Thursday, February 2, 2012

Looking for the Unexpected in Super Sunday

With a handful of exceptions, I don’t believe in G.O.A.Ts.

Except for boxing, I don’t believe in the idea that one match or game completely defines a legacy.

In all sports, I don’t believe in the thought that a single play is the difference between winning and losing.

Yet, all of that seems to counter the one phenomenon that helps make the Super Bowl the pinnacle of single-day sporting events in the world; the ‘unsung hero’.

Football is considered the ultimate team sport, but for the millions of viewers who only watch the NFL’s championship game after avoiding all others in the last five months, you’re forgiven if you only know about a handful of players. However, the true narrative of football is created from the mix of the "must see" and the “who in the world is that?” As prognosticators and pop culture vultures keep the glaring spotlight on the established stars, it’s important also consider the obscure, the unknown and the unexpected players that could shine in Super Bowl XLVI.

From the Giants side, at this point, there are so many names that have entered the national conscious that to call anyone unsung would be reaching. Eli. Cruz. Nicks. Bradshaw. Jacobs. Osi. Tuck. JPP. Even Lawrence Tynes is a known commodity as his foot officially punched Super Bowl tickets twice in four years.

The most likely of the ‘unexpected’ may come from their defense as it has and always will go as far as their interior linemen play. Sure, the Giants are the only team in the NFL that can rotate five starting caliber defensive ends – Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul, the unsung Dave Tollefson and converted linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. However, to a man, each will tell you that nothing happens without players in the middle. In fact, New York rotates their interior players as well, albeit without much fanfare.

New York Giants' Chris Canty (via Detroit Free Press)

Chris Canty and Bronx-born Rocky Bernard – both who joined the Giants as free agents after the 2009 season – join second-year tackle Linval Joseph in applying pressure on the inside by taking on the center and offensive guards. Because New York employs a 4-3 defense, interior tackles don’t get the attention as they do in a 3-4 setup. There’s a reason why you know of Haloti Ngata, Ndamakong Suh and New England’s own mastodon, Vince Wilfork; they move rather large men backwards equally as well, if not better than they perform their primary job of taking up space.

These guys aren’t sack artists and they excel mostly at slowing opposing rushing offenses – or at least forcing running backs to run on the outside for more room. What they are, however, are players that gave the Patriots’ offensive line fits back in November. If the defense performs to expectations en route to a win, those higher profile ends like Tuck and Umenyiora will immediately credit their teammates on the inside. As they should.

On the flip side, the entire team outside of Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and the aforementioned Wilfork seem to be anonymous to non-Patriots fans. It’s the M.O. of New England; throw a bunch of guys out there and let Bill Belichick sort them out. And that’s the best way to describe how this franchise has reached its fifth Super Bowl in ten years.

Understanding that, is it possible that the unexpected performance come from The Law Firm?

BenJarvus Green-Ellis of New England (via Yahoo! Sports)

It may sound absurd to consider BenJarvus Green-Ellis as some sort of a sleeper, though he’s not exactly incapable of running the ball. The major story with him is well-earned; no fumbles in his four-year career, though to be fair, he’s not asked to be the Patriots’ bellwether. After all, New England doesn’t demand much from its running game – a contrast from their opponents who needed Eli Manning’s arm to compensate for a lack of punch by its league-worst rushing offense.

Despite the lack of lead back carries, the Patriots have never lost a game where The Law Firm is called upon for at least sixteen carries (14-0 since his rookie season).  He has actually performed admirably well against solid-to-strong defensive teams (and Indianapolis); Buffalo, Miami, Pittsburgh and the Jets.

Because Belichick is full of surprises, it wouldn’t be a shock if his team runs the ball a bit more than normal, especially to the outside in open space where Giants defenders have had trouble keeping up. Plus, considering how busy the Giants’ linebackers and safeties will be with Brady’s receiving options, there may be more opportunities for Green-Ellis, even if it’s to methodically move the chains.

Maybe Green-Ellis makes like Timmy Smith and stuns the world with a Super Bowl rushing record. Maybe one of those Giants defensive tackles channel their inner Leon Lett, only this time, actually scoring. That’s what makes the Super Bowl so compelling; for all the moments of brilliance by the game’s greatest, they are complimented, if not surpassed by someone who we didn’t see coming.

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