This Super Bowl matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers reminds me of the 2016 Seattle vs. Denver title game, for reasons I may get to eventually. That was an aberrational Super Bowl in several respects. It was the first and only time that the league suspended the Roman numbering of the game, opting instead for a monolithic 50: Arabic five-oh. I’m still trying to figure that out.
Roman rule resumed the next year, with Super Bowl LI (“Lee”) at NRG Stadium in Houston, and has marched its blocky Ls, Is and Vs apace across sponsored fields ever since. I can only conclude that the NFL did not trust our ability to regard a freestanding L as anything other than “el.” No doubt some sustained focus-grouping went down, and it was determined that the symbolic voice of this Golden Anniversary game could not be trusted to an ambiguous, solitary character like L. What does L really stand for, anyway? Can we be sure of its gender? Its patriotism? All we know is that it is the symbol for “learner driver” in Great Britain.
Even weirder: Super Bowl 50 was played in the University of Phoenix Stadium, making it, to the best of our knowledge, the first fully fictional or virtual Super Bowl: a dazzlingly lifelike CGI fulfillment of the deepest wishes and fever dreams of a broadband AI with ultra-advanced predictive modeling. Perhaps, given what cozy bedfellows the NFL and the Armed Forces have long been, the Super Bowls have all been AI since Staubach (or rather, since Lynn Swann). This we are unlikely ever to know, given the league’s notorious talent for lockdown. But what we do know for sure is that Super Bowl 50 was played entirely in code and pixel. It was the great French philosopher and critic Roland Barthes who observed that children’s toys of the present become, or at least forecast, the military technology of the future. Madden has been much more than an increasingly lifelike simulacrum of the NFL these many years.
Video gaming, sports betting and fantasy football are absolute boomtown; but they, along with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and TBI (traumatic brain injury) and the league’s coverup thereof, will be the undoing of the NFL’s century of economic and narrative dominance over American culture. The problem with fantasy is that it is your game now, but you’re just a dumb kid. To say that fantasy has eroded fan loyalty is far too mild a physical metaphor. It has exploded fan loyalty, washing it away in tides of solipsism and narcissism – especially among the young, the future.
Sports fandom is and has always been a lesson in elective and inconsequent suffering. I rue the fact that the fans of tomorrow suffer in virtual isolation, and not in geographic and familial clusters of themed fur. Someday, what we call fantasy now will no longer be tied to blood and soil at all. Our ephemeral heroes will be the fantasy players, not the athletes they bank on or the teams that make individual players great. Pretty soon, the middleman – real football – will be unrequired. I will be happy to be dead for that.
Speaking of the selfsame young, advancements in brain science reveal how even little bumps can have lasting and deleterious effects on the noggin, and how high school and Pop Warner kids are sustaining lots of little bumps and brain dings, and how this is all really bad for humans – a bad exacerbated incalculably by the NFL’s 50 shades of coverup and PR whitewash. Football is pure heroin (tough to kick, I hear), so they have that going for them. But now the game’s talent feeders will start dwindling to a trickle and the rest of us will suffer through an overgrowth of soccer kids with no natural predators! Football talent will ultimately be drawn, like boxing’s, almost entirely from a gladiator class where a combination of talent, heart, intelligence and desperation is the required portfolio. Boxing is a beautiful, complex and profound part of America’s history, right? Someday soon, football will be, too.
Mind you, this cultural shift will take some time to happen in those places where football is an active religion: Florida, the Deep South, Texas and the Southwest, the Midwest, the North, California, Samoa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, the bayou, New Jersey, parts of New York and New England, the Mississippi floodplains, the Eastern Seaboard, Cascadia, Canada, Hawaii, the High Plains and low desert, the Carolina lowlands and highlands [turns to look directly at you]…New Paltz.
Look, all I want is a good game, which is never a guarantee. When the Super Bowl really started to become the phenomenon it is today, the league added a week off to allow the entirety of the American press and media corps to scuttle to hotels in the roving-site city and get a head start on the literal worst human-interest reporting in history. Funny thing happened, though: With the extra week, the games immediately started to suck. Year after year, the Super Bowl sucked. Real fans were done two weeks earlier, on Championship Sunday. My New York Giants, with their unlikely win over the very best of the four Buffalo Bills AFC champions in ’91, broke the cycle of the sucky and, to be fair, the games have been as oft great as sucky ever since – maybe even great slightly ofter.
So, before Super Bowl 50, I predicted this: If the two teams line up and seem well-matched and competitive along the line of scrimmage, feeling each other out the way heavyweight teams do, then I am going with the great QB – in that case Peyton Manning, coming off his statistically historic second year with the Broncos. Football, you see, is a paradoxical game. Basketball is like a jazz ensemble: five fully empowered players dancing the line between individual and team mentality, balancing aggression and restraint, selflessness with the selfish imperative of greatness in the moment. Football is positively industrial by comparison: cogs and gears, strategies so complex they must be engineered from overhead, actual rocket science…but for the small matter of the quarterback. No other sport has a comparably impactful role. And, in my experience, all other things being equal, the great quarterback will get the score and get the win.
However, like many others, I saw that there was a good chance that the two teams were going to line up and all would not be equal. The Seattle defense that year had been playing a different game. The talent on that roster – Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, on and on, all in their primes – was legend. There was at least a chance that you would watch five or six plays, look at Denver and say, “Nope.” And in fact, that is exactly what happened, to the tune of a 43-8 Seattle win. Yeah, it sucked like a late-’80s Super Bowl sucked, but there was something awesome about it, too, in the old and religious sense of the word.
So here’s my prediction: If they line up and it looks competitive, I am going with the epochal quarterback, a kid the likes of whom we all seem to agree we have never seen before. He talks like Kermit the Frog and he throws like…well, to be honest, he throws like Patrick Mahomes, for there is no ready comparison. He extends plays and then makes throws that defy space and time, and you lose. Also: He doesn’t really make mistakes.
That said, this San Francisco defense and offense has that Seattle ’16 look (or Bears ’86, or Ravens ’00, or Buccaneers ’02, or…). They cow opponents physically, run them into the mud and break them into tinder. We might watch two or three possessions and say to KC, “Nope.”
Me? I’m going with Mahomes.
Super Bowl LIV: San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, February 2, 6:30 p.m. at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, FOX-TV. Halftime show, featuring Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, will likely begin shortly after 8 p.m.