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Super Bowl XXV: Correcting the Narrative

Posted by Chase Stuart on March 28, 2011

Super Bowl XXV. Giants-Bills. Wide Right. 20-19. Bill Parcells. The Gameplan to End All Gameplans™. Our brains have been indoctrinated for years with the message that Parcells concocted the perfect gameplan to defeat the high-flying Bills. By "controlling the clock," "shortening the game" and by implementing a "ball-control offense", the Giants pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. When the franchise faced an even taller task 17 years later, New Yorkalready had the blueprint on which to build:

Giants coach Tom Coughlin doesn't have to look far to concoct a game plan for toppling an offensive powerhouse in the Super Bowl. His mentor did it 17 years ago.

When the Giants arrived in Tampa for Super Bowl XXV in 1991, the AFC champion Bills had just scored 95 points while humbling the Raiders and Dolphins in the playoffs.

New York coach Bill Parcells shortened the game by milking the clock and relying on Ottis Anderson, who ran for 102 yards en route to MVP honors in a 20-19 triumph.

The Bills, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and Hall of Fame back Thurman Thomas, had possession for less than 20 minutes as Buffalo suffered the first of four consecutive Super Bowl defeats.

And for one of the few times in Super Bowl annals, the more talented team walked out a loser.

Such narrative has been as connected to the game as "Wide Right" since the moment the final gun sounded. Here's what the New York Times published after the game:

"I don't know what the time of possession was," the Giants' coach would say after the Giants' 20-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. "But the whole plan was try to shorten the game for them."

Bill Parcells always has a plan... last night it was control the ball so as to keep it away from the Bills' explosive no-huddle offense.

As it turned out, the Giants had the ball almost twice as much as the Bills did: a Super Bowl record 40 minutes 33 seconds against 19 minutes, 27 seconds.

It's a great story, an inspirational guide for any team that seems unlikely to win against a superior foe. Shorten the game by controlling the ball on offense, milking the clock, and limiting the number of possessions for the other team. It's a good plan that makes sense in theory; the only issue I have is that's not how Super Bowl XXV was won. No, the Giants won Super Bowl XXV by playing good defense for most of the game and fantastic defense when it mattered most.

Trivia question #1: How many drives did the Bills had in Super Bowl XXV?

Trivia question #2: How many did the Bills have in the prior two weeks, when they scored 95 points?

The average team has around 11 or 12 drives per game, depending on variables like third down conversion percentage, incomplete passes per play, and whether the team gets the ball at the end of both, one, or neither half. Each team is guaranteed to have the same number of possessions as its opponent, plus or minus one, in every game (of course, special teams heroics/miscues can impact how many "real" possessions a team will have).

Against the Miami Dolphins in the Bills' first playoff game, Buffalo took a knee to end both halves. Ignoring those "drives", the Bills had only ten possessions in the game. They scored 44 points.

Against the Los Angeles Raiders, the Bills scored 51 points on their first 10 possessions. Buffalo's 11th possession was a punt, and their 12th possession consisted of two kneels to end the game.

Yes, the Bills scored 95 points against the Dolphins and Raiders. It's worth noting, though, that those points came on 21 possessions in two games.

Against the Giants in the Super Bowl? Discounting Buffalo's kneel down to end the first half, the Bills possessed the ball -- wait for it -- ten times in the Super Bowl. The big difference? Against the Giants, the Bills punted six times. Against the Dolphins and Raiders, Buffalo scored all 95 points in those games before punting a single time.

In the Bills' first 18 games of the season, Buffalo punted just 61 times -- 3.4 punts per game. Rick Tuten punted six times in a game three times during the 1990 season: in a 14-0 victory over the Patriots, a 17-13 regular season win over the Giants, and the 20-19 Super Bowl loss. In two games against the Giants, Buffalo punted 12 times during the 1990 season; in its other 17 games, the Bills punted just 55 times, 3.2 per game.

So why did Buffalo punt six times in ten drives? Here's a drive-by-drive look:

Drive Qrt Start End TOP Ydline Plays Yards Result
1 1 15:00 13:29 1:31 BUF 34 3 9 Punt
2 1 7:14 5:51 1:23 BUF 29 6 66 FG
3 2 1:57 12:30 4:27 BUF 20 12 80 TD
4 2 10:52 9:38 1:14 BUF 27 4 23 Punt
5 2 8:27 7:53 0:34 BUF 30 3 0 Punt
6 2 6:19 3:49 2:30 BUF 16 6 40 Punt
7 3 5:31 3:42 1:49 BUF 40 5 -2 Punt
8 3 1:19 14:52 1:27 BUF 37 4 63 TD
9 4 7:20 5:25 1:55 BUF 20 5 21 Punt
10 4 2:16 0:04 2:12 BUF 10 9 61 Wide Right
  • Drive 1: Buffalo wins the coin toss and elects to receive. The Bills open with three straight passes to Andre Reed. Jim Kelly's first pass falls incomplete; his next two gain nine yards.
  • Drive 2: Thurman Thomas runs for two yards on the first play, setting up a 61-yard pass to James Lofton on the drive's second play. With first and goal from the 8-yard line, Buffalo goes incomplete, runs for five, and then incomplete. Scott Norwood kicks a 23-yard field goal.
  • Drive 3: Buffalo gains 80 yards on 12 plays -- never facing a single third down -- for the first touchdown of the game.
  • Drive 4: Thurman Thomas runs for 14 yards on the Bills' next play from scrimmage, but the drive soon stalls: Thomas runs for 4 on the next first down play, but Jim Kelly's second-down pass to Andre Reed is incomplete. The Giants jump off-sides, but on the ensuing third-and-one, Kelly can't connect with Andre Reed over the middle.
  • Drive 5: Kelly incomplete to Reed. Kelly incomplete to Keith McKeller. Kelly incomplete to McKeller. Punt.
  • Drive 6: Thurman Thomas runs and catches on the first four plays of the next drive, with two of them going for first downs. But the fifth play, a 3rd-and-2 proposition, turns dicey after a false start. A Kelly-to-Reed completion for 5 yards falls short of the sticks.

After the Giants score a touchdown with 30 seconds left in the half, Buffalo takes a knee after fumbling the ensuing kick-off. I have not counted this as one of the Bills' ten drives.

  • Drive 7: A Bills drive was stalled by an offensive pass interference call against Andre Reed on the fourth play of the drive. One incomplete pass and one sack later, and the Bills punted on 4th and 25.
  • Drive 8: Kelly passed for 9, 4, and 19 yards, before Thurman Thomas darted for a 31-yard score on the fourth play of the 87-second scoring drive.
  • Drive 9: Following a Matt Bahr field goal, the Bills trailed 20-19 with 7:11 left in the game. Thomas ran for four yards and then gained 15 yards on a reception. The third play turned into a one-yard rush by the quarterback. On second-and-nine, Kenneth Davis got the carry and gained just one yard. On 3rd-and-8, Kelly couldn't connect with Edwards, forcing a Buffalo punt.
  • Drive 10: Buffalo took possession on their own 10-yard line with 2:16 left. KIelly scrambled for 8 yards, and the clock ticks until the two-minute warning. Kelly again scrambled on the next play, but fell a yard shy of the first down marker. On 3rd and one, the Bills called a run for Thurman Thomas, who picked up 22 yards. Kelly connected to Reed for four yards, before again running on the next play from scrimmage. After gaining 9 yards, the Bills called their final timeout with 48 seconds left, with possession at the Giants' 46-yard line. Kelly threw to McKeller for 6 yards, but he was tackled in bounds. A surprise run by Thurman Thomas took Buffalo down to the Giants 29-yard-line; Kelly killed the clock with eight seconds left.

The Bills scored 17 points on 10 drives. That's just 1.7 points per drive, a far cry from the 4.5 PPD average in the first two playoff games. Buffalo led the league in points scored during the regular season and had a dynamic offense. Ignoring the meaningless week 17 but including their first two playoff games, Buffalo averaged 29.5 points per game in their first 17 games. But they fell far short of that average because of the Giants defense -- not the Giants offense -- in the Super Bowl. In particular, Buffalo's biggest problem was that they didn't convert a single third down until their final drive of the game.

Buffalo had 10 drives, scoring two touchdowns and one field goal, while punting six times and then, of course, missing a field goal on their final possession. But note the plays that preceded those six punts:

  • Third down and six -- five-yard completion.
  • Third down and five: incomplete.
  • Third and one -- incomplete pass.
  • Third and ten: incomplete pass.
  • Third and seven; five-yard completion.
  • Third and 18: Sack.
  • Third and eight: incomplete pass

Want to know how to win the time of possession battle? Make sure your opponent doesn't convert a third down until the final two minutes of the game. If that's the brilliant gameplan Parcells invented, it's sure not an easy one to copy. The Bills were one-of-seven on third down conversions; the Giants converted nine of sixteen such chances. If you want to point to one stat in the game, that's the one that decided the game. Time of possession was a result of the Giants beating the Bills, not the cause of it.