Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Coincidence or Super Fixed?

The Super Bowl. Is there a bigger event in sports today? The NFL is the most popular and most successful business in the sports world and their championship game is so popular its watched by millions around the world. It cost $3 million for a 30 second ad during the game. With this much focus and attention being drawn to one particular game, its important for the NFL to "put on a good show". In the 80's and 90's, it wasn't always a good game. There were quite a few blowouts. The Bears blowing out the Patriots 46-10, San Francisco blowing out the Broncos 55-10, then blowing out the Chargers 49-26, the Cowboys destroying the Bills 52-17... I think you get the idea. These games were over by halftime. The Super Bowl was getting to be known as the "Super Blowout". Nobody was watching by the second half and advertisers were not interested in buying ad time during the second half since less people would see it. The match ups were somewhat boring as well. What story was there behind San Diego vs San Francisco? They're both California teams... so what? Dallas and Buffalo... nothing in common, no story. There was hardly any story behind the match ups. Well that was until the 2001 season. Everything then magically changed.

St. Louis Rams vs New England Patriots 2001 - In wake of 9/11, the NFL decided to make the theme of the Super Bowl a "patriotic" one. This was the year of the infamous "tuck rule". Oh you know, that play where Brady does a pump fake, resets, gets hit, fumbles, Oakland recovers the fumble, Brady goes the sidelines and puts his head down, Belichick takes off his headset, Oakland gets ready for a kneel down... but suddenly the refs get together, review the play and say that the fumble was actually an incomplete pass. Uhhh yeah sure... The Patriots were allowed to keep the ball, they score a TD, win the game and then go onto the Super Bowl. The Patriots playing in the patriotic super bowl, what a coincidence! Not only that, but they go on to win with a last second 48 yard field goal. The whole nation (except St Louis) was so happy to see the Patriots do our our country proud by winning the Super Bowl!

Oakland Raiders vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2002 - The Raiders old coach Jon Gruden leaves Oakland and takes the head coaching job in Tampa. Less than a year later, wouldn't you know it, Gruden is facing his old team in the Super Bowl. What are the odds of that happening?

Carolina Panthers vs New England Patriots 2003 - The Patriots failed to make the playoffs in 2002, which gave some conspiracy theorists a reason to believe that what they did in 2001 was the work of the NFL especially with the whole "tuck rule" incident. Well that Pats make it back to the Super Bowl and its almost an exact replay of the game from two years ago. Ricky Proehl scores a late TD for the other team to tie it, Vinateri kicks a field goal to win it in the final seconds. Yay for "America's team" again.

New England Patriots vs Philadelphia Eagles 2004 - Not since the 70's Steelers have we seen 3 Super Bowl victories in 5 years. What a story it would be if "America's Team" the Patriots won 3 out of 4. They would be a dynasty and possibly the greatest team of all time!

Seattle Seahawks vs Pittsburgh Steelers 2005 - In this season the Super Bowl location is Detroit. Kind of an odd place for a big game, but not unprecedented, it was there in 1982. Wouldn't you know it though, future Hall of Famer and Steelers RB Jerome Bettis was born in Detroit and he let it be known that this was going to be his last year. What a way to go, winning the Super Bowl in your hometown. Going out on top! What a story!

Indianapolis Colts vs Chicago Bears 2006 - For the last several seasons, the Colts were one of the top teams in the league, but could never quite get over the hump. They had great regular season records and every year you would hear about Tony Dungy possibly being the first black head coach in the Super Bowl. Finally it was he year and wouldn't you know it, he would be coaching against another African American coach Lovie Smith. The two were already very good friends and would make history together by being the first two black head coaches in the Super Bowl with one of them being the first black coach to win the Super Bowl. Great feel good story!

New York Giants vs New England Patriots 2007 - It was discovered earlier in this season that "America's Team" was a fraud. They got caught cheating during their championship seasons and the public was outraged. Outraged that it happened and outraged that the NFL merely gave them a slap on the wrist when they were caught (They also destroyed the evidence of the cheating, which is very odd to say the least). People were starting to say that the cheating was the only reason they won. What could save the face of the NFL and the integrity of the league? Ohhh how about a 16-0 regular season without cheating? Then go into the Super Bowl 18-0 with the chance to be called the greatest team of all time. Unfortunately for the NFL, the Giants won the Super Bowl in the final minute causing the Patriots to go 18-1. But you know what? A team blowing their chance at perfection in the final minute of the last game is a huge story!

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Arizona Cardinals 2008 - When long time head coach Bill Cowher retired, the Steelers had a choice to make. Who do they make the next head coach? Current OC Ken Whisenhunt, offensive line coach Russ Grimm or Rooney Rule candidate Mike Tomlin. The Steelers, of course, went with Tomlin, while Whisenhunt and Grimm went off to the desert in Arizona. Wouldn't you know it, one year later, its Tomlin vs Whisenhunt and Grimm in the Super Bowl? What are the odds, right? Especially since the Cardinals hadn't even been to any type of championship game since 1947. The Steelers win, Tomlin shows the Rooney's they made the right choice and Pittsburgh is known as "Sixburgh".

New Orleans Saints vs Indianapolis Colts 2009 - In the Saints 42 year history, they have never even made it to the Super Bowl. They were the laughing stock of the league for decades. The "Aints", as they were called, only had one good player even worth mentioning and that was QB Archie Manning. He was the lone bright spot on a very dark franchise history. With Hurricane Katrina destroying the city of New Orleans it really is a fantastic story that this city was able to be rebuilt and recover. Wouldn't it be great though if the Saints actually went to the Super Bowl too? Heck, not only would it be great if they went to the Super Bowl, but what if they were to go up against Archie Manning's son, Peyton?! Wouldn't that be an awesome story?!

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Green Bay Packers 2010 - Green Bay's first round pick from 2005, Aaron Rodgers, didn't get to start in his first NFL game till 2008 thanks to the "evil" Brett Favre holding him down. At the beginning of the year, Favre wanted to give it one last go to win a Super Bowl before retiring. However Favre wasn't very good, he lost to his old team twice, got injured numerous times, watched his consecutive games streak come to an end as well as his career. Meanwhile, in the city that the "evil" Favre used to dwell, a new hero comes to the light in the form of Aaron Rodgers, the guy Favre was trying to hold down. Rodgers goes on to win his first championship in the same year that is Favre's last. As Favre's light is extinguished, Rodgers light shines brightly through the NFL world as he offers more promise to Green Bay than the Favre ever did.

New York Giants vs New England Patriots 2011 - One of the closest most emotion filled, intense Super Bowl's in recent history was the Giants vs Patriots back in January of 2008.  It pretty much had it all.  New York vs Boston.  Brady vs (Eli) Manning.  The wildcard, barely made the playoff Giants vs the unbeaten Pats.  It came down to the last thrilling minute.  It was so good, why not have it again?  Surely, the Pats would get their revenge, right?  Not so much.  In fact, this game was eerily similar to the one played in 2008.  Eli needing to drive his team down the field in the final minutes, an unbelievable throw and catch, a last minute TD, Brady lobbing bombs down the field from his end out of desperation.  Nothing makes a non-Patriot NFL fan smile like the Patriots losing in the Super Bowl.

However, I always felt like this was a mistake.  Had it not been for the 49ers Kyle Williams' fumble on a punt in OT and Billy Cundiff's chipshot miss against the Patriots, it could very well have been John vs Jim Harbaugh in this years Super Bowl.  You know what they say... better luck next year.

Baltimore Ravens vs San Francisco 49ers 2012 - So after another long, hard fought, unpredictable season, both Harbaugh brothers are in conference championships again.  What are the odds right?  I mean, especially since the 49ers were starting a 2nd year QB that only started 8 games this year and the Ravens backed into the playoffs losing 4 of their last 5.  Its incredible that they were both able to make it back to the Conference championships again in back to back years.  And wouldn't you know it... they both won this time around!  Its the Harbaugh Bowl!  Brother vs brother!  John vs Jim!  What a great story!

Seattle Seahawks vs Denver Broncos 2013 - For the first time in years, there really wasn't a special story to go along with this Super Bowl.  Except it was being played in NYC for the first time ever, which has an outdoor stadium and could potentially open the door for other northern US cities to host future Super Bowls.  Plus, we had the number one offense in the NFL with TD pass record breaker Peyton Manning playing against the league's number one defense, which apparently never happened before in Super Bowl history.  Pretty awesome, just like old times where the best two teams go to the Super Bowl, with really no story surrounding the game.  Sounds like a good idea on paper, however, in reality it was a boring Super Blowout with the Seahawks winning 43-8.  Maybe the NFL should makes some "adjustments" to get some additional interest in the game.

New England Patriots vs Seattle Seahawks 2014 - Here we go!  Now we're talking.  The team of the 2000's vs this young potential dynasty team of the 2010's looking to go back-to-back.  Are the Pats still the kings of the NFL or is this a changing of the guard?  Ohhh but wait!  What's this?  The footballs that the Patriots were using in the AFC championship game were under inflated?  Isn't that against the rules?  Isn't that cheating?  Didn't the Patriots already get caught and punished for cheating before?  Who knows?  Let's talk about Deflategate (because everything has to end with "-gate" these days) non-stop for two weeks on all the major news networks leading up to the Super Bowl.  That should generate PLENTY of interest for a game that's already interesting.  Then there's the game itself.  One of the best of all time.

Some guy comes off the Seahawks practice squad and makes these sensational catches.  Tom Brady passes Joe Montana for Super Bowl TD passes. Then there's that ending that will have people talking for years.  After blowing a 10 point lead, the Seahawks were on the move in the minutes, just like the Giants were in both their games against the Patriots.  Then Jermaine Kearse makes this impossibly spectacular catch, just like Giants receiver David Tyree and Mario Manningham did in their game against the Patriots.  The Seahawks have the ball on the NE 5 yard line, hand off to their unstoppable bulldozer, Marshawn Lynch and he grinds it to the 1 yard line.  There's no way Lynch doesn't get 1 yard on the next three plays.  He is the perfect RB to have in your backfield in this situation.  He bulls over people, breaks tackles, moves piles.  Surely Belichick will use one of his two timeouts to kill the clock because there's no way Lynch isn't getting into the endzone at some point.  The game's going to end the same way as it did in those two matchups against the Giants with a TD in the final minute, Brady lobbing up bombs in the final seconds and ultimately losing the Super Bowl again.  Wait a minute... Belichick isn't using his timeouts?  Seattle is going to score a TD. Lynch has been running over Patriots defenders all night.  They could put 20 guys on the field, he's not going to be stopped.  Use a timeout, Bill!  Wait a minute... why is Seattle lining up in the shotgun?  They're on the one yard line.  Ohhh maybe they'll do a draw play to Lynch or have Wilson run it in or roll out and attempt a pass or run it in that way.  A slant pass?!  From the one yard line?!  To the busiest, most crowded part of the field?!  Intercepted!!  Patriots win!  What the...?  What just happened?  How did that happen?  Why did that happen?  Did Pete Carroll suddenly develop a phobia of big silver football trophies and decided to call the worst play you could possibly do in that situation?  How do you NOT hand the ball to the NFL leader in rushing TDs on the 1 yard line with 30 seconds left and the Super Bowl on the line?  How does someone get to the Super Bowl twice and make a call that bad?  I mean, throwing a pass isn't a good idea, even if it was a safe play like a shovel pass or a fade or an out.  But to throw a slant pass from the one yard line is just non-sense!  There's only 11 yards of field to work with, the safeties play up with the LBs because they have no where else to go.  With all the Patriots defenders stacked in the middle, you'd have to be blind, paid off or stupid to throw it there.  Football experts try to rationalize it and say that the Pats were expecting the run, so they had to pass.  Running a play with a low chance of success with a Super Bowl championship one yard away is idiocy.  Plain and simple.  There's no way Marshawn Lynch gets the ball three times from the one yard line with the Super Bowl on the line and doesn't get one yard.  If by some fluke of a reason that does happen.  Oh well.  You fired your best gun until you ran out of ammo, but this war just wasn't meant to be won.  Football experts with common sense just shake their heads in disbelief.  How the hell does someone just basically give away a Super Bowl?  How?  I don't know, but I'm sure while we're all talking about "what the hell were the Seahawks thinking" the NFL will quickly and quietly be sweeping Deflategate under the rug.  

Carolina Panthers vs Denver Broncos 2015 - With the outcome of Deflategate seriously damaging the NFL's reputation, they needed something or someone to fix it.  Enter Peyton Manning.  Over past 18 years, nobody has done more to promote or help the image of the league more than number 18.  He is one of the league's greatest players and ambassadors.  With Peyton struggling at the end of last year and entering the final year of his contract, many believed this would be his final season.  Unfortunately, Manning's struggles continued into this year and in the first nine games threw just 9 TDs and 17 INTs.  Despite the worst numbers of his career, he was somehow able to lead the Broncos through the playoffs (after backup and future Broncos QB Brock Osweiler got them into the playoffs) and back to the Super Bowl.  One of the greatest, if not the greatest, NFL player of all time playing his final game in the Super Bowl.  He even managed to beat out his arch-nemesis, Tom Brady to get there.  What a great feel good story.  How could anyone not root for Peyton?  He's one of the classiest, nicest, most well respected figures in sports.  If you didn't already know that, it became even more obvious how good a person he was when compared to Super Bowl QB counterpart, Cam Newton of the Panthers who is pretty much the exact opposite of Manning in just about every way.  As he had all year, Manning struggled in the game, turned the ball over twice and was very ineffective.  However, the Broncos top ranked defense and a Super Bowl record tying number of penalties (12) called against the Panthers, ensured that the NFL would end this tumultuous season on a high note.  For the 3rd time in the last 10 years, one of the league's greatest players, would go out on top.  Peyton Manning.  Football Hero.  Ambassador to the game.  All around good guy.  Finishes his illustrious career with the Lombardi Trophy in hand.  What a great story!

That's a pretty incredible span. 14 of the 15 games with an intriguing storyline. Half of them were decided by 4 points or less. Only two games were won by more than 14 points. With the exception of the Patriots lost perfect season, all of them are considered to be "happy endings", at least in the minds of the NFL/average American football fan with no interest in either team. A dynasty, history being made, going out on top, former allies matched up against one another, brother vs brother, redemption. It was quite the decade and a half huh?

I'm not saying that the NFL is "fixing" their games, but its naive to think this is all happening naturally. It went from being just two really good teams playing each other, most of the time it ended up in a blow out, to every game is really close and has an intriguing back story for the media to hype for two weeks prior to the game being played. The NFL needs this game to have it all and for the last 14 Super Bowls, it has. Coincidence or fixed? You tell me.

UPDATE:  I've updated this blog post with 2015 to keep track of this continuing trend of incredibly fascinating games that the NFL is lucky enough to have each and every year.