And so the pivotal, deciding play in America's biggest sports showcase, the pinnacle moment in the most bloated spectacle in our culture, came when the defense gave up and the offense didn't want to score. The great, grand NFL decided its champion on a play in which the running back tried to stop himself from scoring but couldn't.
Cue the bugles.
When the Patriots' defense simply gave up (metaphor alert!) and allowed (forced?) Ahmad Bradshaw to score a 6-yard touchdown he tried to take back, we witnessed a true sports anomaly. There is no other situation in American sports in which a team would make a similar strategic decision.
There are loose parallels in other sports, but none that call for a team to relinquish its lead at the end of a game as a means of facilitating a comeback win. In baseball, teams play the infield back and trade outs for runs all the time, but never late in a game when the run would result in losing a lead. Maybe a half-dozen times in history, baseball teams have issued intentional walks with the bases loaded -- but again, never to allow the opponent to take a lead late in the game. Tennis players have been known to drop the last couple of games in a lost-cause set to conserve energy for the rest of the match. Golfers concede in match play when a hole is deemed unwinnable.
No matter how bad it looked -- just iso on Vince Wilfork to see how truly bad it looked -- it was the proper decision and probably should have been made one play sooner. That doesn't alter one fact: It was not a proud or particularly dignified way to decide the Super Bowl.
It seems especially satisfying -- ironic even -- that Bill Belichick, the great defender of all that is manly and stoic and arrogant in the world of the National Football League, had to resort to such an emasculating tactic to give his team a chance in the final minute. But that's beside the point, sort of.
(Incidentally, the Bradshaw touchdown wasn't the strangest thing that happened Sunday in Indianapolis, not on a day when Tom Coughlin, in mid-celebration, hugged Flavor Flav on the turf of Lucas Oil Stadium. Seriously, could you come up with a more unlikely sports/celebrity pairing? Jim Leyland and Snoop Dogg, maybe? Mike Tomlin and Wayne Newton?)
Belichick's ploy didn't work, which doesn't mean it was incorrect. It's just a bad look. It runs contrary to every known principle coached by guys like Belichick. The idea of laying down and allowing the other team to score uncontested is strategically correct yet still distasteful. You might consider the failure of such strategy to be justice meted out by the football gods, or karma, if you were inclined to think that way. (The world would really be a better place if you didn't.)
We all want it to be great. We want to witness history or create legends, if only to justify the expense of our time and emotion. And so Monday, we were treated to this written description of the Pats' Surrender Formation: "The gutsiest call in Super Bowl history." Please. It wasn't gutsy; it was desperate. You can celebrate it as a stroke of counter-intuitive genius or see it for what it is: a quirk of the arbitrary way in which points are awarded in football. But there's no way to dress up a move that -- logical or not -- looks blatantly pathetic as it's happening. And even though it's nothing new -- not even for the Super Bowl -- it does raise a question: Is it better to lose traditionally, with your pride intact?
The decision wasn't met with unanimous consent in the Patriots' huddle. Linebacker Brandon Spikes said, "When the call came in to let them score, I was kind of like, 'What?'"
Since late Sunday night, we've been told the percentages were with Belichick and the Patriots. Their chances of scoring a touchdown with 57 seconds and one timeout remaining were better than their chances of stopping the Giants from kicking a chip-shot field goal. But if the Legend of Billy Cundiff taught us anything, it's that no field goal is a guarantee, regardless of percentages, especially when the time is short and the pressure is big.
In the end, we were left with the empty feeling that it could have been better. It could have been so much better. New England linebacker Jerod Mayo said the Patriots were given specific instructions in the event a Giants player successfully fought human nature and stopped himself short of the goal line. What were the Patriots going to do? "We were going to drag him into the end zone," Mayo said.
Other than raising the obvious question -- how many hours of official review would have resulted from that? -- it would have been quite a sight: America's most sacred sporting moment reduced to a group of defenders dragging an unwilling running back into the end zone. Talk about lost opportunities.
Oh well, there's always next year.
ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.