Home > NFL > If Painter and Brunell Decide Super Bowl, who Gets the Edge?

If Painter and Brunell Decide Super Bowl, who Gets the Edge?

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As far as super bowl match-ups go, Drew Brees vs. Peyton Manning is pretty epic.  They are really 1a and 1b in terms of most valuable players in the NFL.  According to my simple player progression system, it was Brees who entered the season expecting greater things, and Manning’s 4th MVP comes in a bit of an upset.  Of course, he’s Peyton Manning, and he’ll develop on his own curve.

If one team or the other team loses their quarterback early in the game, the other team gains a decisive advantage.  But for this exercise, neither team gains a relative advantage because we’re going to remove Brees and Manning from this equation.  Don’t think it’s possible that the game could come down to this?  Ask Mack Brown what he thinks.  In all seriousness, it’s actually quite likely that the game itself gets decided by an injury or two, although for either quarterback, let alone both, to be involved would be downright improbable.

The crux of this question is less about the actual players who would try to step into the shoes of a downed superstar, and more about the team-wide ability to shift into a gameplan involving field position and defense.  It’s so rare in the game today for the quarterback position to drive everything a team does that less than 1/6 of the league would be majorly affected by playing without their starting QB for half a game.  Unquestionably, the Saints and Colts are two of those teams.

On offense, the Colts would see the greater dropoff without Manning in part because of the rookie struggles of the man who would replace him, Curtis Painter.  It would take a lot more than a sprain or a small fracture to actually have Peyton Manning actually leave the game, but once he’s out, the Colts become an offense that huddles and runs the football.  There would be no tempo to the offense, and the Saints could exploit match-ups in the Colts offensive line to get to Painter.  The Colts would have to rely on a steady diet of three step drops and field goals and field position for the first time this year.

But the Colts have been there before.  In fact, the last time they played in Miami, they played a Monday Night thriller against the Dolphins back in Week Two.  The Dolphins nearly won the game, and dominated on both lines and in time of possession.  But the Colts won by controlling the air game and generating big plays against a young, weak Miami secondary.  The Colts had to take what the defense gave them until, eventually, they were able to break the Dolphins’ stranglehold on the game in the fourth quarter.  The Dolphins made the Colts play their game, and still lost, thanks in no small part to Manning.  But while Manning set up his teammates, it wasn’t Manning who actually made the plays.  Dallas Clark and Pierre Garcon both had touchdown receptions of over 45 yards to make the difference and neither were difficult throws.

Put in another way, Painter may not be able to get the job done, but he would still have all the tools to be successful.  Gregg Williams’ defense specializes in harassing and punishing rookie quarterbacks who are not yet sophisticated enough to protect themselves.  That would include Painter, but the Colts could just as easily respond with an attack designed to make the Saints defense pay for being over-aggressive.  The Saints can’t really control how willing the Colts would be to let Painter decide the outcome of the super bowl, so they could not prepare to just attack Painter, nor to completely ignore him.  Because the Colts would still largely have the talent advantage, the Saints do not gain a schematic advantage that they don’t already have with Manning under center.  They would just benefit from not having to be under assault from Manning most of the game.

On the other side, a Brees-less Saints offense would not have very many tools in the passing game.  Enter Mark Brunell at quarterback.  Brunell, at age 38, is a much better quarterback than a rookie Curtis Painter.  But he doesn’t have the sort of accuracy or anticipitory ability brought by Brees to the table, and his entry into the lineup would marginalize the Saints receivers greatly.

Where Brunell would be able to help the Saints is in the turnover category.  With a good concept of where the pocket is, and the ability to read any coverage the Colts would throw at him, Sean Payton would not have to dial down the Saints playbook for Brunell.  However, it’s the vertical (seam routes) aspect that would take the biggest hit.  Brunell can not make the same throws against the coverage that Brees can, and the fact that the Saints receivers are an athletic group that can adjust to where Brees puts the ball is largely irrelevant.

Brunell is still good enough to keep the defense honest, but he would spend most of the time handing off as the Saints try to pound a smallish Colts defensive front that is just quicker than they are offensively.  This is the biggest adjustment that either team would have to make without it’s quarterback.  Due to Brees’ decision making and accuracy, the speed of the Colts defense is largely irrelivant in their game, as Brees can react faster than they can, allowing the Saints offense to be proactive.  With Brunell, the Saints offense becomes reactive, making the right decisions, but only after allowing the Colts defense to dictate where the ball goes.  If they can pound the rock, they will win.  If they can’t, they won’t be able to sustain long drives.  Field position will decide the game.

Brunell is a better quarterback than Painter is, and is probably a better quarterback than Painter will ever be.  But if the Saints lose Brees, they aren’t even an average team.  Peyton is the league MVP, but no team relies more on it’s quarterback to be there for them than the New Orleans Saints.  Ultimately, the game would be decided by the team that is more prepared to deal with the adverse conditions, but without speculating on which coaching staff can handle the situation better, the Saints would see the negative effect on not only their offense, but their defense.  If they could run the ball, they would win.  But without the threat of the vertical, quick-strike passing game, the Colts defense becomes the most dominant unit on the field.  They’re quick enough to take away the Saints run with seven guys, without the threat of the pass, and once they control the ground, then the Colts coaches can decide what they want to do with Curtis Painter and risk-levels.

The Saints are a very good team, but they are not the Jets.  They are here in no small part because of the schematic advantages they have enjoyed over their opponents.  This super bowl match-up is more intriguing than other games in recent years because it’s hard to say if the Saints enjoy any such advantage over a team like the Colts.  In other words, it’s a match-up driven super bowl.  Without Brees, the Colts hardly need Peyton Manning to enjoy those match-ups.  I conclude that such a scenario would offer Mark Brunell a chance or two at the end of the super bowl to be the hero and win it for New Orleans, but the Colts defense would ultimately be too fast and too well-coached for a team without it’s quarterback to overcome.  I cannot say the same for the New Orleans defense, which inevitably spent the entire week preparing only for Peyton Manning at quarterback.  Granted, it doesn’t take much preparation to handle what Curtis Painter can throw at you, but the very fact that it would be completely different makes the Colts skilled players hard to stop.

Inevitably, if both Drew Brees and Peyton Manning missed a majority of this game, the Indianapolis Colts are the team I think would overcome their loss the quickest and win the Super Bowl.

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