The Super Bowl Rubicon
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 02, 2009
There is one line you cannot cross in the Super Bowl without plunging your team into certain defeat.
You cannot throw INTs that are returned for touchdowns. It's the biggest game-changing play in football, especially in the Super Bowl, where it means victory for the defense and defeat for the offense each and every time.
Nobody is more familiar with the painful impact of the critical pick-six than Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, the only quarterback who's watched helplessly as his passes were returned for touchdowns in two different Super Bowls.
Consider his performance against Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII. It should have been remembered as one of the great big-game efforts in NFL lore.
Staring into the barrel of one of the best defenses in recent history, he lit it up for 377 passing yards and a 112.3 passer rating, including 213 yards and two TDs in the critical fourth quarter alone. It was easily the best performance of the year against a Pittsburgh defense that topped the league in every meaningful category and it could not have come in a bigger game.
It was typical Warner.
As most football fans know by now, his three Super Bowl appearances have resulted in the three most prolific passing days in Super Bowl history. He passed for 414 yards with the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV; he passed for 377 yards with the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII; and he passed for 365 yards with the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
But the losses in Super Bowls XXXVI and XLIII have one critical gaffe in common: Warner threw interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.
New England's Ty Law picked off a Warner pass and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI. And, of course, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison snagged a Warner pass at his own goal line and then huffed and puffed and blew his way into the end zone 100 yards later in the longest play in Super Bowl history.
Statistically speaking, both games were over the second those plays concluded. The final scores simply confirmed it: Warner's Rams lost to Law's Patriots by 3; Warner's Cardinals lost to Harrison's Steelers by 4.
Warner's fourth-quarter heroics in the two losses (three TD passes and one TD run) were not enough to overcome the impact of his earlier mistakes: the pick-sixes were the difference in both games.
Warner's teams are not alone.
We studied every turnover and every scoring play in Super Bowl history and found that you can do a lot of things wrong and still win a Super Bowl ... except throw interceptions that are returned for TDs.
Teams have scored every way imaginable way (except for punt return) in the Super Bowl. But only one type of score has yielded victory every time. Here's the Super Bowl record of teams based upon the different types of non-offensive scores.
Non-Offensive Scores in the Super Bowl
Type of Score
It turns out there is no bigger play in the Super Bowl – no more concrete dividing line between victory and defeat – than when a player returns an interception for a touchdown. Once you cross that gridiron Rubicon, there is no turning back for either team.
The 9-0 record clearly leaps off the page. So, too does the record of the teams who score on blocked punts and kick returns: they're a combined 3-8.
So much for the importance of special teams.
Those wise enough to study the Cold, Hard Football Facts are hardly surprised by the results: special teams scores are fluky plays and really provide no indication of who's the better team. They might provide an instant jolt of energy. But special teams don't equate to victory, despite the fact that coaches and "pundits" constantly stress their importance.
The short-lived Special Teams Index we used at Cold, Hard Football Facts.com provided further proof: there was absolutely no correlation between clubs that excelled on special teams and clubs that excelled on the scoreboard.
Interceptions, however, are always critical. Interceptions themselves are game-changing plays, while better teams are more likely to force interceptions. Our ground-breaking interception ladder, meanwhile, shows that every interception a team throws in the playoffs reduces its chances of victory by 20 percentage points.
And in the smaller sample pool and increased competition of the Super Bowl, an interception returned for a touchdown equals victory 100 percent of the time.
Warner knows this now better than anybody.
He's passed for 1,156 yards in three Super Bowls, as prolific a performance in championship football as the game has ever seen.
But if he had merely held the trigger on two of his 132 Super Bowl pass attempts, we'd be talking about a three-time Super Bowl champ and perhaps the greatest big-game quarterback in history.
Instead, we're talking about a guy who made two of the biggest errors in Super Bowl history.
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