Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 11, 2016

What The Big Game Taught Us

By now the grounds crew has cleaned up the confetti. They’ve even had time to repair the divots on the spongy field, perhaps the worst surface upon which a Super Bowl was ever played. At Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, attention has turned to selling tickets for the Bay Area Wedding Fair scheduled for next month and a Monster Truck show that will roll into town in April. For all of the hoopla and hype, Super Bowl 50 is quickly receding from view, already relegated to repeated showings on the NFL Network show “Super Bowl Classics.” Diehard NFL fans now face a long drought, with no significant event related to their favorite sport until the Scouting Combine, which doesn’t take place until next week. To fill their aching emptiness, let’s take a few minutes to consider the lessons learned from this year’s edition of this great cultural happening cleverly disguised as a sporting event.

For millions of Americans of a certain age, surely the most stunning news of the night came before the opening kickoff, when they learned that Lady Gaga can actually sing. The artist whose real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta likely isn’t on the playlists of those fans, if for no other reason than that they may not be quite certain what the word “playlist” means. To the extent they recognized Lady Gaga at all it was probably as much as a performance artist or a celebrity known to favor outlandish fashion. Perhaps they missed “Cheek to Cheek,” her 2014 collaboration of jazz standards with Tony Bennett. No doubt those fans watched wide-eyed as the 29-year old nailed the national anthem, a notoriously difficult song for any vocalist.

It’s a given that the drama of an event like this is only heightened by the addition of some controversy.  Lady Gaga’s performance gave us Super Bowl 50’s first such moment, well before fans got to debate whether or not the Panthers’ Jerricho Cotchery caught a first quarter pass from Cam Newton for a 23-yard gain. The Super Bowl is known for the multitude of prop bets that are available to gamblers, and the time it takes to sing the Star Spangled Banner is always one of the first to be decided. Las Vegas sportsbooks set the over/under at two minutes twenty seconds. Lady Gaga appeared to finish just under that mark; but she then repeated “the brave,” the anthem’s final two words, pushing the time well over the betting divide.

Sportsbooks split over the payout, with some rewarding bettors who took the under on the basis that the anthem ended when all of the published lyrics had been sung; while others paid the over, holding that the song ended when it ended. As angry gamblers complained at least one betting site wound up paying both sides.

No similar solution was available for that first quarter pass from Newton to Cotchery, which could not be ruled both complete and incomplete. That controversy instructed casual fans in the byzantine language of the NFL’s rule that defines a catch. The rule is so obtuse that Commissioner Roger Goodell has established a committee to come up with new language for next season. For now officials must weigh what they see happening in “the process of the catch.” As the receiver is taking possession of the football, does he become a runner or is he falling? Depending on the answer, which itself is defined by multiple criteria, different standards for defining a catch apply. It’s enough to make one rue the day the NFL adopted instant replay.

On Sunday the ruling on the field was that the pass was incomplete. That call was upheld after a review necessitated by a Carolina challenge, to the surprise of many who watched repeated slow motion replays. Just two plays later fans were reminded that a single call can alter the course of a game. That’s when Newton fumbled while being sacked by Denver’s Von Miller and defensive end Malik Jackson fell on the ball as it rolled into the end zone. Less than nine minutes into the game the underdog Broncos led 10-0.

Fans were also reminded, and not for the first time in the last half century, that assigning a grand appellation to this contest does not guarantee the actual play will be worthy of the designation. It was Super Bowl 50, but the game itself was anything but. The Broncos and Panthers combined for six turnovers, eighteen penalties, and plenty of fluttering passes from Peyton Manning and balls dropped by Newton’s receivers. The lack of both artistry and late-game drama, as well as the game’s pokey pace explains why viewership peaked roughly during halftime and why the audience fell short of setting a record.

In the end Denver’s defense carried Manning to his second title in what most fans hope will be his final game. The Broncos compiled just 194 yards of total offense, the fewest by a winning team in Super Bowl history. Manning completed only 13 passes, the lowest number in any postseason game in his career. But at least his final throw was caught in the end zone, good for a two-point conversion that stretched Denver’s lead to two touchdowns with just over three minutes to play.

Then the confetti flew, the Lombardi Trophy made its annual appearance, and the night’s final lessons were imparted in the postgame interviews of the two lead protagonists. Those hoping for a dramatic retirement announcement from Manning instead heard the entirely reasonable answer that he would take time to enjoy the moment and talk to his family. But then he made a point of saying that he was going to “drink a lot of Budweiser tonight.” Manning is the NFL’s leader in endorsement revenue, with an estimated $12 million of off-field income last year. Fans seized on the statement, assuming that even in his moment of triumph Manning had found a way to make an extra buck. It’s says something about our collective cynicism that a staunch denial from Anheuser-Busch was met with widespread skepticism.

But any doubt about the winner’s motives was soon replaced by scorn for the loser’s attitude. When Newton met with the media he was sullen and curt, answering a handful of questions with meaningless monosyllables before abruptly leaving the room. Being gracious and open minutes after a humbling and bitter loss is a tall order, but it is what we fans expect of our heroes. It is also what more than a few members of the Carolina squad were able to steel themselves and do prior to Newton’s appearance. Given his own carefully crafted image, he might have done well to remember that Superman was never one to pout.

As Super Bowl 50 faded from view, the last images fans were treated to were unpleasant reminders that our heroes are as imperfect and fallible, as greedy and narcissistic, as any of us in the stands. Less like Superman, more like Ozymandias.

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