|Julian Edelman can't be expected to carry a similar defensive load to Vince Wilfork, but he is. (Getty Images)|
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bill Belichick is a coaching savant. I get it, and I mean it. He's that good, one of the best of all time. Maybe the best of all time. Spygate was an ugly mark on his record, a failing of ethics that will follow him forever -- as it should -- but don't fool yourself. Belichick is brilliant.
Which brings me to the point of this story, the point being, how could he be so stupid?
How could Julian Edelman be his nickel cornerback in the Super Bowl?
Nothing against Edelman. If I'm ranking the players in the Super Bowl, sort of like Prisco did earlier this week but with a different scale -- ranking them not in terms of ability, but in terms of admirability -- Edelman would be in my top 10. The guy is about 5-feet-9, weighs a buck-nothing and is playing a position for the first time since he was 12 years old. That's impressive. That's admirable.
How does this happen to the Patriots? That's what I need to know, even more than I need to know the answer to another question, which is: How much will Eli Manning punish Julian Edelman on Sunday?
That one, I know. Manning will punish Edelman to the point of sadism. If you see a towel flying onto the field from the upper deck, that'll be from me, from my spot in press seating, calling it off. Because by the second quarter, Julian Edelman will have had enough. He'll be exhausted and dizzy from being spun around and run past and run over and treated, basically, like a former college quarterback who had to learn how to return punts and play receiver to stick in the NFL, and who then had to learn how to play cornerback about two months ago because Bill Belichick isn't as smart as we all thought he is.
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And again, I repeat, Belichick is maybe the best coach of all time.
But again, I repeat, this is stupid.
So how did this happen? How did the Patriots find themselves with one receiver, Matthew Slater, forced to play emergency safety and another receiver, Julian Edelman, forced to play a regular role at cornerback? There is oversight, and then there is blindness, and Belichick got caught with his
pants eyelids pulled down when he was forced in November to put the converted college quarterback/converted NFL receiver into his secondary as the nickel cornerback.
As the nickel corner, Edelman typically plays only on passing downs. Any idea how often the Giants pass? Pretty much every down. In the pass-happiest season in NFL history, with two quarterbacks breaking Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for passing yards in a season and with a record-tying 10 QBs throwing for more than 4,000, the Giants were sixth in the league in pass attempts with 589. Manning threw for 4,933 yards, 29 touchdowns and a 92.9 passer rating, making it the best season of his Hall of Fame-level career.
Back in 2004 when he was preparing for the NFL Draft, Manning scored a 39 on the modified IQ test known as the Wonderlic. That's one of the highest scores in NFL history, which means Eli Manning is one of the smarter quarterbacks to play the game.
So what we have is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and one of the busiest quarterbacks in the league, and one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league. And when that quarterback steps to the line of scrimmage and surveys the Patriots defense, he'll see a former college quarterback, a guy who until November hadn't played defensive back since he was 12, lined up on the slot receiver.
Any idea who the Giants' slot receiver is? Victor Cruz. This season he caught 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. In an era when the best receivers average 12 or 13 yards a catch, Cruz averaged 18.7, third in the league. And should Edelman find himself matched with the Giants' No. 2 receiver, Hakeem Nicks, that doesn't look so good either. Nicks averaged 15.7 yards on 76 catches (1,192 yards). The Giants' third receiver? Mario Manningham, good enough to start for most teams and a guy who averaged nearly 60 catches for 900 yards in 2009 and 2010 when he started for this one.
Manningham, by the way, has had a verbal field day with Edelman this week, saying, "I hope he's out there" and "he's not a real defensive back," and when asked if Edelman could actually stop whoever the Giants put in the slot, firing back, "Do you think he can?"
Obviously Belichick feels he can. Or, perhaps just as obviously, Belichick feels he has no other choice. Which brings me back to my question.
How does this happen?
How does the greatest coach of our generation, maybe the greatest ever, get caught with a former receiver playing nickel cornerback against a passing offense in the Super Bowl?
There were injuries, yes. The Patriots' secondary has been beaten up, corners and safeties alike. But also there were development miscues, with 2010 rookie star Devin McCourty devolving into a liability this season. And there were talent-evaluation mistakes, with the Patriots getting almost nothing out of the seven cornerbacks they've drafted since 2007. A second-round draft pick was wasted in 2009 on Darius Butler, who was released in September, and veteran Leigh Bodden was released in October, barely a year after he signed a four-year, $22 million deal.
This secondary is not a monument to Bill Belichick. It's an insult. But the Patriots made it this far, and now they will try to make it one step further. The hardest step. Against the best quarterback -- by far -- they've seen since Edelman became the team's nickel cornerback.
Eli Manning threw for more than 400 yards in a game three times this regular season. He has averaged 308 yards in the playoffs alone, with a passer rating of 103.1. And Manning will see Julian Edelman on whatever stud the Giants line up as their slot receiver.
Do the math. You don't need a genius-level Wonderlic score to figure it out.