlike baseball and basketball teams that call on reserves of adrenaline to buzz through the playoffs, it's remarkable that so many NFL programs siesta before the playoffs, wishing to rest and relax their players.

If we've learned anything from the last couple weeks, it's that the cost of R&R is very high.

When the question arises again in a little less than 12 months, remember the answer: Play to win, always.

Teams that rest regulars when all else is decided pay for it with dreadful playoff performances. It's much better to be sharp than to be fresh.

Of the four remaining teams playing for the two Super Bowl berths this weekend, three of them — the New England Patriots, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers — played the regular season finale full-out, even though the game made no seeding difference.

All four teams eliminated last weekend — the Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks — mistook seed certainty for an invitation to mail in the regular season finale, resting regulars for freshness.

Of the four teams eliminated during the wildcard weekend, the Washington Redskins and Tennessee Titans needed to win the last regular season game for survival. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers basically took two weeks off, knowing all along they held the NFC´s fourth seed, and paid for it with a first-round loss to the Giants. The Pittsburgh Steelers played their finale as if it didn't matter, though a win could have given them a first-round playoff game against Tennessee instead of Jacksonville. Then the Steelers played a messy game in their first-round loss to the Jags.

It's no accident that the Patriots and Giants remain alive after wrapping up the regular season with one of the year's very best games. At stake for the Patriots was a 16-0 record, the first of its kind in NFL history. They were motivated.

The Giants could have packed it in for all the wrong reasons and no one would have blinked. Instead, they played for all the right reasons, including a chance to foil New England, but also because it's a good idea to line up right before the playoffs.

Though New England won the game 38-35, the Giants drew serious benefits from playing hard against the NFL's best team. If the Giants and Patriots meet again in the Super Bowl, no one should be too surprised.

* * * * *

As an anti-climactic football game deserves an anti-climactic analysis, now is as good a time as any to discuss the most recent contest for college football's national championship, Louisiana State's 38-24 win over Ohio State on Jan. 7 in New Orleans.

It's often been remarked, correctly, that the Southeastern Conference stands a level above the rest of college football and, based on the last two title games, the SEC is certainly ahead of the Big Ten. The SEC, by the way, won two of three bowl games head-to-head this year against the Big Ten.

But there's a more direct question concerning Ohio State losses in two straight title game losses to SEC schools: Why? Is it talent, or is it tactics?

As is often the case, the either/or question poses a false choice. It's a combination of both. Where the talent is present, the tactics will follow.

For example, like nowhere else on the football field, raw athletic ability makes a difference in the defensive secondary. When defensive backs can cover receivers one-on-one, the rest of the defense can work from a complete palette, whether it's loading up against the run or blitzing with minimal risk.

LSU defensive backs Chevis Jackson and Jonathon Zenon handled their job, the rest of LSU's defense played it wild and crazy, and Ohio State stammered offensively for the whole night.

Playing close to the vest offensively, the Buckeyes couldn't break the LSU blitz. Ohio State also played the more conservative defense.

When you have the best talent in the Big Ten, you can win with more conservative tactics. But in the SEC, where the entire league can run, it becomes necessary to innovate, spread the field, take risks and hope players can make plays when they're over-extended.

Ohio State made one big move against LSU when Beanie Wells ran 65 yards for touchdown on the game's fourth play. From that point, OSU snapped the ball 52 times, gaining 288 yards and 15 first downs with three turnovers. The Buckeyes scored a touchdown late in the third quarter, driving 11 yards after a turnover, then scored a garbage-time touchdown with less than a minute left in the game.

The game flipped on a turnover after LSU took a 17-10 lead with 7:28 left in the second quarter. On third-and-10 from the OSU 31, Jackson intercepted Buckeyes quarterback Todd Boeckman at the LSU 42 and returned it to the Ohio State 24. Five plays later, Jacob Hester ran for a one-yard touchdown for a 24-10 LSU lead with 4:16 left in the half. When the Tigers added a touchdown driving from the second-half kickoff, their 31-10 lead put Ohio State in a huge hole.

Suddenly, Ohio State had to throw, Jackson and Zenon handled the top Ohio State receivers and the Tigers were in blitzing mode. Game over.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]