Two major stories emerged out of Super Bowl week.
One, Tom Brady put up a moody, black-and-white photo on Instagram that functions as a Rorschach test for football fans. Positively minded people see the New England Patriots quarterback walking into Gillette Stadium and sad, delusional people see him walking out.
What does it mean? Nobody knows. Probably not even Brady. He seems like the sort of person who confuses all black-and-white photography with capital-a Art. Maybe he just likes the way the slanting, early evening light is hitting his ego.
Two, the Super Bowl halftime acts, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, did a news conference together. Lopez showed up looking as if she was there to open a Miami Vice-themed buffet in Macau. Shakira dressed as if she was getting ready to revarnish her deck.
Clearly, they don’t talk.
That’s the closest we’ve got to anything that feels remotely like conflict. Which is sort of what football is all about.
Super Bowl week needs stories the way the rest of us need to look at our phones every 10 seconds. It is a basic requirement for survival.
Stories, in the football context, are not redemptive. Football isn’t about comebacks. It’s about endings. It’s about putting someone on the ground and them staying there.
Other sports do comebacks because in those other sports there is a potential happy ending. You played 10 more years and made lots of money. If you return from some catastrophic setback in football, the likelihood is that you will be leaving the sport in even worse shape, and probably quite soon.
So football stories are angry stories and Super Bowl week needs a lot of them. This is because it goes on forever. Days and days of nothing but football players in their civvies being stared at by hundreds of reporters. The onus is on them to say something interesting. And the players have miserably failed in that duty.
Instead, everyone loves everybody. It’s all good in the neighbourhood. Yes, they may have to crack some skulls – quite literally – but there’s no need be uncivil about it.
Presumably, this is the end result of the NFL’s long campaign to become kinder, gentler and highly marketable again. Not in that order.
Ten years ago, three or four guys would already have been arrested for public disorderly. (Or, if Rob Gronkowski were still playing, just one guy, but three or four times.) The game’s in Miami, for God’s sake, the world capital of ending a night out three hours later than you should have.
At the least, the teams would be at each other’s throats in the media. If they didn’t have a real problem with each other, they’d invent one for entertainment purposes.
Instead, we are returning to an era of professionalism. More’s the pity.
Maybe this has something to do with the resurgence of the San Francisco 49ers. Kansas City has no Super Bowl identity, given the fact that it hasn’t visited the Super Bowl in 50 years. It knows there is a Super Bowl and some day it planned to go there. But not until the franchise retired. Now that Kansas City is there, they don’t know what to do with themselves.
But the 49ers have pedigree.
The most recent great iteration of the team – coach Joe Walsh, quarterback Joe Montana, receiver Jerry Rice – helped create the idea of the cerebral sports team.
Up until that time – the early 1980s – a great franchise was either blood and guts (the Green Bay way) or pure talent (the Dallas way).
Walsh’s great insight wasn’t primarily schematic. It was that you did not have to play a sport exactly as it had always been played. He was football’s Stravinsky (if much better paid and far less booed during his lifetime).
He introduced the concept of fashion into sports, and we’re not talking about the clothes. From then on, the NFL (and, to a lesser extent, the NBA) would become prone to tactical fads. One year, it’s all about running backs. Three years later, everything’s focused on the receivers. Right now, the fixation is on edge rushers. And when someone figures out how to counter them, we’ll move on to something else.
One of the things that keeps the NFL fresh is that despite having the same rules, the focus of the game shifts regularly.
Walsh wasn’t the first person to try it, but he was the one who got it right on a grand scale. So he gets the credit.
This 49er team doesn’t remind you much of that one. Man for man, Kansas City is far sexier a team, more mercurial, more explosive and with a charismatic personality (QB Patrick Mahomes) at its centre.
San Francisco’s biggest star is the coach, and his greatest talent is being a skinny, middle-aged guy who doesn’t look stupid wearing a flat-bill ball cap.
Beyond that there is a swarming horde on defence and no particular standout on offence, though the 49ers do that well as a unit.
Two years ago, San Francisco was best known as the team that cut quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Perhaps it’s in keeping with that culture that it is now football’s most corporate team, the NFL’s Amazon. It has figured out how to package and deliver football in a way that produces a high level of customer satisfaction.
You can’t dislike the San Francisco 49ers, because you can’t dislike anything when it’s done well. But they are hard to love. There are no corners to this team, nothing to grab hold of. It has one interesting character and he’s a run-blocking tight end. That’s a new level of boring.
Of course, none of that matters if San Francisco wins. The glory days 49ers would not exist in our imagination as they do if they’d turned out to be the Buffalo Bills. We hallow them now because they got things done (with a lot more flair than the current crop).
In some ways, the 49ers are the perfect heirs to the New England Patriots – a football factory that fits players into an assembly line of quality. What they lack is a Brady figure.
They weren’t able to produce one during Super Bowl week, when it’s easy. Now they’ll have to try to do that during Sunday’s game, when it’s incredibly hard.