Rick Venturi has seen a lot of football.
He coached 27 seasons in the NFL and spent eight years before that in the college game, including three seasons as the head coach at Northwestern.
He even coached one season in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Among his fondest memories is watching Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas march his team down the field in one of the earliest two-minute drills to win the 1958 NFL Championship Game against the New York Giants. That game popularized pro football as a television product and left a 13-year-old Venturi smitten.
He later helped devise game plans to stop prolific passers from Dan Marino to Kurt Warner and all points in between. Venturi remembers John Elway as one of the toughest challenges because of his ability to make plays with his legs as well as his arm.
But in all his years as a player, coach and analyst, he can’t recall anyone quite like Kansas City Chiefs phenom Patrick Mahomes.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone that does it like this kid and does it with the ease and the charisma and the poise that he has, to be honest with you,” Venturi said this week from his winter home near Tampa, Fla. “Every time I watch him, I’m just enamored by him cause he does it so smoothly. I mean, to me, he’s as good as I’ve ever seen, really. Obviously, he has a long way to go to prove that. Obviously, you have to win a big one, you have to have an extended career, but he is very, very special.”
The 24-year-old quarterback gets his first crack at “a big one” Sunday when the Chiefs face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Fla.
It’s a matchup that has almost evenly divided pundits and one that should provide quite a show for the year’s largest TV audience.
Mahomes and his high-scoring offense will square off against a San Francisco defense with the game’s most dominant defensive line.
“This is a very, very classic matchup because you’re looking at a transformational offense versus a transformational defense,” Venturi said. “There’ll be many matchups to watch in the game, and there will always be surprises, but in terms of going in, that is the classic matchup.”
Conventional wisdom suggests the Niners’ best chance at victory is to limit KC’s possessions and keep Mahomes watching from the sideline.
Venturi does not disagree at all with that approach, but he said San Francisco still must remain aggressive on offense.
“You don’t take the air out of the ball against this team by playing 1946 football and think you’re just gonna run it three times and kick it, cause that’s not gonna work,” Venturi said. “But you have to go in there to slaughter them on first down. Even though (the Chiefs defense) played a little bit better down the stretch, they still are at the bottom (of league rankings) against the run. You’ve gotta gash them on first and second down. You can’t wait till third down, cause they do good things on third down.”
On the other side of the ball, Venturi suggests the Chiefs take a page out of Bill Belichick’s playbook from last year’s Super Bowl.
In the New England Patriots’ 13-3 victory against the Los Angeles Rams, Belichick took away the offense’s bread-and-butter play-action game with unique employment of his safeties.
Rather than sending an extra defender into the box off the edge as many defenses do, New England slowly lowered its weak-side safety toward the line of scrimmage. The defender routinely was 8 yards off the ball at the snap.
If he read run, he continued his charge through the line and became the extra man in the box. If he read pass, he dropped 15 yards deep and took away the over routes head coach Sean McVay is so fond of exploiting.
San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan worked alongside McVay with the Washington Redskins, and their schemes are fruits of the same tree, tracing back to Shanahan’s father, Mike – a two-time Super Bowl champion head coach.
“What you want to do is, you’ve gotta go in there and take away that zone running game and the play action and force them to be a drop-back team and force (quarterback Jimmy) Garoppolo and their young receivers to win,” Venturi said. “Now that’s not to say they can’t but, my Belichick-ian theory, that’s what you have to do.”
Venturi stops short of picking a winner for Sunday’s game.
He seems himself as an analyst, not a prognosticator, but he does admit to a touch of bias.
Like many around the NFL, he’s rooting for Kansas City head coach Andy Reid to finally taste victory on the game’s greatest stage.
“Both teams deserve to be there, great teams,” Venturi said. “They’ve had great seasons. Statistically and everything else, they both belong there. And so it should be a great game for the fans with a ton of things to watch.
“I can’t wait to watch Shakira at the half, to be honest with you. That’s as big a draw as the game. But, right now, it’s a little hard for me to bet against Mahomes, and I really am pulling for Andy.”