They went at it, as expected, and Peyton Manning and Drew Brees executed the game of Operation! absolutely perfectly. They used an array of short- and intermediate-area passes to move the football by bits and pieces up and down the field as Super Bowl 44 moved into the fourth quarter. And then, early in that fourth quarter, the Colts demonstrated why quarterback is the most important position in all of sports.
On a fourth-and-2 play from the New Orleans 46-yard line, with Indianapolis clinging to a one-point lead, the Colts ignored the natural call to punt and instead Manning threw a slant pass to Reggie Wayne for 14 yards and a first down. Wow. Amazing call and incredible confidence in Manning, and while the drive stalled and the Colts missed a 51-yard field goal attempt by Matt Stover, the play illustrated the importance of the quarterback position and the ultimate mandate that the quarterback plays well and leads the way to a championship.
There have been exceptions in the history of the Super Bowl, when teams have won led by only-OK quarterbacks. Trent Dilfer and Baltimore in 2001 won the Super Bowl. By and large, though, the best quarterbacks win Super Bowls. It is a rule of football. You can talk all you want about run/pass ratios, and you can talk about all the equations and, yes, they are all important. At the front of the list, though, is the play of the quarterback.
Watching the Saints defeat the Colts on Sunday night in a terrific Super Bowl, the play of both Manning and Brees dominated everything. Brees played better than did Manning, and New Orleans pulled the upset to win its first Super Bowl title. And certainly, with the quarterback position the focal point for many in this Eagles' off-season, watching Brees and Manning provides the bar for Donovan McNabb (insert your comment here) to reach in 2010.
McNabb is capable of these kinds of games. We have seen them many times through the years. Where he needs to be better, thinking back to 2009, is to deliver these kinds of games more consistently. It is certainly not fair to heap it all on McNabb, because there are many other components to consider in a game. Everything has to work for an offense to work, but let's be honest, the quarterback is the focal point.
What turned the game into a certain Saints win? A Manning interception, returned for a touchdown by Tracy Porter. It was Manning's only mistake of the game, exactly one more than Brees made. For all of Manning's greatness, the Saints won Super Bowl 44 because Brees was perfect, because New Orleans played keep-away from Manning's offense, because head coach Sean Payton did a fantastic job taking chances at the right time -- the onsides kick to open the second half was sheer guts and brilliance.
When the Eagles played New England in Super Bowl 39 five years ago, well, I hate to bring up the terrible memories, but the real reason Philadelphia lost was because the offense turned the football over, blew chances to score touchdowns and generally did not put some distance over the Patriots in the first half, when the Eagles had that chance. The offense did not convert prime opportunities and then Tom Brady got hot and New England pulled away in the fourth quarter.
Among the off-season priorities -- and we have discussed some of them and will continue to do so for weeks to come -- the play at the quarterback position has to on the list. McNabb has done a lot of great things -- goodness, he has been in six Pro Bowls -- but he has an important period of work in front of him. Nothing specific, other than everything.
Drew Brees delivered a perfect game at the perfect time and the Saints are the Super Bowl champions. That is the standard McNabb has to meet week in and week out next season. That has to be his goal.
The importance of great quarterback play was never illustrated more clearly than it was on Sunday night. Brees outplayed Manning and the Saints beat the Colts. Simple as that, and of course, not as simple as that. Brees led the Saints all season with an all-time performance and then he did on Sunday night what he had done for much of the regular season and the playoffs.
Can McNabb raise his game to that level every week? It has to be his goal -- and the goal of Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick -- to get to that high-water mark. Among the many things on the agenda, quarterback efficiency must be part of the equation.