Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 6, 2014

Lessons From The Big Game

So it is over for another year, and with apologies to folks in Seattle and perhaps some Bruno Mars fans, I for one am glad to be done with it. The confetti has been swept up off the field at MetLife Stadium. The countless television commercials, mostly warm and fuzzy this time around after featuring increasingly risqué humor the past several years, have been thoroughly over-analyzed. On Wednesday the victors held their parade in the upper left corner of the American map, while the members of the vanquished team were presumably still gasping for air, in the Mile High City appropriately enough.

In its early days especially, the Super Bowl was more often than not a one-sided rout; but of late we fans had forgotten just what a mismatch the NFL’s ultimate game could be. Now that we have been so thoroughly reminded, memories of this laughably lopsided contest, the least competitive in more than two decades, should quickly fade away.

But even as they begin to do so, even as we pause for the quadrennial Winter Games before turning our focus to the second half of the NHL and NBA seasons; and certainly before this Saturday when here in New England the big truck departs Yawkey Way to join the twin caravans of equipment haulers from thirty cities headed for Florida or Arizona and the annual moment of renewal, let us take one last look back and consider the lessons of Super Bowl XLVIII and the just-concluded NFL season.

The most obvious of these is that the actual football game is an utterly incidental aspect of each February’s annual celebration of popular culture. For those of us who actually watched it, and I refuse to believe that I was the only person to do so, the Super Bowl was competitive for exactly the few fleeting seconds it took Steven Hauschka’s opening kickoff to sail deep into the Denver end zone. That’s when the Broncos’ Trindon Holliday made the boneheaded decision to run the ball out rather than simply take a knee. Holliday failed to advance the ball to the 15-yard line and on the first play from scrimmage overeager Denver center Manny Ramirez sent the ball sailing past Peyton Manning’s reach before the veteran quarterback could bark out his first “Omaha” of the night. Twelve seconds gone on the game clock and it was Seattle 2, Denver 0; the quickest opening score in Super Bowl history. By the time Denver finally managed its initial first down the score was 15-0 and more than nineteen minutes had elapsed on that same game clock, nearly one-third of the contest.

Yet despite the 43-8 vivisection of one small market team by another (Denver ranks 17th among national television markets, Seattle 13th), the Fox network can merrily point to a record 111.5 million viewers, the largest audience in television history. Next year it will be NBC’s turn to televise the big game, and the truth is if the NFL decided to forgo the actual contest and have its championship decided based on the coin flip followed by several hours of commercials and the half-time show, viewership would scarcely drop.

The second lesson is that the house always wins. Preliminary data released early this week indicated that the legal Nevada sports books likely broke their record of $98.9 million worth of betting on the Super Bowl, set last year. Thanks to the “squares,” unsophisticated bettors who wager heavily on big events like the Super Bowl but do so based more on emotion than analysis, the Nevada bookies should also surpass the $15.4 million in record profit they made in 2005. Seattle was initially installed as a 2 ½ point favorite when betting opened, but as passionate fans wagered heavily on a storybook ending to Peyton Manning’s season, the line actually flipped to make Denver the favorite by the same margin.

The house was happy to be left with the Seattle’s elite defense and the points, as in all likelihood were many professional gamblers. As is always the case, a few lucky punters struck it big on some of the outlandish proposition bets that are always a part of Super Bowl wagering. Odds that the first score of the game would be a safety were generally running at 50-1, and Denver scoring just 8 points was available at a tasty 225-1. Then there was the over/under on the time it took to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Here’s a hint, always take the over; no matter the singer no one is going to pass on the opportunity to milk every possible note out of the national anthem in front of an audience of more than 100 million.

We also learned that this season was an exceptionally bad time to play the Seahawks at MetLife Stadium if your last name was Manning. Seven weeks before the Super Bowl Seattle traveled to the Meadowlands for a regular season matchup against the New York Giants and quarterback Eli Manning. The combined score of the two games: Seahawks 66, Archie’s Kids 8, with the brothers Manning tossing one touchdown and seven interceptions.

Finally, in the aftermath of Seattle’s blowout, we have relearned a lesson that as sports fans we knew all along. In days of yore Grantland Rice could express the noble sentiment that “it’s not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.” But in modern American sports a different credo holds. The legendary coach Vince Lombardi didn’t originate the phrase, but he is most widely associated with the simple avowal that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

As a head coach in the NFL Pete Carroll got fired after one losing season with the Jets, and later was fired again after missing the playoffs in his third year with the Patriots. He returned to the college ranks and had great success at USC; success that has since been severely tarnished by NCAA sanctions against Southern Cal for rules violations under Carroll’s watch. Meanwhile Peyton Manning just won his fifth NFL MVP Award, and was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. But after last Sunday Pete Carroll is being lionized while some fans, assuredly among them more than a few holding losing betting slips, are questioning Peyton Manning’s legacy. More proof, as if anyone needed it, that Coach Lombardi had it right.

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