NFL

Super Bowl LV: Bruce Arians, Andy Reid and the value of taking a risk in the NFL

By Sports Desk February 04, 2021

An NFL season unlike any other concludes on Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers meet in a Super Bowl with a difference.  

The Bucs have home advantage as they bid to make history – no team has ever before played for the Lombardi Trophy in their own stadium – but there will be no full house present to watch the action unfold. In a campaign shaped by the coronavirus pandemic, there will be more cardboard cut-outs in attendance than real fans.   

As for the game itself, Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes is box office viewing. Both have supporting casts that can accentuate their talent, giving us a battle between two quarterbacks at opposite ends of their NFL careers but with the same goal: Win one more ring.   

Then there are the head coaches. Andy Reid, who couldn't win the big games, until he actually did. Bruce Arians, who retired from coaching, until he came back. They have continued to work through unprecedented times in the league, where protocols have dictated daily schedules and the only talk of two-a-days referred to COVID-19 testing, rather than practices.    

Adapting to their specific situations has been the key to getting this far, according to former NFL head coach Brian Billick, now working for NFL Media. 

"They evolve, they do what their players do best," Billick said on a conference call. "Certainly, Andy Reid has morphed that offense around Patrick Mahomes. He's been able to adapt exactly to the talents. 

"Bruce Arians is the same way, the things that he's doing with the experience of Tom Brady and the big play presence on the outside. They adapt, specifically to the type of players that they have around them."

After starting out in the NFL in a number of roles with Green Bay, Reid had success in charge of the Philadelphia Eagles – he remains top of their all-time list for wins - without ever managing to secure the franchise a first Super Bowl. The narrative of coming up short in the postseason continued in Kansas City, but eventually – thanks to a fourth-quarter comeback – he got over the hump.   

The Super Bowl triumph in 2020 ended any suggestion that Reid's Hall-of-Fame career required a ring for validation. Since then, he has appeared to be playing with house money.   

Depending on what unfolds on the field this weekend, the fourth-down call against the Cleveland Browns may well remain the lasting memory of this playoff run for Kansas City. Minus Mahomes and defending a five-point lead late in the game, a hard count by stand-in quarterback Chad Henne seemed the prelude to a punt. 

Hold what you have and hope to hang on, right? Not for Reid, who went all in. 

Knowing a first down would seal victory and a place in the AFC Championship Game, he allowed Henne to snap the ball while in the shotgun, wait briefly for Tyreek Hill to break on his shallow route and then fire in a pass to the wide receiver. The risk was great, but so too was the reward.  

Had Arians been in a similar situation, he too may have gone for it. A cancer survivor, the 68-year-old is known for his "No risk it, no biscuit" way of thinking, both in terms of his coaching philosophy and life in general.  

The Buccaneers certainly pushed all their chips into the middle of the table for this season, too. The seemingly unthinkable became reality when Brady walked away from the New England Patriots to start afresh in 'Tompa Bay', a move that tempted the retired Rob Gronkowski to put away the wrestling pants and don the football pads again. 

There were teething problems, as to be expected, yet Arians always insisted the team was learning on the fly, adjusting from week to week with a new starting quarterback – even one as good as Brady. 

However, the Bucs have been on a roll since their bye week. Four straight victories in which they amassed a combined total of 148 points to finish the regular season were followed by playoff triumphs on the road in Washington, New Orleans – who had previously beaten them twice – and then finally Green Bay.  

Arians went close to making a Super Bowl in his previous head coaching job in Arizona, losing in the NFC Championship Game. When he left in 2017, his future appeared to be in television working as an analyst.  

Then the Bucs called. 

Convincing both him and his wife Christine that it was the right move, he made a comeback. The arrival of Brady for his second season in charge changed the timeline, requiring Arians to use his man-management skills - "I'm not a father figure. I'm the cool uncle you'd like to have a drink with" - to bring it all together. 

The presence of a great quarterback on the rosters for both franchises should not overshadow what their coaches have achieved. Arians has ironed out the wrinkles in time while allowing Brady to turn back the clock in terms of airing the ball out. Reid's biggest issue in the regular season seemed to be finding a suitable face mask to wear, yet he could still see how to put Mahomes in situations that allowed him to dazzle.  

Arians and Reid have prevailed in hugely different circumstances but with the same positive outlook. Despite all that is on the line, you should expect both to be ready to gamble in the bid for glory. 

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  • Wimbledon: Nadal can edge closer to calendar Grand Slam, the holy grail of tennis Wimbledon: Nadal can edge closer to calendar Grand Slam, the holy grail of tennis

    Rafael Nadal is halfway to a calendar Grand Slam, a feat that would mark the crowning point of any player's career.

    Yet the Spanish great does not have to look far back into history to see how quickly that dream can be scuppered, with Novak Djokovic having fallen agonisingly short of a sweep of all four majors only last year.

    As perhaps the most grounded player in tennis, Nadal heads into Wimbledon well aware that winning the first two majors of the year is no guarantee of any future success.

    At the age of 36, and with a foot problem that requires careful maintenance, it would be arguably the most remarkable feat in the Open Era if Nadal were to add the Wimbledon and US Open titles to his Australian Open and French Open triumphs.

    Such dominance is scarce in tennis, and Rod Laver was the last player to scoop all four men's singles titles at the majors, all the way back in 1969.

    Steffi Graf won all four on the women's side in 1988, and it seemed a knock-in that Serena Williams would do likewise in 2015 when she headed to the US Open with three majors already bagged.

    But Williams famously came unstuck when she faced Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals, while Djokovic went even closer in 2021, losing to Daniil Medvedev in the final at Flushing Meadows.

    Here, Stats Perform examines the daunting challenge of scooping all four slams consecutively.


    WHAT THE GREAT CHAMPIONS SAY

    Before tennis reached its Open Era, which marked the dawning of professionalism on the tour, Laver won his first calendar Grand Slam in 1962.

    He said later, quoted by the Tennis Hall of Fame: "It was a thrill to come off the court knowing I had won all four majors in one year. But I never felt like I was the best, never felt that way. I just happened to have a good year."

    His 1969 dominance came a year after Laver returned to the majors, following a five-year exile while he played professional tennis elsewhere. When the majors allowed professionals to compete alongside the amateurs, 'Rocket Rod' was again unstoppable.

    Laver turned 31 in 1969 and did not win any further grand slam singles titles in his career after that astonishing season, but that second perfect season sealed his legacy as an all-time great.

    Stefan Edberg won a boys' singles clean sweep in 1983, but Laver remains the only player to win the men's singles full set in a calendar year since American Don Budge captured all four in the 1938 season, the first time it was achieved by a man. Maureen Connolly and Margaret Court achieved calendar Grand Slams in women's singles in 1953 and 1970 respectively.

    A non-calendar Grand Slam was accomplished by Djokovic, when he won Wimbledon, the US Open, Australian Open and French Open consecutively across the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Yet no man other than Laver, Budge and Djokovic has won all four singles crowns in succession.

    It has been 11 years since Nadal himself went close. He went to the Australian Open in 2011 with the Roland Garros, Wimbledon and US Open trophies in the bag, looking to complete the set.

    "I am sure it's going to be the only one opportunity that I'm going to have in my life," said Nadal that year. "I'm not going to have more of these opportunities to win all four in a row.

    "I think it is almost impossible. It is very, very difficult, no? Tennis is a very competitive sport and there is not a lot of difference between players. So a lot of matches are decided in a few balls. So for that reason it is very difficult to have one player winning everything. That's the truth."

    Nadal, hampered by injury, lost in the Melbourne quarter-finals to David Ferrer in 2011 and had not won back-to-back slams since, until this year's surprise double. 


    REACHING PRESSURE POINT

    It is too soon to think that Nadal has a glorious chance to land all four big ones this year. After all, although he has won Wimbledon twice before, those triumphs came in 2008 and 2010, and he has a chronic foot problem. He has required radiofrequency ablation treatment in the past fortnight, preventing nerves in his foot sending messages to his brain.

    He fell to Djokovic in the 2011 Wimbledon final and has not been back to the title match since, suffering a run of disappointing early exits in London before reaching semi-finals in 2018 and 2019, his last visits to the tournament.

    Djokovic is a heavy favourite for this year's title, but it would be bold to entirely rule out Nadal, particularly given that as the second seed he cannot run into Djokovic until the final. Particularly given that he is Rafael Nadal, and prone to doing stupendous things.

    Serbian Djokovic, a year Nadal's junior, would be able to tell his great rival just how intense the strain can become when a calendar Grand Slam becomes a serious prospect.

    Speaking in November last year, two months after Medvedev denied him in New York, Djokovic said: "I'm very relieved that the grand slam season was done, because I felt a tremendous pressure unlike anything I felt in my life.

    "It was an interesting experience, and I'm very satisfied with the way I played in grand slams, three wins and a final. There are much more positive things to be grateful for and to look at than negative."

    Like Djokovic, Serena Williams has managed the non-calendar Grand Slam before, with the American first achieving that from the French Open in 2002 to the Australian Open in 2003, and in 2015 she was aiming for five slams in a row when she arrived at the US Open, having begun her dominant streak at her home grand slam the previous year.

    That would have meant Williams sealed each of the 2015 slams, and losing to Vinci led to stark frustration, underlined by a terse response to the question of how disappointed she felt by the result.

    "I don't want to talk about how disappointing it is for me," Williams said. "If you have any other questions, I'm open for that."

    Sometimes, players get ahead of themselves when looking at the season ahead, and Naomi Osaka had a calendar Grand Slam in her thoughts after winning the season-opening Australian Open in 2019.

    She had also triumphed at the US Open at the end of 2018, and the Japanese star was beginning to think she might enjoy an invincible year at the majors, only to stumble to a third-round French Open defeat to Katerina Siniakova.

    Osaka said: "I think I was overthinking this calendar slam. For me this is something that I have wanted to do forever, but I have to think about it like if it was that easy, everyone would have done it."

  • Lionel Messi at 35: Could this be PSG and Argentina superstar's defining year? Lionel Messi at 35: Could this be PSG and Argentina superstar's defining year?

    To suggest the next 12 months may well define Lionel Messi's career would be doing a disservice to what we have witnessed up close over the past 18 campaigns. 

    From boy wonder to the greatest player ever in the view of many, and now into a new chapter with Paris Saint-Germain, the Argentina forward has nothing to prove to anyone.

    And yet on the day he turns 35 – the average age of retirement for a footballer – questions continue to be asked of Messi. 

    Will he win a World Cup – still in the eyes of many the real barometer of a truly great player, even in the era of the Champions League – before he retires? 

    Can he prove himself in a different country after a mixed first season in France? Both of those questions will be answered before he celebrates his 36th birthday in a year's time.

    Stats Perform looks at how Messi's game has already changed, and whether he is still capable of inspiring club and country to glory in possibly the biggest year of his career.
     

    MESSI 2.0

    Ten months have passed since the shock announcement that Messi was bringing an end to his 21-year association with Barcelona to join Ligue 1 giants PSG.

    By his own high standards, Messi's first campaign in Paris was far from great. He scored 11 goals in 34 appearances, down on the 38 scored in his last season with Barca.

    And those 11 goals came from an expected goals (xG) value of 16.8, meaning he scored 5.8 goals fewer than he should have based on the quality of his chances.

    Among players in Europe's top-five leagues in all competitions last season, only six others had a worse return, with Lille striker Burak Yilmaz (8.11 differential) topping the list.

    There were extenuating circumstances, of course, with Messi himself recently opening up on just how badly he struggled after testing positive for coronavirus in January.

    The La Masia product also had to adapt to life outside the place he had called home for more than two decades, seeing him take on an entirely different role.

    While his scoring figures dropped considerably, Messi set up 14 league goals – only once in his last five seasons at Camp Nou (21 in 2019-20) did he assist more in a campaign.

    The majority of his assists last season came from a left-of-centre position outside the box, where he predominantly played alongside Neymar and just off Kylian Mbappe.


    RONALDO SHOWS THE WAY

    The 11 goals Messi scored at the age of 34 is his lowest return since the eight he netted when aged 18 and still in the infancy of his Barcelona career.

    While that can be put down to a change of scenery, and being in the unfamiliar role of having to play second-fiddle to Mbappe, age is also surely a factor.

    At 35 – or 34 as he was last season – Messi will inevitably have to rely more on his footballing brain than his legs to give him an advantage over opponents.

    As showed by Cristiano Ronaldo, though, age is just a number when it comes to the very best, the Portugal star having scored 75 goals in 102 games since his 35th birthday.

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic, four months shy of his 41st birthday, has scored an impressive 112 goals in 174 appearances since hitting 35, an age often perceived as being 'over the hill'.


    ALL EYES ON QATAR

    Playing a supporting role may well be something we must come accustomed to when it comes to club level, but for Argentina Messi very much still remains the main man.

    That was clear to see earlier this month when, in his final game in a gruelling campaign, Messi scored all five of Argentina's goals in their thumping friendly win over Estonia.

    That five-goal showing rightly attracted plenty of focus, though it was arguably four days earlier in his side's 3-0 'Finalissima' victory over Italy that Messi truly showed his quality.

    Messi pulled the strings from a slightly deeper position as Argentina, who also boast the likes of Lautaro Martinez, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala, showed their credentials.

    He assisted two of Argentina's three goals, including a delightful turn to leave Giovanni Di Lorenzo trailing in his wake before setting up Martinez for a simple finish. 

    On the back of ending their 28-year wait for silverware in 2021 with victory at the Copa America, Lionel Scaloni's men now look good value to challenge for the World Cup.

    Regardless of any more titles he adds to his collection at PSG, Messi lifting the most famous trophy of them all in Qatar later this year would be the defining image of his career.

    Different now he may be, but Messi has a chance to show in his 35th year that he has plenty more left in the tank to turn a great career into the greatest.

  • Top QB recruit Arch Manning commits to Texas Top QB recruit Arch Manning commits to Texas

    Heralded quarterback prospect Arch Manning has committed to sign with the University of Texas, ending one of the most anticipated recruiting decisions in recent memory.

    Manning, the nephew of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning and the grandson of Ole Miss legend Archie Manning, revealed his decision with a short message on his Twitter account.

    "Committed to the University of Texas. #HookEm,” Manning tweeted.

    Texas was one of three schools, along with Alabama and Georgia, that Manning made official visits to earlier this month.

    The 17-year-old New Orleans native is the consensus number one quarterback of the 2023 class, and his ties to his famous family added further interest and intrigue to his recruitment.

    Arch’s decision would also continue the legacy of Manning quarterbacks within the Southeastern Conference, as Texas is currently scheduled to join the SEC from the Big 12 in 2025 – a move that could theoretically come sooner if the Longhorns and Oklahoma can negotiate buyouts from their present leagues.

    Both Archie and Eli Manning played collegiately at Mississippi, while Peyton starred at Tennessee before embarking on his Hall of Fame NFL career. Additionally, Arch’s father, Cooper, committed to Ole Miss as a wide receiver before a diagnosis of spinal stenosis ended his playing career shortly after high school.

    Manning will be joining a Texas program that is already well-stocked at the quarterback position after landing Ohio State transfer Quinn Ewers, the consensus number one recruit of the 2021 class, in December.

    The Longhorns also have two other highly regarded quarterback prospects in rising sophomore Hudson Card and incoming freshman Maalik Murphy. 

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