SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — We should have known. We should know, even though passer ratings have soared into the sky, even though some rules have been changed, even though the NFL has tried to turn its game into an air war, something that looks cleaner, something for your kids to play. It’s still football. You can dress up this game all you want, lard it with celebrities and money and patriotism, but the guts of the machine remain the same.
The Denver Broncos came into the Super Bowl with a quarterback who could barely throw, and the Carolina Panthers came in with the MVP, and that wasn’t what mattered. No, Denver’s defence mattered. The Broncos have an all-time group, and they devoured space, and people. They made the towering Cam Newton look nervous. They made him look small.
Carolina’s defence kept the Panthers in the game, and were the big reason it was still a one-possession game with 10 minutes left. Carolina had spent three quarters trying to make every mistake in football, and the Denver defence had spent three quarters scoring as many points as the whole Panthers team. This was ugly football, bad football, tough football.
And still, Newton had a chance to solve the problem. He was a near-average quarterback until this 15-1 season, when he ascended into hypercelebrity. Even the greatest quarterbacks need protection and help, and he wasn’t getting enough of either. But Newton got the ball back at his own 24 with 4:51 left, down 16-10. Maybe he could do it.
Except he still looked like he thought the pressure might be coming when it wasn’t, and then it came again. Newton was stripped a second time by Von Miller, who is the stuff of quarterback nightmares. As the ball tumbled Newton didn’t dive at the ball; he jumped away from it. He is a great player, but he will hear about that play for a very long time.
Denver won, 24-10. Peyton Manning won his second Super Bowl while throwing for 141 yards, carried by the men who hit people. He should walk away, finally. Miller, a spinning, lunging predator, was the MVP.
Newton was sacked seven times, a season high. Football is still simple: Protect the quarterback, get to the quarterback. On Newton’s first-quarter fumble Miller hit him in the face, went helmet to helmet on the hit, no call, touchdown. Everyone has a plan, as they say, until they’re punched in the face.
That’s still football. Defence and punishment is how Eli Manning’s Giants beat Tom Brady, and how these Broncos beat Tom Brady. The NFL dressed the game up, because they always do. A military choir sang America The Beautiful, Lady Gaga crooned a beautiful anthem — it was the closest thing to a nod to San Francisco’s gay community as the NFL offered all week — and the Blue Angels flew over, and their smoke briefly dimmed the sun. The Super Bowl has become a modern spectacle, with television commercials that have veered into surreality just to get some attention.
It was also a US$1.3-billion stadium whose turf came apart in chunks, and whose No. 1 team spent a lot of time doing the same. After a quarter it was 10-0, Denver. Three teams had overcome 10-point deficits in the Super Bowl: Washington’s 1987 team, the Saints in 2009, and the Patriots last year. That was the outer limit. Newton created a touchdown drive. It wasn’t over.
But the Panthers dropped passes, fumbled twice, missed a field goal. They dropped two soft, slow Manning passes, and couldn’t do anything when they finally intercepted a third. It wasn’t Carolina’s No. 1 scoring offence that kept them in, or the MVP. It was defensive end Kony Ealy, who piled up an interception, three sacks, a forced fumble. It was linebacker Thomas Davis, playing with an arm he broke two weeks ago. It was punishment and defence. And their problems weren’t just Cam.
But Newton was taken apart, and anyone who didn’t like him will turn on him, now. It probably won’t be pretty.
It was that kind of week. On Tuesday it was revealed that legendary quarterback Kenny Stabler suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, when he died at age 69; Saturday night, he was part of the class that will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On Friday, commissioner Roger Goodell claimed that “the concussion issue is something we’ve been focused on for several decades,” which made a mockery both of truth and of the language itself. During the fourth quarter, running back Marshawn Lynch appeared to retire at age 29, one year after his team tried to throw the ball, instead of handing it to him.
Lynch played punishing football, and hopefully he walked away clean. Concussions are the darkest beating heart of football, and as Broncos tackle Evan Mathis put it, “It’s like back in the day when people didn’t know much about what smoking did to you. And as you found out, you really don’t talk about it too much while you’re smoking, right? And this week is all about football.” It is something that the Super Bowl was won by a team whose owner, for a sad and lonely change, is suffering from dementia.
Football. San Francisco’s massive, messy homeless population provided a jarring counterpoint to the party and the money. There is human misery here, and the safe bet is that the Super Bowl will probably never come back. It is only here in the first place because the 49ers extracted US$114-million in public money and nearly a billion in public-backed loans to build a stadium an hour away, and this was a reward. Crime, or at least robbery, still pays.
We should know. We should know football is built on the ugly stuff, on the guts, on the things they don’t want to talk about. This is football, every year.