Why I came away from the Super Bowl thinking about Texas A&M
The lasting image of Super Bowl LV will be one of a few things.
The obvious choice was yet another confetti-drenched Tom Brady as he somehow celebrated a Super Bowl victory in Year 1 with a new team. For college football fans, specifically LSU fans, the lasting image might’ve been Devin White intercepting Patrick Mahomes’ last pass of the night and taking off his helmet to celebrate with the entire Tampa Bay defense in front of the end zone camera.
I suppose you could’ve gone with a myriad of LSU-associated lasting images besides that one. Leonard Fournette, AKA Playoff Lenny, scampered in for the Bucs’ dagger touchdown late. Tyrann Mathieu’s back-and-forth with Brady was certainly a hot topic of conversation throughout the night, as well.
For all I know, the lasting image of the Super Bowl was The Weeknd’s close camera shot that instantly turning into an overused meme.
But for my money, the lasting image was Mahomes running for his life and not having a chance all night. Playing with a pair of backup offensive tackles, the Chiefs fell victim to the perfect storm. Inexperience protecting Mahomes, who had limited mobility playing through turf toe, combined with a relentless Tampa Bay front 7 with Todd Bowles at the controls was all she wrote. It took down one of the sport’s already historically dominant players, and in convincing fashion.
That’s why I couldn’t stop thinking about Texas A&M.
No, that’s not because of Mike Evans, who was held to 1 catch for 31 yards. It’s not even a reference to the fact that former Aggie offensive lineman Luke Joeckel went No. 2 in the 2013 NFL Draft, which was a spot after injured Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher.
Well, I suppose my A&M thought had something to do with Fisher. A lot, actually.
I kept thinking about the Aggies because Sunday showed us the difference in having pass protection vs. not having it, and why we need to remember its importance in this modern era of high-octane offenses.
We’ll look back on Super Bowl LV realizing that it was absolutely significant that Fisher went down with a torn Achilles in the AFC Championship. It created the scenario in which it didn’t matter that Kansas City had Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce with Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy dialing up looks because this was the offensive line:
Chiefs starting OL for the Super Bowl:
LT Remmers (0 LT snaps since ’16)
LG Allegretti (7th rounder)
C Reiter (7th rounder)
RG Wisniewski (cut by PIT in Nov.)
RT Wiley (a UDFA guard)
— Hayden Winks (@HaydenWinks) January 25, 2021
Compare that to A&M, which had the same 5 guys (Carson Green, Kenyon Green, Jared Hocker, Ryan McCollum and Dan Moore Jr.) start every game together in 2020. They were on the field together in their same positions for all but 24 regular-season snaps.
Now obviously it’s different to compare an NFL offensive line to a college one, but consider why the Chiefs crumbled on the big stage and why the Aggies finally reached it (I’m not saying the Orange Bowl and Super Bowl are the same thing). It’s all about the offensive line.
A&M’s offensive line, AKA the Maroon Goons, had a streak of 24 quarters and 201 pass attempts without allowing a sack against SEC competition. The Aggies posted the fewest amount of sacks allowed per game (0.44) in the regular season by any Power 5 team since Minnesota in 2005. That’s why they were 1 of 3 finalists for the Joe Moore Award (all were teams that finished ranked inside the top 5 in the Associated Press Top 25).
So why didn’t the Super Bowl remind me of Alabama, which won the Joe Moore Award, you ask?
This is about having pass protection vs. not having it. It wasn’t long ago that the Aggies didn’t have that pass protection.
Kellen Mond took 34 sacks in Year 1 in Jimbo Fisher’s offense in 2018. That sacks taken number was 30 in Year 2. In Year 3, that number dropped to 7. Nearly half of those came in the bowl game, too. It’s not a coincidence that the Aggies went from being the team that led for 7 minutes and 42 seconds in 300 minutes of football against top-15 finishers in 2019 to earning the program’s best AP Top 25 finish in 81 years in 2020.
Sure, part of it was the style that A&M played. It didn’t throw the ball 50 times per game. It established the run with a versatile, explosive backfield. It executed short, intermediate passing routes that served A&M well on 3rd down. Those things can make an offensive line look good, as can staying healthy like the Aggies did.
But like the Chiefs, it still comes down to finding the best way to get the ball into the hands of its speedy playmakers. You can’t do that with poor protection. At least not as poor as the level Kansas City fell to on Sunday night.
We’ve seen Mahomes overcome some poor protection at times because of his mobility. He’s perhaps the best the NFL has ever seen at making plays with his arm while scrambling. But even a superhero like him can’t enough get time to put on his cape when he’s got pressure coming from all sides. Turf toe or not, it still would’ve been evident that Mahomes was at a disadvantage because of the battle his team consistently lost at the line of scrimmage.
Seeing the way Sunday night played out will put an even greater value on offensive line play in this modern era. It’s not that it’s been ignored. We’ve got offensive linemen like Laremy Tunsil making north of $20 million a year.
It is, however, easy to devalue its significance in this era of spread, up-tempo offenses that stretch the field and force drop-8 coverages in ways we didn’t see 20 years ago. Just because there’s no longer a bully-ball mentality doesn’t mean winning the line of scrimmage is suddenly irrelevant. (How’s that for a triple negative?)
A few days before the Super Bowl, Fisher was “very, very excited” about a talented offensive line class he inked on National Signing Day.
“When you can control the line of scrimmage in this league, it makes a world of difference,” Fisher said, per TexAgs. “To allow your skill guys to function and we have length, we have size, we have mass, we have athleticism. I think we have intelligence and competitiveness. I’m very, very excited about those guys with their hand in the dirt. … They gotta go prove it, they gotta go do it and compete at that level, but they passed the eyeball test and when you meet them, man, you love them. I’m excited about the line.”
Jimbo Fisher’s 2021 offensive line class is one of the best in school history: “We have length, size, mass, power, intelligence, toughness…and when you meet ’em, man, you love ’em.” pic.twitter.com/8NXrrsrkPe
— TexAgs (@TexAgs) February 3, 2021
After the year Fisher just had, I don’t blame him for getting a little extra geeked up about quality offensive line play. He had a key point sandwiched in that quote about A&M’s linemen. “To allow your skill guys to function.” That finally happened once A&M took care of business up front in 2020.
It’s ironic because if you ask a Florida State fan what was the on-field issue at the root of Fisher’s sour ending in Tallahassee — as well as the collapse that followed since then — they’d probably point to the downfall of recruiting and developing a quality offensive line.
If you ask a Chiefs fan what was at the root of Kansas City’s sour ending in 2020, they’d probably point to the downfall of the offensive line. At least they should’ve. It wasn’t just a phantom pass interference call or the decision to flag Mathieu instead of Brady when both were jawing at each other at the end of the first half. None of that really matters when you don’t score a touchdown.
What would that game have looked like had Mahomes played behind a quality offensive line? Probably a lot more like the 2018 or 2019 versions of Mahomes’ Chiefs. What would A&M’s historically good 2020 season have looked like without a quality offensive line? Probably a lot more like the 2018 or 2019 versions of A&M.
Of course, protecting your quarterback in modern football doesn’t guarantee success. If you don’t have receivers who can get separation or if you don’t have a quarterback who can hit an open target, all the protection in the world won’t do you any good in this pass-heavy world we now live in.
But watching Mahomes take hit after hit and like he did the Super Bowl, it’s time to dust off that old football cliché — it starts up front.
As Kansas City reminded us, it can end up front, too.