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Mercenary Sunday
The must-see (even if it is not worth watching) Super Bowl.


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If the Super Bowl were merely a football game, it would not be the highest-rated show on television. People who do not otherwise care about football watch because … well, because millions of other people who don’t care about football also watch. They watch because they don’t want to be left out. It is easier to ignore the Academy Awards than it is to skip the Super Bowl. Of course, the ads during the (endless) Super Bowl broadcast are fairly entertaining and that counts for something among non-fans. Also, the victory speeches all come at the end of the show and are generally pretty short and never as gaudy and narcissistic as the one given by the woman who copped “Best Actress” last year … or any other year, for that matter.

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Anyone who watches television, has developed a high tolerance for hyperbole and this is a good thing since the hype-count climbs steadily during Super Bowl week until, by game time, it is pretty much off the charts. The name, after all, says it. “Super Bowl,” indeed. If you applied rigorous standards the game would be called, “The Sometimes Pretty Good (But Usually Not) Bowl.” As football, most of the games haven’t lived up to the ads.

Still … it is the Super Bowl and the show will go on. The buildup to the game once lasted for two eternal weeks by the end of which … you couldn’t wait for it to be over. One week is more than enough time to get the hype engines up to full RPM. By Sunday, the whole world will have its game face on.

The buildup follows certain conventions — narrative devices, you might call them. There will always be back stories about players who are fighting through some emotional crisis or personal setback. This year, that player is Joe Jurevicius, a receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose wife recently gave birth prematurely. Jurevicius’s infant son is still in the hospital and was in critical condition as recently as last Sunday when his father’s 71-yard reception helped his team upset the Philadelphia Eagles. There is nothing fake or manufactured about this story though it will doubtless begin to feel that way by game time, after the television troops have played it for all it is worth.

Another reliable storyline is the player who talks a lot, about nothing much, and is therefore “controversial.” This year, that player is Keyshawn Johnson, also a receiver for the Bucs. Johnson came into the league demanding the spotlight and, since he was playing in New York then, got it. He landed a book deal and with the help of a talented sportswriter produced Just Throw Me the Damn Ball. It is a classic in the literature of ephemeral sports celebrity. Johnson has been giving interviews this week on the theme of “Why don’t people like Keyshawn Johnson?” His conclusion: If you don’t, then you have a problem.

Many Super Bowls ago, there was a running back for the Dallas Cowboys who brought a certain freshness to this storyline by not talking to anyone. His name was Duane Thomas and while he had a pretty good game that year in a Dallas victory he will be best remembered (if at all) for a gnomic and undeniable insight:

“If the Super Bowl is the ultimate game,” Thomas asked, “then how come they’re going to play it again next year?”

Far more profound than, “How come people don’t like Keyshawn?”

Then there is the enigmatic and vaguely sinister figure of Al Davis, principal owner of the Raiders and dark genius behind their success. Davis has always been good for a storyline. His is an owner who actually knows something about the game — he was a good and innovative coach before he became a suit who never wears one. Davis is actually liked by many of his players and is more comfortable in their company than that of his coevals. He seems to take pleasure in twisting the tails of other owners and exposing them as just businessmen who like to hang around jocks. Al Davis fought a long and successful legal battle with the league and moved his team from Oakland to Los Angeles and back again when he didn’t get his way regarding stadiums. He has knack for seeing talent and won previous Super Bowls with teams he put together out of other people’s discards. The Raiders are favored to win Sunday with quarterback Rich Gannon, a career journeyman who was good enough this year to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player. Gannon frequently throws to Jerry Rice, one of the great receivers in the history of the game, who was let go by the San Francisco 49ers because he was too old and too expensive. Linebacker Bill Romanowski was picked off the salvage heap by Davis after a career that included four Super Bowls, all victories.

The Raiders, then, are football’s version of the Wild Bunch. Aging cowboys looking for one last epic gunfight.

Professional football has always been a mercenary calling — you play for whomever pays you — and free agency and salary caps have just made it more so. Teams move from city to city, looking for the richest, taxpayer-subsidized stadium deal. General managers and other front-office people move with the money. And, of course, so do players and coaches. The nominal grail in all this restless searching is the Super Bowl.

And probably the most intriguing storyline in this year’s Super Bowl is this: The coach of the Bucs was, last season, the coach of the Raiders. When Jon Gruden left Oakland for Tampa, it cost the Bucs $8 million in cash and a handful of high draft choices to get him released from his contract. The question, this year, has been whether he was worth it.

The hired guns of (temporarily, anyway) Oakland, then, against the hired guns of Tampa, in a shootout at the San Diego corral. With the leader of one bunch having just come over from the other side … temporarily, anyway.

Hard, then, to work up much of a rooting interest, except for Jurevicius and his family. For the fan, the game comes down to a kind of clinical question. Does a great defense beat a great offense? Tampa wins with speed on defense. Oakland does it with an intricate passing game. Can the one disrupt the other? Expert analysis has it that the Bucs need to get pressure on Gannon from the outside with their speed rushers. Otherwise, he will pick even their formidable secondary apart.

Millions of people around the globe are waiting eagerly to learn the answer. Well, sort of. Lots of them are watching for the Dixie Chicks at halftime or for the ads or because … well, because it is Super Bowl, you know, the ultimate game.

Except that they will play it again next year. And even if their names are the same, the teams will surely be different.

— Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.



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