As they always say, sometimes the largest things in life come down to the smallest of details. There’s a reason cliches become cliches, and it is often because they are true.
And so it was in the second Super Bowl of Andy Reid’s coaching career, just as it was in the first, what decided between winning and losing, success and failure, a reputation as a hero or a second-rate soldier, was perhaps merely the width of a single play.
That seems unfair, but it is the nature of the business that coaches have chosen. Reid is popular, but this isn’t a popularity contest. He is successful — with wins numbering among the most hallowed names of his profession — but success is judged not by the slow construction of a solid building but by the raising of a flagpole atop it.
Before Sunday’s Super Bowl, the debate as to whether Reid’s accomplishments had already qualified him for the Hall of Fame was real because the flagpole was missing. Had the game turned out differently, that would still be the case. Now, the debate is over, and Reid isn’t any better a coach today than he was a week ago. He just happened to win one more game.
A play here or there. An official’s flag thrown or not thrown. A moment of decision or indecision on the field. A lifetime’s reputation is in the balance, and, for those who wanted this for Reid, the balance finally tipped in his favor.
We can argue which play would have made more of a difference had it changed, but I’ll take the third-and-15 pass from Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill midway through the fourth quarter that went for 44 yards. My guess is the San Francisco secondary would select that one, too.
The Chiefs were down by 10 points when Hill slanted into the gaping channel in the 49ers’ zone defense. It was an audacious play, nonetheless, and that might be why it worked, because San Francisco was expecting the target area to be near the first-down sticks.
If Mahomes misses that throw, or Hill can’t make the catch, or the defense recovers in time to knock away the ball, I don’t think the Chiefs win the game. There were only seven minutes left to play, but Kansas City, facing fourth-and-15 at its own 35, would have probably had to punt away the ball.
One play, and maybe the difference between the Hall of Fame for Reid or not.
There were others that could have changed things as well, and every game is a latticework of interwoven possibilities. In the second half, the Chiefs began with two drives that ended in interceptions, and followed that with three consecutive drives that ended with touchdowns, so there was a lot going on. But give me Tyreek Hill down-shifting to a full stop between defenders to haul in the pass.
Fifteen years before, in Jacksonville, there was another Super Bowl that didn’t go as well for Reid, and it’s not as easy to choose the single play that might have altered the outcome of the three-point loss to New England.
I was there for that one, and I’ll pick out another pass play with a little more than seven minutes left in the game and Reid’s team trailing by 10 points that time as well. The circumstance was nothing as dire as a long third-down attempt. In fact, it was first down at the New England 36-yard line, after a long completion to Terrell Owens.
Donovan McNabb took the snap and looked for tight end L.J. Smith on a route over the middle, covered by strong safety Rodney Harrison. Smith had a step on Harrison and McNabb saw that, but he didn’t notice linebacker Tedy Bruschi lurking in the middle of the field.
Maybe that interception didn’t cost the Eagles the game. Other things would have had to happen. But the script that followed, with the Eagles scoring on their next possession but effectively running out the clock in the process, would have been far different had McNabb elected not to throw into that traffic.
Quarterbacks aren’t perfect, and that includes Mahomes, who did have those two interceptions on Sunday. The McNabb who threw the ball to Bruschi was the same McNabb who found Owens the play before.
Reputations are about results, at least in sports, and Andy Reid has a new reputation now. He can win the big game, after all, and maybe just because of a single play.