Sunday, February 07, 2016

Super Bo' L

I begin with my one and only Super Bowl story.  I attended XXIX, in 1996  (in Miami, San Francisco over San Diego, 49-26, in what is generally considered one of the worst, if not the very worst, of all the many bad Super Bowl contests--it was something like 28-0 after the first quarter).  In one of the stores near the stadium, I was picking through the mementos, and I found a commemorative cap for the game.  On the back part, it said, among other things, "Super Bo".  I thought that production error was quite appropriate (especially for a game played in the South), and I purchased the cap, which I have long since lost.  (There was also a seat cushion, at the stadium, that was tacky and fell apart, but I used for the seat of my car for some 20 years.)  The game was a circus, not worth watching, and filled with distractions, but it did help fill out my roster of championships. (That's for another time.) It's actually the only NFL game I have ever attended.

My relationship with professional football (American) is unlike that which I have with any other sport.  I have watched the game my whole life, but somehow I have always managed to avoid a lasting emotional attachment to any team.  In that, I was fortunate that the Cincinnati Bengals--one of the more disappointing franchises--started the year after I moved away from the Ohio River valley, so I never became ensnared (as I did with the Cincinnati Reds--also a story for another time).  In the '60's, I liked Don Meredith, in the '80's/'90's the 49ers of Bill Walsh.  I hated Vince Lombardi, and for a long time I rooted for any team playing the Packers (I have managed to overcome that aversion fairly recently).   Now, I watch a handful of regular-season games and those postseason ones that fit my schedule, without investing much emotional capital. It's plenty.

Today's game (it's wrapping up as I type), was a typically lousy Super Bowl contest, and it illustrated some of the most severe problems of the league.  It was a series of people stripping the ball from runners' and quarterbacks' hands, referee-call-dominated, the usual blurry decisioning (with the questionable help of the replay officials) about whether a catch was a catch, a fumble a fumble, a pass a pass, annoying announcers. (By the way, Phil Simms, Cam Newton had an opportunity to recover the fumble, despite not risking his neck and diving headfirst onto the loose ball--it squirted right by him.)  Basically, they keep playing with the rules to keep the offenses a step ahead of the defenses, and the defenses (of the best teams) keep improving faster than they can change the rules.  I was impressed by Carolina's regular season, but I am little surprised that the team with the prior Super Bowl experience was better able to handle the madness that is the AFL-NFL Championship game.

The First 50 -- Team by Team
There have been 100 appearances, and with 32 teams, an average team would have been in three Super Bowls, winning 1.6 of them.  There is a significant adjustment, though, as several of the teams have not been around for the full 50 years.  I recommend the Wikipedia site of the NFL timeline of all the franchises--it's full of potential trivia-winning information.

One example:  the San Diego Chargers are faced with the difficult decision whether to join the relocated Rams in Los Angeles, for which they have received a very attractive offer, or to challenge the voters of San Diego to put out big money to build them the dream stadium which would keep them there.  When I ridiculed the Chargers for looking to bail on their hometown, I was not aware that the Chargers actually played their first year in the old AFL as the Los Angeles Chargers (in 1960).

Denver's win brings their Super Bowl record to 3-5--they share with Dallas, Pittsburgh, and New England the highest number of appearances, at 8.  It brings AFL/AFC teams to 24-26 in the big game--that's according to the official league standings.  Measuring by the original (post-1960) league of the franchises, though, the AFL's record is less impressive, as they were "given" the franchises of Pittsburgh, Baltimore (which became Indianapolis),* and Cleveland (which became, sort of, the Baltimore Ravens),* which have a combined 10-3 record for the AFC.  For the NFC's part, they were given AFC-expansion franchise Seattle, and its 1-2 SB record.  Thus, by my reckoning, "original" AFL teams (including AFC-expansion teams) are 15-25, and "original" NFL teams (including expansions) are 35-25.

Here's a classification, by what league the team comes from, the beginning of their franchise (if post-1960), and their SB record:
NFL Teams
Distinguished:  San Francisco (5-1), Green Bay (4-1), NJ Giants (4-1), Pittsburgh (6-2).
Commendable:  Dallas (5-3), Washington (3-2).
Average:  Baltimore/Indianapolis (2-2, 0-1 in the NFL), Chicago (1-1), LA/St.L. Rams (1-2)
Have Some Excuse/Insufficient Data:  Atlanta '66 (0-1), Tampa Bay '76 (1-0), Carolina '95 (0-2), New Orleans '67 (1-0).
Special Case:*  Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens (2-0, all for the AFC).
No Excuse, But At Least They've Showed Up: Minnesota (0-4), Philadelphia (0-2), St.L./Arizona (0-1).
No Excuse Whatsoever:  Detroit (0-0).
AFL Teams
Good, Considering They're AFL Teams:  Oakland/LA Raiders (3-2), Miami '66 (2-3), Patriots (4-4), Broncos (3-5).
Insufficient Data (which isn't really very good):  NJ Jets (1-0), KC Chiefs (1-1), Chargers (0-1), Oilers/ Titans (0-1).
Have Some Excuse:  Jaguars '95 (0-0), Texans '02 (0-0), the reincarnated Browns '99* (0-0), Seahawks '76 (1-2, all for the NFC).
No Excuse, But at Least They've Showed Up:  Bills (0-4), Bengals (0-2).

Bloviating America's Favorite Game

*Here, for the particular benefit of our younger readers, we must explain, and point toward the two worst (but connected) episodes in the modern (post-merger) league.  The villain of part one was Baltimore Colts' owner Robert Irsay:  He arranged to relocate his team (the former NFL team, which had been shifted over to the AFC in the merger shortly after their historic loss to the Jets in the third Super Bowl game) from Baltimore to Indianapolis to get a better stadium deal.  To settle the uproar, he agreed to support a new team in Baltimore.  The team that became the Baltimore Ravens was moved there by the villain of part two, Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns.  Because of his dissatisfaction with his stadium deal, he got approval in 1996 to "discontinue" the Browns and "start" a new franchise in Baltimore.  Eventually, to satisfy the uproar from that betrayal, a new Cleveland Browns franchise was started a couple of years later.  I am treating the Ravens as the true inheritors of the old Browns, and the new Browns as an expansion franchise, which is at odds with the official NFL history.  

This scandalous owner behavior tops by a slight amount the sordid story of the Los Angeles teams, their betrayals of their fans--in Los Angeles, in Oakland, now in St. Louis, and possibly in San Diego. The NFL's behavior with regard to mental health has been properly eviscerated in the new movie "Concussion", and their labor practices have always been the worst in professional sport. The NFL is such a monstrous commercial success--it has now expanded its schedule to Thursday and to Saturday, beyond its traditional ownership of Sunday and Thanksgiving, and its previous conquest (45 years ago) of Monday night--that nothing seems to be able to derail its hold on the American public (at least most of the male portion of it). I will say, despite the ongoing Los Angeles fiasco that will soon be resolved in some way, that the league is much more stable in its past 20 years than its previous history.

My feeling, though, is that the game's defects are so egregious that it is headed for disaster.  My recommendations for it are radical:  The helmets, reinforced with further interior padding, should include, for all ball-using positions (eligible receivers and backfield), neck braces to protect the head against traumatic head shocks.  Wage insurance should be provided to all players signed to contracts; most football players can be cut at any time, and those who suffer disabling injuries are particularly susceptible.  The video challenge rules, the rules about pass receptions, about holding, about pass interference, and, worst of all, celebration limitation all detract from the pure enjoyment of the game and need additional reform. Finally, something must be done about the increasing trend to train defensive players to go after the ball instead of the ballcarrier--to punch at the ball whenever possible:  I'm thinking that the uniforms could include a ball-shaped "protection pocket" where the ball could be placed and carried, which would be proof against intentionally-created fumbles, and to protect further the passer's arm from interference while in the act of throwing.

Yeah, I know--these would change the game.  I say to that, it's about time.

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