Superbowl XLVIII: Stopping the Manning factor

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In an interview with controversial Seahawks Corner Back Richard Sherman, it was revealed that the dominance of the Seattle Seahawks defensive dominance can be attributed to code cracking. Peyton Manning who is known for his elaborate signals and codes, changing them every game, lost his edge when early on in the game the Seahawks defensive backs cracked Manning’s “secret code” for calling plays at the line of scrimmage.

Peyton Manning now holds the record for the quarterback with the most post-season loses, taking that dubious title from famed Green Bay QB Brett Favre, though perhaps not due to lack of physical skill, but rather intellectual error.

Sherman in an interview to the Sports Illustrated blog The MMQB stated, “All we did was play situational football. We knew what route concepts they liked on different downs, so we jumped all the routes. Then we figured out the hand signals for a few of the route audibles in the first half.” He went on to demonstrate the hand gestures that Manning used to signal various pass routes to his wide receivers, and said he and his teammates were calling out plays throughout the game and getting them right.

“Me, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor [Sherman’s fellow Seahawk defensive backs]… we’re not just three All-Pro players. We’re three All-Pro minds,” Sherman says. “Now, if Peyton had thrown in some double moves, if he had gone out of character, we could’ve been exposed.”

Experienced NFL fans will recall 2007’s “Spygate” when the New England Patriots were caught videotaping New York Jets’ defensive play signals for later deciphering. The Patriots were deemed to have broken the NFL’s Constitution and Bylaws (Article 9) by using sound recording devices to match defensive game schemes against actual defences used by the Jets, thus allowing them to change their play calls to disadvantage the defense. Patriots’ Head Coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000, the maximum, and the Patriot team was fined $250,000, in addition to losing their first round pick in the NFL Draft of 2008.

To this day, many NFL fans consider the Patriots’ three Super Bowl victories as “suspicious”, thanks to Spygate. Does Richard Sherman’s revelation throw the Seahawks under suspicion? The NFL has announced no investigation of Sherman, et al’s code cracking since it did not appear to involve “recording devices” but rather simply was deciphered by watching hours of Bronco’s (and Manning’s previous team, the Indianapolis Colts) game film.

Responding to a question a few days after the game, Broncos Head Coach John Fox acknowledged that the Seahawks may have been on to something, but downplayed the impact the in-game intelligence Seattle may have deciphered. Fox said, “You know, it looked like it, but I think it’s more they have very good players. I don’t know that there are any mystery things. I think it was more about them executing and playing very well than any other stuff.”

Sherman may be known as “brash” and a trashtalker, but’s he’s also a Stanford University graduate and a relentless reviewer and student of game film. And his time at Stanford as a wide receiver before switching to cornerback in his Senior season has also paid dividends: he is a master at reading opposing wide receivers’ stances at the line of scrimmage and deciphering which route they intend to run.

Finally, let’s also acknowledge that it does not hurt that Sherman is 6 foot 3 inches (1.91 meters), runs a 10.77 second 100 Meter Dash, and was a California State Triple Long Jump top 10 finisher, so he’s got athletic talent, speed, and size to go with his intellectual bona fides.

So there is an irony to the fact that American football, perhaps the most violent of all national sports, nonetheless has a complex strategic side often undervalued by the casual viewer. Quoting Richard Sherman, again, “We’re playing chess, not checkers.” Football, like chess, simulates the traditional battlefield of opposing sides clashing, with each play like a different battle plan. Knowing what the other side is going to do before they do it is an enormous advantage. Therefore, the ability of Sherman and the Seahawks to, using their intellect, to decipher the code, they simply out-played the Broncos.

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