The Ram Factor: Steve Spagnuolo, Josh McDaniels and Super Bowl XLVI

The Ram Factor: Steve Spagnuolo, Josh McDaniels and Super Bowl XLVI
Tony Medina/Icon SMI
Giants QB Eli Manning throws a pass as New York beat the 49ers last Sunday.

St. Louisans don't generally give a whole lot of thought to the Super Bowl. Oh, sure, we'll all watch it — as upstanding St. Louisans we'll jump at pretty much any opportunity to stuff our faces and TiVo big-budget commercials, but as far as the game itself goes, we just don't much care.

Can you blame us? We have the Rams. Owners of the first or second overall draft pick three of the last four years. Non-entity in January year after year. You know, the Rams.

This year, though, is kind of different. There's a very interesting sideshow going on in this particular Super Bowl, and it has Rams connections in the starring roles.

Tom Brady celebrates his fourth-quarter touchdown against the Ravens.
Tom Croke/Icon SMI
Tom Brady celebrates his fourth-quarter touchdown against the Ravens.

The Big Rematch
The ink was barely dry on the conference-champ T-shirts and already Super Bowl XLVI is being billed as the Rematch of the Century, a chance for the New England Patriots to exact revenge against the team that deprived them of a perfect 2007 season.

When the New York Giants took a mighty dump on the Patriots' 19-0 dreams, the defensive coordinator of that New York team was...Steve Spagnuolo. He was the architect of a fearsome pass-rushing attack that allowed the Giants strangle the Patriots' record-setting offense. The Giants' 17-14 win immediately shot Spagnuolo's name to the top of the list of up-and-coming head-coaching candidates, and following another successful season in New York, the Rams signed him to a four-year deal, reportedly worth nearly $12 million. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or Spagnuolo is, anyway, having been fired after only three seasons.

Meanwhile, on the opposite sideline, New England's offensive coordinator was...Josh McDaniels. Over the course of the sixteen-game regular season, McDaniels' squad had been nigh unstoppable, as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady set a new NFL passing mark for touchdowns. On the strength of that attack, the Denver Broncos wooed McDaniels' west, hiring him as head coach a week before the Rams hired Spagnuolo. McDaniels lasted only a season and a half in the Rocky Mountains, but Spagnuolo and company brought him onboard to lead the Rams' offense in 2011. We all know how that turned out.

But after St. Louis axed Spagnuolo, New England snagged McDaniels just in time for the Patriots' first postseason game (which happened to be against the Broncos) and signed him to replace current offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who will take over the reins at Penn State.

New York might not have Spags any more (he just filled the defensive-coordinator vacancy in New Orleans), but his fingerprints remain all through the Giants' defensive playbook. The defensive line he was so instrumental in building remains intact, with the exception of the retired Michael Strahan, who has been replaced by Jason Pierre-Paul, a 16.5-sack monster in the regular season. It has been the front four of Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Chris Canty and Justin Tuck, running virtually the same stunts and blitzes Steve Spagnuolo engineered, that was instrumental (along with some very timely quarterbacking) in the Giants' late-season resurgence.

A Tale of Two QBs
It just might be Tom Brady's lot in life: Every time he reaches an important crossroads, he looks up and there's a Manning staring at him. The paths to his greatest accomplishments have nearly all led through Peyton Manning, while his Waterloo came at the hands of Eli — who now stands between Brady and his fourth career Super Bowl triumph. (Well, Eli and that defensive front four.)

Brady had yet another incandescently brilliant season in 2011. He may never again approach the heights of '07, but this season he came closer than anyone had a right to expect. For years detractors have called Brady a system quarterback, and it may be true — in which case he's the best system quarterback ever to play the game. Poise. Accuracy. Quick release. Tom Brady possesses the perfect elements required to run the Patriots' offense, and the experience to know how best to utilize it. Baltimore was able to hassle Brady enough, and knock his receivers around enough, to limit the New England passing game. But in the end Brady did what he nearly always does: enough to win.

Eli Manning's ascent to the ranks of the NFL's quarterbacking elite has been somewhat more turbulent. Manning arrived with the draft pedigree Brady lacked — he was the first overall pick in 2004, while Brady had sat by the phone in 2000 while 198 players were drafted ahead of him — but he could not outshine his easygoing and smooth-throwing big brother, Peyton, the first overall pick in 1998. His mistake-prone early years led to one sentiment above all others: "Eli Manning? He's not bad. Hell of an arm. But he sure ain't his brother."

In retrospect it should come as no surprise that it took a year without Peyton for Eli to properly step out of his brother's shadow. While the Indianapolis Colts were sinking like a concrete canoe, Eli was captaining his ship through rough waters, keeping the wobbly Giants in contention all season long.

Manning hasn't quite shed his gunslinger tendencies; you can pretty much count on him to force a throw once or twice a game. But he no longer heaves the ball downfield under pressure, having learned to move in the pocket, buy time and, if no opportunity presents itself, throw the ball away or make for the line of scrimmage. He has always had the talent; cutting down on his mistakes has taken Eli's game to a higher level.

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