A long season has come down to this — four teams in two games, winners go to the big dance, losers go home. For anyone who is even notionally a fan, Sunday should be the year’s best day of professional football. The Super Bowl is too much about office pools, chicken wings and dip, and halftime shows featuring the Dixie Chicks. Excess piled upon excess until even a good game gets lost in the gaudy, vulgar spectacle. The Super Bowl is the highest-rated television show of any year and that is all the prudent fan needs to know. He’ll watch but he won’t get involved.
Even the players seem to feel this way. Before the season starts, they’ll say their team goal is to “get to the Super Bowl.” Not “win the Super Bowl.” Just get there. The Super Bowl, they seem to sense, is Barnum & Bailey under a dome instead of a tent, and without sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and guys who tie their own legs in knots. Which might explain why the actual football part of so many Super Bowls has been uninspired. It is almost an afterthought.
This weekend, though, determines who will get there and the fan has reason to hope for two good games. None of the four teams got here by accident or backed in. They all played strong games last weekend and seem to be peaking at just the right time. There are no Cinderella teams that are looking around wide-eyed, dazzled to be at the ball. Last year, the Oakland Raiders lost to the New England Patriots — eventual Super Bowl champions — on an esoteric call in the snow. They are a team of highly paid veterans that — for salary-cap reasons — will certainly have to be broken up in the off-season. For the Raiders, it is now or never.
The Philadelphia Eagles also came close last year and they will be playing their final game in Veterans Stadium which is to this city what the old Garden was to Boston. The Vet, like the Garden, has an awful playing surface and some of the surliest fans in America. The average lynch mob exhibits more decorum than the crowd at an Eagles game.
The Tampa Bay Bucs — whose misfortune it is to have to play in the Vet this Sunday — have come close, too. But they inevitably falter, like Phil Mikelson down the stretch, when the game is a) in the postseason; b) in cold weather; and c) against the Eagles in the Vet. Three for three, then. Still, the Bucs, who have the best defense in football, have something to prove.
The Tennessee Titans, who play in Oakland Sunday evening, came up one foot short on last play of the 2000 Super Bowl and crave another chance. They are probably the most banged-up of the remaining four teams but playing through injuries creates a kind of incentive. The pain, blood, and broken bones have to have been for something.
Oakland and Philadelphia are favored this Sunday. But any of these four teams is a plausible Super Bowl champion. Sadly none of them possess that mythic quality of some of the great teams in Super Bowl history. This is a loss and might just be the permanent condition in the new National Football League where the aim seems to be to make every team about as good as any other team so nobody’s fans get their feelings hurt. (Cincinnati’s fans excepted, of course.)
Neither of the teams that appeared in last year’s Super Bowl — New England and St. Louis — will be playing football this weekend. Nor will either of the contestants from the previous year — the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants. Only one of those four teams — the Giants — made it into the playoffs and they were eliminated in the first round. The National Football League has endeavored — through scheduling, the salary cap, and the structure of the draft — to achieve something it likes to call “parity.” And it has succeeded. The NFL now resembles one of those Ivy League colleges where everybody graduates with honors. No more dynasties.
The game is the poorer for it. The great teams of the past had a certain definable character that gave a fan reason — beyond liking their colors or helmet logos — to love them or hate them or in some ineffable way identify with them. The great Pittsburgh teams of the ’70s were about the blue-collar virtues of the old steel town. Bill Walsh’s 49er teams were about brains and finesse — “West Coast offense,” indeed. Lombardi’s Packer’s were about team and resembled in some way those rifle squads from the literature of World War II, where there was always a street kid from the Bronx and a farmer from Kansas and a hillbilly from Tennessee and they somehow managed to transcend their differences and take on the personality of their unit. The Packers’ rivals in the famous “Ice Bowl” were the Dallas Cowboys, their antithesis. The Cowboys were corporate football — systems, money, organization, and cold calculations.
The fans understood the mythic personalities of these teams and it gave them an emotional stake. You weren’t rooting for a city you’d never visited but something that resembled a virtue. When you pulled for the old Dolphins and their “no-name” defense, for instance, you were on the side of grit and the fundamentals. Czonka up the middle was brutally elegant. Tom Landry’s flex defense, on the other hand, was intricate but also elegant.
Hard to say which virtues are on stage this weekend. America’s largest demographic — aging baby boomers — could logically favor the Oakland Raiders with a quarterback in his late 30s throwing to a receiver who is 40. Tampa Bay could get the youth vote with a coach who patronizes Hooters. The Bucs also have the biggest mouths — Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson — and the kids seem to like trash talk and showboating. The Bucs are probably Eminem’s team. Philadelphia has started three different quarterbacks and can be admired for playing through adversity. Tennessee does not have a single All-Pro on its roster. Anyone who is sick of celebrities — and who isn’t? — could find something to like in a team without stars.
Thin stuff, though. Egalitarianism always comes with a price, it seems, even in football. The games this weekend might be good, close, hard-fought, and all the rest. But they will lack a certain romance and many fans will find themselves wishing for the epic rivalries and dynastic days of old.
— Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.