What’s the plot of Super Bowl LIII? Part 2 – Passing the torch

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the plot of this year’s Super Bowl? I’m going to my friends’ Super Bowl party and I think it will be more fun watching the game if I know what to watch for.

Thanks,
Lucie


Dear Lucie,

Thanks again for your question. This is part two of a three part answer to it. At Dear Sports Fan, we believe that following sports like soap opera is the most enjoyable way of interacting with sports, so narratives are important! In Part One, we examined the “nobody believes in us” narrative that the Patriots are trying to impose on the Super Bowl and which has inspired quite a backlash. In this post, we’ll evaluate another common Super Bowl LIII narrative — that this is a symbolic passing of the torch from the New England Patriots to the Los Angeles Rams.

Passing the torch

In this narrative, Super Bowl LIII will be the moment that the current/last great dynasty in football (the Patriots) passes the torch to the next great dynasty in football (the Rams). This interpretations is based largely on the age and perceived quality of the two head coaches in the game.

The Patriots coach, Bill Belichick is a consensus figure on the NFL’s coaching Mount Rushmore, as respected as he is reviled. Success in sports almost always inspires hate because it is literally zero sum. If the Patriots win, 31 other teams do not win. On top of that, Belichick responds to media questions in a manner that is brusque to the point of being rude. Still, the most common adjective applied to Belichick is “genius” and it’s somewhat fitting. More than any other person, Belichick has imprinted his own personality and ideas about how things should be done on the Patriots organization. Here is just a sampling of these ideas, many of which you will hear announcers talking about:

  • Evaluate players for what they can do, not what they can’t do.
  • Each game is brand new and should be approached differently than the last.
  • Always find a way to take away the thing the opposing team’s offense does best.
  • If you find something that works against an opposing team’s defense, do it over and over again until they adjust. Then attack the new weakness they created by adjusting.

If you think these seem obvious, you’re right! I think that’s why the term genius kind of applies to Belichick – in my experience, genius discoveries or inventions always seem obvious in retrospect – gravity, the printing press, sewers – but a mark of Belichick’s greatness is that even though his ideas are known, they are difficult enough to execute that he still gets an advantage by doing them.

Sean McVay, the Los Angeles Rams coach has his own adjectives that get applied to him. He gets “genius” as well but more often “prodigy” or “savant”. This is partially because of his age. He became a head coach at 30 and had nearly instant success. He is 33 now. It’s also because somewhere along the line, someone discovered that with a tiny amount of prompting, he could recall seemingly every play in any game he’d ever been a part of.

The memory is just window dressing, of course, that confirms and emphasizes the impression people already have of McVay. One of the most obvious of his successes has been his impact on Los Angeles Rams quarterback, Jared Goff. Goff was drafted first overall in 2016, the year before McVay became head coach. His rookie season was spectacularly bad — so bad that when the team fired their coach and interviewed for a new one, the assumption was that anyone who claimed to be able to improve his play was lying for the sake of getting the job. Under McVay, Goff has become one of the best young quarterbacks in the league.

McVay is so well respected that he is shaping the way other teams think about hiring. This year, the running joke was that the only way to get a head coaching job in the NFL was to have worked with Sean McVay. When the Arizona Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury, they made sure to include a line in their announcement that announced to friends that he was “friends with Sean McVay.”

The presence of two great coaches in the Super Bowl, one who is 66 and one who is 33 is a notable feature of the game but the narrative that this game is a passing of the torch is almost definitely a false one for a few reasons.

There’s no sign that Belichick is going to retire any time soon, so that side of passing of the torch might be premature. The concept of a passing of the torch also seems to include the idea that the Rams are likely to have a dynasty similar in duration and success to the Patriots. Signs already point to that not being true. Not only is the Patriots success extremely rare but the Rams have some clear financial issues on the horizon that will limit their ability to stay at the top. (This is complicated enough to merit its own post but basically the Rams won’t be able to keep all of their star players for more than another year or so.) Although I am, as an observer, interested in what choices these two “genius” head coaches will make to try to beat each other, I feel positive that neither of them has spent a second in the lead-up to the game thinking about torches.

In favor of this narrative, people will point to a small symmetry. The Patriots dynasty began in the 2001 season when they won their first Super Bowl against (drumroll, please) the St. Louis Rams! How elegant, how cyclical would it be if they finished their dynasty by again beating the Rams? Or conversely, that the Rams began a dynasty by beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl? For me, this just points to how false the entire narrative is. 2001 was a different world from 2019. Almost no one (aside from Belichick and Brady) who was involved with the teams back then is still involved today. One of the teams doesn’t even play in the same city! Sports narratives aren’t that neat.

What’s the plot of Super Bowl LIII? Part 1 – “Nobody believes in us”

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the plot of this year’s Super Bowl? I’m going to my friends’ Super Bowl party and I think it will be more fun watching the game if I know what to watch for.

Thanks,
Lucie


Dear Lucie,

Super Bowl LIII will be played between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 3, 2019 and will be televised on CBS. Sorry, I know that wasn’t your question, but that’s how all blog posts about the Super Bowl must begin. This year’s game promises to be a good one. As a football (and New England Patriots) fan, I am already getting excited to see it. Like all Super Bowls, however, it has attracted a lot of narratives. It is more fun to watch the game if you understand the plot, so I’ll do my best here to explain some of the most common interpretations of this year’s Super Bowl and evaluate how true they are.

This will be a three-part post. Part two looks at the “passing the torch” narrative. Check back to catch part three soon!

“No One Believes in Us”

After the Patriots won their first game of the playoffs this year, they and their quarterback Tom Brady immediately attracted widespread disbelief and scorn for “playing the nobody believes in us card.” As you probably know, (to paraphrase Napoleon,) an army travels on its stomach but a sports team travels on cliche, and there’s no more seemingly effective cliche in team sports than to claim that “nobody believes in us.” It is a cliche that cements teammates together and fosters a sense of besieged fraternity that can overcome any odds.

On the face of it, relying on the power of cliche seems… unlikely to work, but as Brian Phillips pointed out in his recent homage to tennis player Andy Murray on The Ringer, there is a logic to it:

Spend any time around professional sports and you realize that the armature of cliché by which athletes tend to describe their experience is mostly a survival tactic. The athletes aren’t stupid. They’re simply trying to shore up the resources to compete in an unforgiving environment. If nuance is a tool of doubt and doubt is fatal, you eliminate nuance. You simplify. Say anything often enough and you believe it.

In this case though, no one believes Tom Brady’s “no one believes us” cliche — at least no one outside of the Patriots locker room. In response, ESPN ran an article poking fun at the idea, entitled, “Who believes in the Patriots? Almost everyone actually” and CBS Sports ran a similar article subtitled, “New England is apparently the team no one believes in, forever and ever and ever and ever.” Their point is that Tom Brady and the Patriots are not just not underdogs, they might be the most overdog football team ever!

For evidence, they point to their unprecedented sustained success: since Belichick became coach of the Patriots in 2000 and Brady quarterback in 2001, the Patriots have won the Super Bowl five times, they’ve made it nine times. They are currently on an unholy streak — this is the third straight year they’ve played in the Super Bowl and the fourth out of the last five. Right before the AFC Championship game (a semifinal for the Super Bowl) someone changed the Wikipedia article on the game to read, “The AFC Championship Game is the annual championship game of the American Football Conference (AFC) where one team gets to play the New England Patriots for a chance to play in the Super Bowl” and it wasn’t even statistically that much of an exaggeration. Tom Brady is widely thought of as the GOAT or greatest of all time to play quarterback. Bill Belichick is likewise thought of as the greatest coach of all time. So how can the narrative possibly be that “no one believes” in the Patriots?

It’s not. “No one believes in us” from the Patriots point of view is a false narrative but the backlash against it is also a little bit misleading. While it’s clearly not true to claim that no one believed the Patriots making or winning the Super Bowl was possible, it is true that most observations of the Patriots  at this point include a generous pinch of disbelief. Their sustained success is unlikely:

  • No one else has ever done it, certainly not in an era of the NFL when league rules seem to be slanted toward “parity” or creating a league where teams rise and fall quickly.
  • People do think that Tom Brady is a great quarterback but they know that he’s 41 and that Father Time is undefeated.

Patriots are not underdogs but they have been overdogs for so long that the longer it continues, the more unbelievable its duration becomes.

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The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

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The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

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The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

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The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

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The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

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The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

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The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!

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The Olympics are here! The Olympics are here!

Now, what should I watch? It’s a universal question with a personal answer. I can’t tell you for sure what you’ll enjoy the most, but I can tell you what I think the best, most interesting events of the day are going to be. Listen to the podcast and follow along with the abridged schedule below. If you want to see a full schedule, check out today’s schedule and tomorrow’s schedule on Dear Sports Fan. If you’re on a phone, this Google Sheets link is your best bet.

Let me know if you enjoy what you see and hear and please, if you have a question as you’re watching, email dearsportsfan@gmail.com and I will reply!