On Super Bowl XLVIII: The Night of the Wounded Duck

Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For the players, coaches, and fans of the Denver Broncos, Super Bowl XLVIII was a waking nightmare from its first snap to its final whistle. I do not envy the aches and angst they will surely wake with tomorrow morning. For the Seattle Seahawks and their supporters it was both vindication and beautiful dream, in some ways an unprecedented one. Seattle played the first “clean” game in Super Bowl history – no sacks allowed, no turnovers committed – and seemed to break Denver’s will in the early going, then bury them altogether. Even one Bronco mistake would be one too many against such a performance, and armchair analysts will have a litter to pick from. From my vantage point couchside, the game played kind of like a runaway forest fire and thus held a sick sort of fascination in at least that respect.

In almost all others it was a colossal letdown. The tide never turned, or threatened to, it only ravaged and consumed. At more than one point, I found myself asking aloud, “What, again?! Another turnover/mistake/wounded duck?” The terms would become interchangeable.

As I drove home from the small gathering of friends where we had watched Super Bowl XLVIII undeterred in spite of the evidence mounting all evening on our television screen – where a two and a half-year-old and a one and a half-year-old spent the better part of the second quarter playing a loosely-structured game of bumper chicken using foot-powered kiddie cars in the living room that was both more entertaining and more closely contested than the championship game of all American football proved to be – I heard my first of many inane interview questions on the radio post game show: “Did you guys ever think you could put up 43 points on this team?” Seasoned interviewers are supposed to come up with pertinent questions on the fly, but in a sport where almost every outcome (and even most of the details) has already been done to death and therefore rendered cliché, how was Seattle Seahawks TE Jermaine Kearse realistically supposed to answer?

I can’t pretend to know the man’s true feelings on the matter, but Seattle utterly obliterated Denver tonight to win the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy, and his team already plays a mean, hard-hitting style and carries itself with somewhat outsized swagger and a seemingly sizeable chip on its collective shoulders. Do you affect a weird “aw shucks” humility that doesn’t really gel with your results on the field, either in points scored (43), points allowed (8), passes tipped for interception (2), 2-yard completions blown up on impact (seeming infinity), etc.? Do you go the other way entirely and brazenly admit you’re not surprised? That makes you sound like a black hat villain, a sort of Floyd Mayweather in full PPV hype mode, say, or maybe Alec Baldwin’s uber-narcissistic surgeon from the movie “Malice”.

Kearse, who had, along with the rest of his offense, a workmanlike but mistake free and highly effective evening, took the middle road, to his credit. He and every other Seahawk I heard, now that their quest was complete, talked in basically identikit fashion about the team’s unity of purpose and unwavering focus, couching themselves as a sort of band of brothers and all time elite defense. They largely also made sure to pay proper respect (or lip service) to five-time (and recently re-minted) league MVP and possessor of just about every meaningful passing record, Broncos QB Peyton Manning. After assessing his evening’s performance in relation to theirs, however, it could all easily be seen as so much undue praise, maybe downright unseemly.

A large media contingent has spent the two week build up to the Super Bowl, and, indeed, much of his record shattering regular season, debating Manning’s place in the pantheon of all-time elite NFL quarterbacks…and not, by the way, whether his inclusion has merit, but rather if he was, in fact, the greatest QB in league history. Even as the NFL fast approaches a half-century of Super Bowl games, it is also approaching a full century of overall history, and the subjective nature of such a debate over so rich and varied a number of years (because of rule changes, coaching philosophies and, above all, the increasing size, strength and speed of its athletes, NFL history is broken up into several distinct, discernible eras) makes the whole enterprise a bit silly, though admittedly still pretty fun.

As more content providers vie for the attention of a fractured audience, however, the tone of the argument takes on a more serious cast. How exactly can the man who sits at #2 on the all time passing chart and not only set but decimated single season records for yards and TDs this year not be the greatest ever? Leaving aside the fact that the sliver of the modern era Manning stands astride like a behemoth is nevertheless not Sammy Baugh’s time, nor Johnny Unitas’ time, nor Joe Montana’s, Dan Marino’s or John Elway’s time, nor even Troy Aikman’s (not to mention constant friction from worth contemporaries like Tom Brady), the argument for Manning as greatest all time regular season QB is still easy to make and very hard to refute. Numbers apparently don’t lie in baseball, unless affixed with an asterisk, so they must have the ultimate cache in other sports as well. But “greatest ever” would seem to imply success well beyond the realm of pure numbers, and here Manning has been justifiably criticized. Now that he has one Super Bowl victory in three opportunities to go along with a litany of playoff inconsistency, and since this latest loss was a particularly thudding, disheartening and, at times, head-slappingly insipid affair, it seems to me the debate over him as greatest all time has been decided definitively.

I have boundless respect but no particular love for Peyton Manning as a player, but this – the utter, stinking depths of THIS – is not the end I envisioned or, truth be told, even how I wanted him to go out. Not at all. Still, I’ll be both amused  and highly interested to listen to a week’s worth of furious backpedaling from football pundits the nation over. They’re going to have to engage in some genuine critical thinking for once in the wake of tonight’s performance, it seems to me, or else abandon the narrative entirely.

The hell of it is that this was, I believe, the only Super Bowl in my recent memory where I truly didn’t much care who won (no rooting for Pittsburgh, or against Baltimore or New England), and my only rooting interest was for a good game. Instead I got a 43-8 drubbing, which started with a botched snap for a safety, included four turnovers (two interceptions and two fumbles, each a new standard in straining credulity) and, from Manning, a Super Bowl record for completions with 34, seemingly all of them on 2-4 yard little dump passes which were invariably blown up as soon as the ball was secured. Manning’s yards per pass completion average was 5.7. That is vexing, pitiful, and telling. Seattle’s vaunted defense actually played its part as advertised, and stood tall all night.

As much as I find Pete Carroll weirdly irritating, and as much ink was spilled on Richard Sherman’s antics in the build up to the game, the Seahawks played terrifically. They never let the Broncos get comfortable, or even so much as breathe. And if one piece of conventional wisdom has followed Peyton Manning throughout his justly celebrated career, it is this: he gets rattled when you pressure him. Seattle both tested that theory and proved it, and had hands in his face and consistent pressure off the edge all night long. Two of Manning’s wounded ducks landed in the Seattle secondary and were converted into scores, but almost every time Manning threw the ball more than 7 yards the pass seemed to be lacking something. It just wasn’t his night, immediately and irrevocably.

Now it can and probably should be noted that second-year Seattle QB Russell Wilson, who I heard state in a pregame interview that he “doesn’t feel pressure” (ye gods), had a yards per completion average (8.2) barely better than Manning’s and, frankly, anemic for a hot young QB on the game’s biggest stage. Nobody’s talking about that, though, and nobody should. Wilson didn’t make any mistakes, let alone the ones Peyton did, and his was the better team…tonight, definitively. Also, nobody came into the game claiming he was the greatest of all time. The spotlight isn’t fair. It is bright and harsh, and tends to punish as freely as it elevates. Tonight, I think it burned Peyton Manning, who I also think probably deserved better. Kudos then to Seattle for stepping on his throat, and meaning it. Them’s, ahem, the breaks.

Miscellaneous debris:

*Sad night for commercials overall – so much hype and such a grand stage, amounting to nothing, basically. Nothing terribly memorable or interesting. The commercials kept pace with the game in that respect.

*Bruno Mars did put on an excellent halftime show – sort of a bastard love and soul child of James Brown and Smokey Robinson, high energy, infectious and smooth. I don’t see what the addition of The Red Hot Chili Peppers did for the overall show, and I also didn’t like seeing them sublimated to a young pup who they as an entity have outlived by two years. I’m glad they got to do a properly raucous version of “Give It Away” (though Mars as hype man was overdoing it), but I can’t help seeing their last minute participation as a missed opportunity. In my opinion, they should have headlined next year’s show and let Mars have his XLVIII spotlight unadorned. They both deserve it. The NFL must actually read Twitter; how else to explain its sudden crisis of confidence upon coming to the terrible realization that the millions of children who grew up in the late ’80s and 1990s are actually still alive and well and buying products. Get it right and bring the Foos next year.

*Any voter, or bipedal animal technically capable of rational thought, who believes former Steelers and Rams RB Jerome Bettis, owner of a Super Bowl ring and position six on the NFL’s list of career rushing yards (above Eric Dickerson, Jim Brown and Tony Dorsett, among others) was not worthy of induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year either never really saw him play – blowing through holes and making his own in equal measure, both hammering the sledge and oddly light on his feet – has a bias that the Hall already contains too many Steelers (dragging your feet now won’t change what’s coming in the future either), or both. No argument you can make against his induction this year holds a thimble full of water for me. Due respect and congrats, of course, to Aeneas Williams. I apologize for the fact that I had to look up who you played for, and also to confirm you were a DB. Mistakes were made in general. I think there’s enough blame to spread around here.

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