What do I need to know about football and Super Bowl 50?

Who, when, how?

Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers is at 6:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, February 7. It will be televised on CBS and streamed for free on CBS.com. For background on the Denver Broncos history, read this post. For background on the history of the Carolina Panthers franchise, read this post.

What’s the plot of Super Bowl 50?

Virtually everyone you talk to thinks that the Carolina Panthers are going to win and win easily. Why is that? What makes people so sure that the Broncos won’t be able to do much when they have the ball? How can anyone be so confident that the Broncos defense, which has been the best in the league all year, won’t be able to stymie the Carolina offense so completely as to win the game themselves? Is the conventional wisdom right this time? Find out in our plot post.

Who are the key characters of Super Bowl 50 on the Carolina Panthers?

Read about quarterback Cam Newton and the issues of race that have plagued, surrounded, and elevated him throughout his career. Then read about how head coach Ron Rivera’s reputation changed from a boring failure to a radical success. Meet some key members of the Panthers extraordinary defense including a defensive lineman who grew up in Tonga, a linebacker who will be playing two weeks after breaking his arm, and the newest star in the league, defensive back Josh Norman.

Who are the key characters of Super Bowl 50 on the Denver Broncos?

Learn about legendary quarterback Peyton Manning and how close his story is to mimicking that of former Broncos quarterback and now team president, John Elway. The Broncos’ connections to the past continue in our examination of head coach Gary Kubiak, who spent his entire playing career as a backup quarterback in Denver. Meet some key members of the (perhaps) even more extraordinary defense on the Broncos including a colossal defensive lineman, a swashbuckling linebacker, and a bruising defensive back.

How can I quickly study up on football in time for the Super Bowl?

We have a ton of content on Dear Sports Fan for learning football. Some of it is available in a couple email correspondence courses, Football 101 an Football 201: Positions. I encourage you to sign up for those, but they won’t help very much if you’ve got a Super Bowl party to go to today. Instead, you can read up on some of the basics right now!

I also wrote an epic series on brain injuries in football a year ago, culminating with my suggestion on how to fix the game. You can find my suggestion, with links to all the previous posts here.

However you choose to enjoy the game today, do it with curiosity and kindness,
Ezra Fischer

Super Bowl 50 – What's the plot? Who is going to win?

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

What’s the plot of Super Bowl 50?

The Panthers are expected to win. For a Super Bowl which matches the top seeds in each conference or half of the NFL, and therefore should be a relatively even match-up, this belief is remarkably widely held. One way of telling this is to look at the line Vegas set for the game and what happened to it. If you’re not someone who understands football betting, this post provides good background. The line opened (was first set) with Carolina as a three point favorite, suggesting that Vegas thought Carolina was three points better than Denver. Over the two weeks between when this line was set and now, so many people bet so much money on Carolina, that they actually moved the line so that Carolina was favored by five or five and a half points. Remember that the goal of a line-setter is to get half the money on each team so that no matter who wins, the bookies can basically pay the winners on one side with money from the losers on the other and pocket the transaction fees from both sides. When too much money comes in on one side, like it did for Carolina, Vegas will move the line so that it’s more favorable to bet on the team getting fewer bets. Even if you think Carolina is going to win the game, it’s much more attractive to bet on them when they only have to win by four points (Carolina by three means they need to win by four for a bet on them to pay out) than when they have to win by six points for you to win. The line moving so far is a sure sign that most people think that Carolina is going to win fairly easily. So, why are people so sure? We’ll examine the game in two phases — when Denver has the ball and when Carolina does — and try to explain the challenges Denver faces on both sides.

Denver’s offense is likely to struggle against Carolina for one main reason: their quarterback, Peyton Manning, is a shell of his former self. Manning is 39 years old, near-ancient for a football player, and he had neck surgery a few years ago. This has left him with a severely under-powered arm (for an NFL quarterback, for a normal person, he’s still a super hero,) and with little to no feeling in the fingers of his throwing arm. That he’s able to play at all is incredible but it doesn’t change the fact that his shortcomings will become his team’s shortcomings. Manning finds it difficult to throw deep down the field to his wide receivers. Alas, that’s the strength of one of his top two receivers, Demarius Thomas who is now less effective. More importantly, opposing defenses know Manning is less effective throwing downfield than he used to be, and they set themselves up accordingly. The Panthers, who also have one of the best one-on-one defenders in the league, won’t waste too many players defending deep passes. This leaves them free to concentrate on stopping or limiting the effectiveness of the two other things an offense can do: run and pass short. Carolina’s defense is hell on offenses trying to do these things at the best of times, but they’ll be downright Cerberus-like against a team they know can only do these things. Carolina has two excellent giant defensive tackles who will disrupt the Broncos running game, mostly by making it impossible for Denver’s offensive line to create clear areas for their running back to sneak through. When a running back does sneak through or when the Broncos circumvent the Panthers linemen by completing a short pass, the ball-carrier is unlikely to get far because of the Panthers swift linebackers who will flow toward the ball-carrier during this game with a ferocity and speed matched only by you or me headed toward the chip and dip at our Super Bowl parties. It’s hard to imagine Denver scoring many points on offense because it’s hard to imagine how they’ll find ways to gain more than five to seven yards on any single play.

Denver has made up for their deficits on offense all year by having the best defense in the league. Alas for Denver supporters, it seems like Carolina was designed specifically to thwart everything Denver is best at on defense. Denver excels at attacking their opposition’s quarterback. They’ve been able to hit, tackle, sack, and fluster almost every quarterback they’ve come across. They haven’t played anyone like Carolina’s quarterback Cam Newton though. Newton is not only enormous (6’5″ 245 lbs) but he’s also a normally unflappable person on the best streak of his career. If that weren’t enough, he is also an expert executor of the “read-option” offense. This tactic looks like a normal running play but gives the quarterback the option to look at how the defenders are reacting (read them) and then decide (because they have the option) to hand the ball off to the running back or keep it himself and run or throw it. At best, this tactic slows down opposing defenders. At worst, it leaves them bewildered and frozen in their tracks. Having the read-option in their back pocket and a physical, unflappable quarterback to run it, will make Carolina resistant to Denver’s defensive edge rushers. Denver has also been able to shut down opposing wide receivers all year with their combination of great defensive backs. Unfortunately, Carolina’s best pass-catcher is not a wide receiver, but a tight end — Greg Olsen. Denver did a great job on New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in their last game but it is an area they’ve been (relatively) vulnerable to all year. Denver still has a great defense that will find ways to make life hard for Carolina, but because of how Carolina’s offense works, they will be less affected than nearly any other team would be.

Who is going to win?

Usually there’s more suspense at this point in the post (and the football season,) but given the thrust of this article, it’s hard to generate much. The Carolina Panthers are going to win. I just hope the Broncos can put up enough of a fight to make the game interesting! I think they will. Their formidable defense will find ways to frustrate Carolina’s offense, who it must be admitted, have not faced much adversity so far this year. Given a few lucky bounces and perhaps a lucky injury or two, the Broncos could just sneak through and find a way to win in a low scoring game… but they won’t. Panthers 22, Broncos 16.

Super Bowl 50 – Meet the Carolina Panthers defense

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

There’s a cliche in football that “defense wins championships.” This year, it will definitely be true. No matter whether Carolina or Denver wins the Super Bowl, many will point to the defensive side of the ball as the reason for their victory. Football Outsiders, a website that produces innovative and trustworthy football statistics concludes that Denver had the best defense this year and that Carolina had the second best defense. To get a better appreciation for the defensive side of the ball, let’s explore some of the most important players. We already looked at Denver, now let’s focus on Carolina.

 

 

What’s the story with the defensive linemen on the Carolina Panthers?

Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short – The heart of the Panthers defense are their two young defensive tackles, Lotulelei and Short. Lotulelei and Short came into the league together, both drafted by the Panthers in the 2013 NFL draft. They share some similarities, both having been shockingly disregarded by major football powerhouse colleges before becoming stars on smaller teams — Purdue for Short and Utah for Lotulelei. Then, they both missed their chance to optimize their draft status, Lotulelei because of a virus that caused his heart to show as concerning on a pre-combine medical screen, and Short because of a hamstring injury. They’re not the same people by any means, Lotulelei spent the first nine years of his life in Tonga, Short was a two-sport star growing up in Chicago, where he wowed people by dunking despite his 300 lbs bulk. This year, both players have become (almost) household names thanks to their great play. Although both are capable of playing each other’s role, Lotulelei tends to occupy offensive linemen and target running backs while Short uses his overpowering strength or underhanded trickiness to get to opposing quarterbacks.

What’s the story with the linebackers on the Carolina Panthers?

Luke Kuechly – Middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly is literally at the center of the Panthers defense and he’s figuratively its heart. He’ll be wearing the green dot on his helmet which signifies that he is the only defensive player who gets the play calls radioed in from the coach and it’s his job to communicate them out to the rest of his teammates. Experiment for a few plays and just watch him — he wears number 59 — and marvel at how quickly he figures out what the offense is going to do and gets himself into a position to help stop them from doing it.

Thomas Davis – Davis is that guy you loved to hate in high school. Actually, check that — your high school had no one like Thomas Davis in it. But you would have hated him if he had been there. In high school, Davis played basketball, baseball, football, and ran track. He was great at everything. He played college football in his home state at the University of Georgia before being drafted in the first round of the NFL draft by Carolina in 2005. His first three years in the league were a flash of potential and budding greatness. Then in 2010, he tore the ACL in his right knee. Then he did it again. Then, amazingly, he did it again. Same knee. No one had ever come back from three ACL injuries on the same knee, but Davis was determined to be the first. Amazingly, he’s back and playing as well and seemingly as fast as he ever has. It seemed for a minute like his story this year would have a sad coda to it when he broke his forearm in the NFC championship game two weeks ago but Davis, thanks to a 3D printed brace, doesn’t plan to let that stop him from playing in the Super Bowl.

What’s the story with the defensive backs on the Carolina Panthers?

Josh Norman – If you had surveyed a group of football fans a year ago today about who corner back Josh Norman was, you would probably have gotten a lot of blank stares. Now, after the season he had this year, he’s a household name. Norman is one of the rarest commodities in football, a shutdown corner. He will line up opposite a team’s best wide receiver and basically erase him from the game. Quarterbacks have learned that throwing to a player guarded by Norman is close to a no-win situation and it can be a giant loss if Norman gets his hands on the ball. Especially with Peyton Manning as diminished as he is, I would expect him to simply ignore the player that Norman is guarding. This will probably be frustrating for Norman, who likes to make plays, but it will be extraordinarily helpful to the Panthers, who get to focus their attention elsewhere, safe in the knowledge that Norman can take care of himself.

 

Super Bowl 50 – Meet the Denver Broncos defense

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

There’s a cliche in football that “defense wins championships.” This year, it will definitely be true. No matter whether Carolina or Denver wins the Super Bowl, many will point to the defensive side of the ball as the reason for their victory. Football Outsiders, a website that produces innovative and trustworthy football statistics concludes that Denver had the best defense this year and that Carolina had the second best defense. To get a better appreciation for the defensive side of the ball, let’s explore some of the most important players. First, we’ll look at Denver.

What’s the story with the defensive linemen on the Denver Broncos?

Derek Wolfe – Wolfe is a gargantuan defensive lineman. He’s listed as being 6’5″ tall and 285 lbs. Even in a sport like football, where giants are a run-of-the-mill sight, Wolfe sticks out. As a 3-4 defensive end (if you don’t know what that means and want to, read the article on defensive linemen linked above,) Wolfe is expected to play a hybrid game, half attacking the quarterback, half being the first line of defense against the run. Wolfe provides both of those services to his team spectacularly. In fact, he has been so spectacular this year compared to his first few years in the league, that a neutral observer is forced to wonder how he improved so much. Add that wonder to the four game suspension he served at the start of the year for breaking the NFL substance policy (he claimed he took a medicine he didn’t know was against the rules) and you’ve probably got your answer. The truth is, most football fans don’t actually care very much if professional players are taking drugs to stay on top, they just enjoy watching them play.

What’s the story with the linebackers on the Denver Broncos?

Von Miller – Von Miller is a swashbuckling linebacker. He lives to sack quarterbacks. And he is great at it, potentially historically great. At the start of this season, he became the third fastest player to reach the 50 sack mark, behind only Reggie White and Derrick Thomas, both retired hall of fame players. Although Miller has his own unfortunate past (a six game performance enhancing drug suspension, several speeding tickets, an arrest for failure to pay the speeding tickets…) he’s also an enjoyably colorful character. He’s the only one in the game who could inspire this paragraph in a Boston Globe article: “Chicken farming is just one of his many odd passions. He wears thick, plastic-rimmed “geek chic” glasses, wears a giant Russian fur trapper hat and eccentric cowboy boots, and covered his body in random tattoos, including one of a chicken, or “Chicken Fred,” on his leg. He was the only rookie to put his name on the NFL Players Association’s lawsuit against the NFL in the 2011 lockout. His sack dances and celebrations are worthy of “Amercia’s Best Dance Crew.”

DeMarcus Ware – DeMarcus Ware is a savvy veteran still capable of making explosive plays. He played nine years for the Dallas Cowboys and was the team’s defensive leader. Because the Cowboys are simultaneously the most loved and most hated team in the league, this made him a very well-known player. Even the most ardent Cowboys haters developed a grudging respect for Ware, particularly because during his time with the team, they never won very much or succeeded in the playoffs, despite Ware’s efforts. He left the team in 2014 and signed with the Broncos. He has flourished there, despite his age, and provided both mentorship and high quality performances on the field.

What’s the story with the defensive backs on the Denver Broncos?

Aquib Talib – Cornerback Talib is a perfect example of how contextual success in the NFL can be. As a highly respected player in college, Talib was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. That guarantees a player an enviable first contract but it’s no guarantee of success. Success is much more multi-factored than that and perhaps the biggest factor is which team a player is drafted by. Talib was taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were just entering a dysfunctional phase that has lasted until today. Talib never quite lived up to his billing there. Then, in 2012, he signed as a free agent with the New England Patriots, one of the most ruthlessly functional teams in the league. He was a star. From the Patriots, he moved to the Broncos, another high functioning organization, and has continued to be an excellent player. Context matters. Talib is a big, physical corner who is as likely to knock a receiver off their timing at the line of scrimmage (contact with a receiver is allowed for the first five yards from the line of scrimmage) as he is to drop back and try to run with him.

 

Super Bowl 50 – Who is Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera?

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

Head coach of an NFL football team is an enormously important and high profile job populated mostly by even more enormously self-important men who never miss an opportunity to raise their profile. As such, it’s actually surprising how little press the two Super Bowl coaches this year are receiving. Both Carolina head coach Ron Rivera and Denver head coach Gary Kubiak are the exceptions that prove the rule. Despite their teams making the Super Bowl, neither one is the center of attention. The plot of this game does not revolve around either of them. They aren’t groundbreaking “geniuses.” Nor is this a redemptive journey for either of them. That doesn’t mean that either of them is uninteresting or has a boring back story though, so without further ado, let’s explore who they are and how they got here.

What’s Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s story?

This is not coach Ron Rivera’s first trip to the Super Bowl. He played linebacker on the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears team, often brought up as having had one the best defenses of all time. Rivera played linebacker for the Bears for nine years before retiring and moving first into the booth as a TV football analyst and then into the coaching fraternity. Until he was hired in 2011 as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, he had always been a defensive coach — either coaching the linebackers on the team or the entire defense.

The best way to illustrate Ron Rivera’s story as a coach in the NFL is to examine his nickname — Riverboat Ron. Riverboat Ron refers to the gambling done on riverboat.

quick historical diversion: This gambling has had two waves — during the 19th century, when riverboats were a primary form of transportation, professional gamblers used them as an easy way to find bored rich people with nothing to do, swiftly separate them from some of their money, and just as swiftly exit their presence. Once steamboats were superseded by other modes of travel, this habit died down. It was resurrected in the late 1980s when a clever Iowan figured out that a casino, located in a traveling riverboat, would not be under the same gambling prohibitions that a static, land-based casino would be. This trick turned into a trend, and so the second great era of riverboat gambling started. Now-a-days, many of the riverboat casinos are either “boats in moats” that never travel anywhere or even simply buildings built on stilts over water. end diversion — 

Rivera got his nickname during the 2013 season. He started the year on shaky ground, having gone an uninspiring 13-19 in his first two seasons. He was particularly under fire among fans and in the media for being overly conservative. His decisions to do things that were widely perceived as safe but misguided, mostly preferring to punt or kick field goals on fourth down instead of “going for it” were blamed for his team’s poor record in close games. This pattern continued for the first two games of the 2013 season. In the third game, it reversed. In the third game, Rivera made the “aggressive” choice and it helped his team win the next game. He cemented this change of tactics by making a similar choice in each of the next five games. That was enough of a sample to seem like he had changed, not just his tactics, but his personality as well. Riverboat Ron had earned his nickname.

According to Wikipedia, Rivera is not the biggest fan of his nickname. He prefers to think of what he does as “calculated risk taking” not gambling. Many football fans would disagree even with that. Just before the time Rivera made his “transformation,” football thought went through its own transition in how it thought about those decisions. Statisticians who descended toward football from other sports, like baseball which had an earlier statistical revolution, made it clear that almost all coaches had been doing their teams a disservice by being far too conservative. This gave rise to clever gags like the New York Times Fourth Down Bot which analyzes fourth down situations and comes up with the statistically correct answer. Seen through the eyes of macro football history, Rivera did not transform from a conservative to a radical coach, he simply adjusted to the new conservatism.

Whatever he has done as a coach has been greatly assisted by the remarkably talented players he has on offense and even more so on defense. These days, Rivera is looked at as a very good leader who delegates well to clever assistant coaches and creates a wonderful environment for his many talented and quirky players to thrive.

Super Bowl 50 – Who is Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak?

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

Head coach of an NFL football team is an enormously important and high profile job populated mostly by even more enormously self-important men who never miss an opportunity to raise their profile. As such, it’s actually surprising how little press the two Super Bowl coaches this year are receiving. Both Carolina head coach Ron Rivera and Denver head coach Gary Kubiak are the exceptions that prove the rule. Despite their teams making the Super Bowl, neither one is the center of attention. The plot of this game does not revolve around either of them. They aren’t groundbreaking “geniuses.” Nor is this a redemptive journey for either of them. That doesn’t mean that either of them is uninteresting or has a boring back story though, so without further ado, let’s explore who they are and how they got here.

What’s Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak’s story?

Gary Kubiak has been connected in some way with the Denver Broncos for most of his adult life. He was drafted as a quarterback by the team in the eighth round of the 1983 NFL draft. This was the same draft in which the team acquired quarterback John Elway, the number one overall draft pick that year, in a trade. So, Kubiak was not drafted to start, but rather to be the backup quarterback — the break glass in case of emergency option. He remained with the Broncos, playing only when Elway was injured, for his entire nine year career. After he retired, he went almost immediately into coaching. His first job as a coach was for the Texas A&M’s college team, where he served as their running backs coach. This is somewhat remarkable — a former player who wants to get into coaching almost always coaches his own position first. The fact that Kubiak’s first job was a cross-positional job says a lot about who he was as a player (observant, interested in what was going on around him even if it wasn’t directly his responsibility, etc.) and a lot about who he was going to become as a coach. From Texas A&M, Kubiak moved into the NFL as an assistant coach, first for the San Francisco 49ers and then for the Denver Broncos, before getting his first shot at a head coaching job for the Houston Texans in 2006.

In Houston, where he coached for eight seasons, Kubiak became a known quantity. He coaches like an ideal backup quarterback plays the position: steadily, unspectacularly, and reliably. He gets the job done. Look at his seasonal records in Houston, where he inherited an unsteady team:

  • 2006 – 6-10
  • 2007 – 8-8
  • 2008 – 8-8
  • 2009 – 9-7
  • 2010 – 6-10
  • 2011 – 10-6
  • 2012 – 12-4
  • 2013 – 2-11 (fired mid-season)

Until that last season, it’s hard to imagine a more mundane but functionally successful coaching record. As was foreshadowed by his first job as a coach, Kubiak is known for leading offenses that excel at running the ball and whose quarterbacks succeed through being an unremarkable cog in the system. Kubiak doesn’t draw a lot of attention to himself on the sidelines. He doesn’t throw temper-tantrums at refs or scream at his players. The only time he ever became the story was when he collapsed on the sideline in 2013 and had to be taken to a hospital. He had suffered the precursor to a stroke but was thankfully able to avoid any long-term harm.

After a year as offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, Kubiak was hired to become head coach of the Denver Broncos this season by none other than John Elway, Kubiak’s old quarterback buddy from his playing career. This creates an interesting dynamic. After backing up Elway for nine years as a player, Kubiak is back in a subordinate position to him. That’s one way of looking at it, but although team presidents and general managers like Elway can hire and fire coaches, the failure of a head coach is also the primary reason why presidents/general managers lose their jobs. It’s a much more symbiotic relationship than you would expect.

The more interesting plot with Kubiak as coach this year has been his interactions with quarterback Peyton Manning. For most of his amazing career, Peyton Manning has been de-facto offensive coordinator as well as quarterback, designing the offense and calling the shots. Kubiak, as we now know, wants a quarterback to fit into his system, not the other way around. This season could easily be characterized as a struggle between Manning and Kubiak over control of the offense. Because they both have the same goal in mind — winning the Super Bowl — it would be more accurate to say it’s been a collaborative struggle to find a blended approach that works for both men and wins football games. Finally, in the last couple games, they seem to have found it. Kubiak calls plays that put Manning in positions he is comfortable with and Manning executes them in a typically Kubiakian conservative way. It’s gotten them to the Super Bowl. We’ll find out on Sunday if it’s good enough to win.

Super Bowl 50 – Cam Newton and race in football

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

As is true of most American institutions, especially those with histories that go back 100 years or more, professional football has a complex, coded, and cruel history of racism. Although we have undoubtedly made giant strides toward correcting many of the racial issues in society and sports, many remain. The racial issues that remain are almost never talked about openly on television. Instead, they are referred to with a delicate coded language that you have to be on the inside of sports culture in order to catch. As surely as it is my goal on Dear Sports Fan to help people understand the basic terms of football, it is my responsibility to try to help sports outsiders understand the racist history and coded language of football. Super Bowl 50 provides a great opportunity to do this, particularly through the character of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

In my previews of the last two Carolina Panthers playoff games, here’s how I’ve described Newton: “Quarterback Cam Newton is, and always has been a lightning rod for controversy. In college, he won a national championship with Auburn, and it was an even more open secret than with most high-profile college players that he had taken fairly large sums of money under the table for playing there. In the NFL, he’s been the subject of years of criticism for being too self-impressed, too brash, both criticisms that have suspiciously racial overtones. From a strictly football standpoint, he’s been an amazing success. He’s a combination of one of the top ten pure passers in the league with a top ten running back in a single body. Newton ran for over 600 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. This makes him an unusual double-threat for opposing defenses to fret about, especially when the Panthers get close to the goal line.”

For a long time in football, even after the sport had been integrated, African-Americans were barred from playing quarterback either directly or because of unconscious bias on the part of coaches who thought quarterbacks required too much intelligence or leadership to be played well by Black athletes, who they felt were lacking in those qualities. Black players were pointed toward positions like running back, wide receiver, and any defensive role, all of which were thought to reward people with great “athleticism” or “natural talent” — both phrases used to describe African-Americans. The “athleticism” stereotype claims that African-Americans were either bred by slave-owners to be more physical than White people or are somehow genetically superior to White people (which offers an excuse to believe that the reverse could be true morally or intellectually). The “natural talent” descriptor is a subtle way of building on that idea while adding the insulting suggestion that Black athletes don’t practice, train, and study their craft as much as White athletes (who are often described as having “great motors” or as being “hard workers.”

As the cultural ban on African-American quarterbacks receded in the 1990s and 2000s, it was replaced by a new bias. Black people could be quarterbacks, but they wouldn’t do it the same way as White people had. The phrase “Black Quarterback” became synonymous with “running” or “scrambling” quarterback — a player who leveraged his athletic ability and improvisational skill to threaten a defense through passing or by running with the ball himself. Never mind that there had been plenty of White quarterbacks who had played with this style before, and some examples of African-American quarterbacks who did not play with this style (although most African-American quarterbacks have been scramblers… perhaps another example of bias in coaches who accepted Black quarterbacks only if they conformed to a single idea of how someone who looked like one way would play the position). The term “Black quarterback” also offered another way of attaching a derogatory association to African-Americans, because the accepted wisdom is that a scrambling quarterback will generally have a shorter and less successful career than a pocket passing quarterback.

Finally, in the 2010s, the NFL and football culture is beginning to accept that African-American quarterbacks can play the position with all different approaches. What remains of the bias, however, is a desire to control or judge Black quarterbacks on how their non football-related behavior on and off the field. Although the culture seems to be accepting that a Black quarterback may stand in the pocket and pass the ball instead of running himself, it’s still slow to accept that player’s personal expression through his clothing, public comments, and on-field behavior including celebrating with or remonstrating his teammates. This, then, is the final frontier for racial acceptance in football.

Cam Newton is, as I wrote before, almost the perfect lightning rod for all of this racially loaded history and emotion. He is a traditional so-called “Black quarterback” because of his power and proficiency running with the ball, but his equal success throwing the ball defies expectations. He also refuses to adhere to traditional notions of how a quarterback is expected to speak and behave. As a rookie, he famously stated that he wanted to be, not just a football player, but an “entertainer and icon.” This broke an unwritten rule, enforced more stringently, I would imagine, for African-Americans than White players, that players should focus only and obsessively on their sport. (Never mind that his opposite in this game, Peyton Manning, has hosted Saturday Night Live a half-dozen times and seems to be on every third television commercial.) On the field, he celebrates openly, joyously, and if you listen to some of his critics, notoriously. Again, this breach in football-decorum seems to be more noticed and criticized when a Black player breaches it than when a White one does.

If you’re looking for a positive ending to all of this, there is one. In sports, winning seems to wipe away almost all biases. Just by making the Super Bowl, Cam Newton has already silenced and even turned most of his critics. What’s more, the Panthers are favored to win this game, so there’s a good chance that Newton’s impact on race in football is just getting started.

Super Bowl 50 – Deja vu for John Elway and Peyton Manning

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

Nineteen years ago, John Elway was an aging quarterback preparing to play for the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. A star in college, he had entered the National Football League (NFL) with great expectations and fulfilled nearly all of them. He was a prolific passer and won many NFL awards. The only real knock on him was his performance in the playoffs. Despite having been to three Super Bowls, he had never won one. In the lead-up to Super Bowl XXXII, the Broncos were the clear underdogs, facing what seemed like an invincible opponent. Although still a good player, it seemed too much to ask for the 37 year-old quarterback to be the offensive leader. As it turned out, he didn’t need to be. Despite having a terrible statistical day, (he threw for only 123 passing yards, one interception, and no touchdowns,) Elway’s team shocked the world and won the game 31-24. They accomplished this largely by relying on their running game, which was fantastic. Super Bowl MVP, Terrell Davis, had 157 yards and three touchdowns despite missing time with a migraine he suffered mid-game. Thanks to being lifted by his teammates, Elway was finally a Super Bowl champion. Elway played one more year, in 1998, and won the Super Bowl again before retiring. His back-to-back championships followed by retirement completely changed the narrative arc of his career and he is now thought of as one of the best quarterbacks of all time.

This history lesson is relevant for two reasons. Peyton Manning, the current quarterback of the Super Bowl bound Denver Broncos, is even older than Elway was in 1997 and has possibly an even greater potential legacy at risk in this game. Although he has won a Super Bowl, the difference between his performance in the regular season (beyond great) and his performance during the playoffs (he has lost the same number of games as he’s won, 13 each, and his record in Super Bowls is currently 1-2) is a glaring weak spot in his record. If it were simply that Manning reminds football fans of Elway, that would be enough of a parallel to build the plot of this Super Bowl around, but there’s more. John Elway is currently the president of the Denver Broncos. He’s been in charge of the team since 2011 and has been the key architect of this team. During his time as an executive with the Broncos, he made the decision to bring Manning to Denver and he made the decision last year to fire the team’s head coach and replace him with Gary Kubiak. Kubiak, just as a bonus, was the long-time backup quarterback for the Denver Broncos during the John Elway quarterback era.

Like the Broncos did when Elway was an aged quarterback, the Broncos of today will be trying to win the Super Bowl through a strength other than their quarterback. The team 19 years ago led with their rushing attack. This team leads with their smothering defense. In the American Football Conference (AFC) Championship game (which is like a semifinal for the Super Bowl) the Broncos beat the New England Patriots almost completely based on their defense. They hit the Patriots quarterback more times than any quarterback was hit in a single game all year. They’ll try to do the same to the Carolina Panthers quarterback, Cam Newton. If it works, they have a good chance of winning the game and making history repeat itself for John Elway.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

2016 NFL Championship Preview: Arizona at Carolina

The NFL season is like a good season of television. Like the old standard for television shows, it takes place over 22 weeks, with one game (episode) per week. Throughout the season, and over many seasons, football fans are treated to great character development and consistently intriguing plots. The competition to win a Super Bowl, which only one team can be succeed at each year, often feels as epic as Game of Thrones, Scandalor Downton AbbeyI’m always surprised when I talk to non-sports fans who are themselves surprised that I think about football in terms of plot and characters. I don’t think I’m unique among sports fans for following sports in this way, although perhaps most people wouldn’t use those terms. In any case, at this point, with only two episodes and three games left, this year’s arcs feel a little less epic than most. One reason for that is that the last four teams alive in the playoffs are the top four seeds, ranked one and two in each of the two conferences, the AFC and NFC. By earning a top-two seed, these teams got a bye, which means they took the first week of the playoffs off. So, we don’t have a team this weekend that’s coming off two playoff wins, with at least one surprise win. On the other hand, we do have the four teams that played the best over the course of the regular season. We’re set up perfectly for things to get truly epic very soon.

In this post, we’ll preview the plot and characters of the second NFL Championship game, the NFC Championship between the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals. This game is in North Carolina on Sunday, January 24, 2016 at 6:40 p.m. ET on Fox.

What’s the Plot?

In the NFL these days, the offense almost always provides the most compelling characters who drive the plot of the game. That’s true in this game, but it’s worth admitting right up at the top that it’s defense which has driven both of these teams to the success they’ve had this year. Both teams have marvelous defenses, but because they’re evenly marvelous (Football Outsiders has Carolina as the second best defense in the league, Arizona the third,) they cancel each other out, plot-wise. When it comes to defense in this game, it’s safe to say, both teams will be great.

On the offensive side of the ball, we do have some wonderful contrasts. Carolina’s offense has a clear and unquestioned leader in quarterback Cam Newton. A dual running and passing threat, Newton is a young veteran at 26 who is having the best season of his career. He will almost definitely win the league Most Valuable Player award for his play this season. He probably would win the award even if he had had legendary supporting players, but it doesn’t hurt that most people think the other players on the offense are extremely average. Running back Jonathan Stewart has been around for a while, and shown promise before, but has always been brought down by one injury or another. The Panthers wide receivers are what turn Newton’s season from great to spectacular: Tedd Ginn Jr., Philly Brown, Devin Funchess, and Jerricho Cotchery are all totally unremarkable, below-average NFL wide receivers.

Arizona is almost the complete opposite. They’ve taken a very, very good but not great quarterback, Carson Palmer, and surrounded him with an extremely deep and talented bunch of players at wide receiver and running back. There are descriptions of most of these characters farther below, so I won’t go into them too deeply here, but it’s safe to say that any of Arizona’s top five wide receivers would be Carolina’s best or second best wide receiver if they switched teams. At running back, Arizona is actually using their third starter this year, but he may be their best. David Johnson is a rookie who played last year at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s looked completely at ease, and at times dominant, as a starting running back in the NFL. Impressive!

Arizona quarterback, Carson Palmer, is just slightly too good to turn this game into a referendum on whether it’s better in the NFL to have a great quarterback but nothing else on offense or an average quarterback surrounded by great skill players. Instead, let’s take the plot one step back from that dramatic precipice and simply say it’s a referendum on whether an absolutely great quarterback can elevate his supporting characters over a more well-rounded offense with better receivers and running backs but a slightly less dynamic quarterback.

Who are the main characters on the Arizona Cardinals?

Bruce Arians – Head Coach Bruce Arians is almost always the biggest character in the room. He’s an iconoclast who wears his weirdness literally on his head. He’s famous for wearing kangol hats. When it comes to football, he’s ready to try just about anything that might work but he has some clear preferences. On offense, he wants to throw the ball farther down the field more often than any other coach in the league. This high-risk, high-reward strategy asks a lot of the team’s quarterbacks and offensive linemen, which has been a problem in the last two years.

Carson Palmer – The guy throwing the ball down the field for Arians is Carson Palmer. Palmer has had one of the most long-lasting tragic careers in sports. Early in his career, he was seen as being on track to be one of the truly great quarterbacks of his generation. Then, on the first throw of his first playoff game, he completed a beautiful, long pass to receiver Chris Henry (who has since died, so this is a doubly tragic play in retrospect,) and was hit low by an opposing linemen and tore his ACL. The injury was not a career ending injury (clearly) but it altered his path significantly. He’s now seen as a very good player whose greatness was robbed from him, not once, but several times thanks to other injuries. At 36, this isn’t his last shot to reclaim that greatness, but it may be his best shot. It’s hard not to root for Palmer.

Larry Fitzgerald / John Brown / Michael Floyd / Jaron Brown / J.J. Nelson – This is the best set of five wide receivers that any NFL team has ever had. Other teams (including the Pittsburgh Steelers this year) might have had a better top three, but I don’t think any team was as good and as deep as the Cardinals. Larry Fitzgerald (who remains the best football player I’ve ever seen in person. I had the unfortunate pleasure of watching him go for 207 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half against Rutgers in 2003.) is the old man of the bunch. A sensational player who has transitioned into being the world’s best possession receiver, capable of picking up 8 yards whenever his team needs him to. The other four are different varieties of deep threat — insanely fast dudes who are good at running past their defenders and catching the ball. If they start getting it going, just watch and marvel at them.

Who are the main characters on the Carolina Panthers?

Cam Newton – Quarterback Cam Newton is, and always has been a lightning rod for controversy. In college, he won a national championship with Auburn, and it was an even more open secret than with most high profile college players that he had taken fairly large sums of money under the table for playing there. In the NFL, he’s been the subject of years of criticism for being too self-impressed, too brash, both criticisms that have suspiciously racial overtones. From a strictly football standpoint, he’s been an amazing success. He’s a combination of one of the top ten pure passers in the league with a top ten running back in a single body. Newton ran for over 600 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. This makes him an unusual double-threat for opposing defenses to fret about, especially when the Panthers get close to the goal line.

Josh Norman – If you had surveyed a group of football fans a year ago today about who corner back Josh Norman was, you would probably have gotten a lot of blank stares. Now, after the season he had this year, he’s a household name. Norman is one of the rarest commodities in football, a shutdown corner. He will line up opposite a team’s best wide receiver and basically erase him from the game. Quarterbacks have learned that throwing to a player guarded by Norman is close to a no-win situation and it can be a giant loss if Norman gets his hands on the ball. One thing that Norman doesn’t normally do though, is move into the slot (when there are three or more wide receivers on the field, the slot refers to wide receivers that are not one of the ones on the outside edge of the formation,) so he probably won’t be shadowing Larry Fitzgerald.

Luke Kuechly – Middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly is literally at the center of the Panthers defense and he’s figuratively its heart. He’ll be wearing the green dot on his helmet which signifies that he is the only defensive player who gets the play calls radioed in from the coach and it’s his job to communicate them out to the rest of his teammates. Experiment for a few plays and just watch him — he wears number 59 — and marvel at how quickly he figures out what the offense is going to do and gets himself into a position to help stop them from doing it.

Who is going to win?

The obvious choice here is Carolina. They are playing at home and their home field, which will be wet, cold, and in bad shape after a snow storm, should favor their more physical run-laden attack. They also came very close to going undefeated this year and n their first playoff game last week, went up 31-0 against the Seattle Seahawks in the first half, one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen. Compared to that, Arizona looked downright shaky in their first game. Carson Palmer barely played well enough to win, and the team needed overtime and extraordinary heroics from Larry Fitzgerald just to beat the Green Bay Packers, a team not nearly as good as Carolina. Despite all that, or maybe even because of it, I’m going to guess that Arizona wins this game. Both teams’ defenses will pose real problems for the opposition’s offense. I think it’s possible that at home, with all the expectations of being the number one seed and almost going undefeated, there’s a chance this seriously frustrates the Panthers. The Cardinals have struggled before, as recently as last week, and have more recent memories of overcoming. A bad start on offense won’t knock them out of whack, but it might derail the Panthers.

2016 NFL Championship Preview: New England at Denver

The NFL season is like a good season of television. Like the old standard for television shows, it takes place over 22 weeks, with one game (episode) per week. Throughout the season, and over many seasons, football fans are treated to great character development and consistently intriguing plots. The competition to win a Super Bowl, which only one team can be succeed at each year, often feels as epic as Game of Thrones, Scandalor Downton AbbeyI’m always surprised when I talk to non-sports fans who are themselves surprised that I think about football in terms of plot and characters. I don’t think I’m unique among sports fans for following sports in this way, although perhaps most people wouldn’t use those terms. In any case, at this point, with only two episodes and three games left, this year’s arcs feel a little less epic than most. One reason for that is that the last four teams alive in the playoffs are the top four seeds, ranked one and two in each of the two conferences, the AFC and NFC. By earning a top-two seed, these teams got a bye, which means they took the first week of the playoffs off. So, we don’t have a team this weekend that’s coming off two playoff wins, with at least one surprise win. On the other hand, we do have the four teams that played the best over the course of the regular season. We’re set up perfectly for things to get truly epic very soon.

In this post, we’ll preview the plot and characters of the first NFL Championship game, the AFC Championship between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots. This game is in Denver on Sunday, January 24, 2016 at 3 p.m. ET on CBS.

What’s the Plot?

This game is being billed as MANNING VS. BRADY XVII because it is the 17th time the quarterbacks of the teams, Peyton Manning for Denver and Tom Brady for New England, have played each other. That’s a big number for any pair of quarterbacks, but for two who have never been in the same division (and would therefore only play once per year in the regular season,) it’s a huge number. That number includes four playoff games, which is not a surprise because Manning and Brady have been among the most successful quarterbacks in the league over the past fifteen years. This is almost definitely their last meeting in the playoffs. Could there be a better way to end the rivalry? With one last game and a Super Bowl trip on the line?

Until two or three years ago, the conventional way of looking at their rivalry was to believe that Manning was the more prolific player but that Brady was more of a winner. Manning set more records but Brady had a psychological je ne sais quoi that helped him win when the stakes were high. Brady has won four Super Bowls in six Super Bowl appearances, Manning only one in three. Another key difference is that Manning was basically his own coach, managing all of the elements of his team’s offense, while Brady was a masterful piece, but still a cog in a system whose mastermind was coach Bill Belichick. For most of the past fifteen years, you could have a legitimate argument about who was better between the two. Now things have changed, and most people look at Brady and Manning quite differently. At age 38, Brady is still going strong. He looks as good as ever. Calm, almost regal while he plays, and pinpoint accurate as a thrower. Manning, on the other hand, is a mess. His throws wobble all over the place, he was benched for a big portion of the season, and he’s had to accept a form of demotion — he now fits into his coach’s idea about how the offense should operate, not the other way around. The key reason for this change? While each quarterback has suffered a major injury during their career (honestly, how could they not after such long NFL careers?) Brady’s was a torn ACL, something which has become relatively routine to return from, while Manning’s was an unusual neck injury which required spinal surgery and has left him with reduced strength in his throwing arm and a loss of feeling in his hand.

Characterizing a football game as a matchup between two great quarterbacks is a convenient thing to do. Quarterbacks are the highest profile characters and often the single most important players on their teams. With this game in mind, I argued earlier this week that this approach to plot is a legitimate one. Manning vs. Brady is definitely an attractive way of thinking about the plot of this game. Even given the physical disparity between the two quarterbacks’ conditions, it still works. Instead of being an anything you can do, I can do better competition, it’s a pair of individual events. Manning has to overcome his own limitations. He’ll be battling time and his own body to see if he can eek one more great (or, frankly, even average) performance out of himself. Brady will be engaged in a prolonged struggle with an equally daunting but external enemy, Denver’s defense, which is thought of as the very best in the league this year. Whichever team can win their own personal battle will probably win the game.

Who are the main characters on the New England Patriots?

Bill Belichick — It all starts with coach Bill Belichick. Now the longest tenured coach in the league by far (Belichick started in New England in 2000, the next two coaches started at their jobs in 2003 and 2006!), depending on who you talk to, Belichick is thought of as either an evil genius or a benevolent one, but either way, he’s given a lot of the credit for the Patriots’ winning ways. He’s not a stereotypical football coach who screams and yells or tries to motivate his players. He doesn’t give memorable half-time speeches. He just tries (with his assistant coaches) to out-think, out-smart, and out-prepare the opposing team. Before every game, Belichick figures out what the other team is good at and what they’re bad at. Then he decides how to attack them where they’re weak and avoid falling prey to what they are good at. It seems simple, but most teams either can’t figure this out or are unable or unwilling to change what they do fast enough to adjust to their opponent.

Rob Gronkowski — Tight end Rob Gronkowski provides an element of meat to balance Brady and Belichick’s cerebral natures. Gronkowski is a 6’6″ 265 lbs football monster. When he goes down the field to catch a pass, he often looks too big, too fast, and too skilled for the other team to have a chance at stopping him. He looks improbable, like the result of a cheat code in a video game. Then a defender hits him and every Patriots fan in the world gasps. Gronkowski’s one weakness is his health. He seems to always either be seriously injured, hobbled, or one hit away from being one of those things. Right now, reports say he’s suffering from knee and back injuries. Only time will tell if that’s true, but if it isn’t, watch out!

Malcolm Brown / Alan Branch — With Manning limited, the Broncos almost definitely need to run the ball effectively to win this game. The Patriots first line of defense against the run are their two big defensive tackles, Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch. Brown and Branch are classic Patriots finds — the 6’6″, 350 lbs Branch is a veteran player who was cut from several teams before ending up on the Patriots, where he has thrived. The smaller Brown, 6’2″, 320 lbs is a rookie who was picked at the end of the first round by the Patriots in this year’s NFL draft. If these two guys can keep from getting pushed backwards by the Broncos offensive line, it will go a long way toward preventing the Broncos from running effectively.

Who are the main characters on the Denver Broncos?

Demaryius Thomas / Emmanuel Sanders – Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have to do a better job of helping Peyton Manning drive the Broncos offense than they did last week. Last week, they combined for 125 yards and only caught nine of the 16 balls thrown their way. These are low totals for a team’s best two receivers. They’re very different from one another – Thomas is a prototypical new-age NFL receiver. He’s big, 6’3″ and 230 lbs. and aims to make big plays way down field. Sanders makes up for what he lacks in size, 5’11”, 180 lbs, with quickness and precise route running. His tendency is to catch many short passes and try to turn them into big gains by running after the catch. If anything, Manning’s lack of arm strength makes Sanders an even more ideal teammate.

Derek Wolfe / Von Miller / DeMarcus Ware – Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks every, but like all quarterbacks, if you hit him early and often, he can have a bad game. These are the three defenders who are most likely to knock him down and potentially knock him off his game. Wolfe is a gargantuan defensive lineman, Von Miller is a swashbuckling linebacker, and DeMarcus Ware is a savvy veteran still capable of making explosive plays. Watch for these guys to put a little extra mustard on their quarterback hits today…

Who is going to win?

When Denver lost at home in the playoffs last year, it was a stunning loss. The Broncos hadn’t seemed unbeatable, but they were definitely expected to win. This year, despite having the best record in the AFC, their fans are much more wary. If they have hope that Peyton Manning can pull one last (or second to last) rabbit out of his hat, they’re hiding that hope carefully. The Patriots are favored by three points, according to Vegas, which normally gives the home team a three point advantage over however they think the game would go on a neutral field. That means they think the Patriots are actually six points better than the Broncos. I disagree. I think the teams are much closer than that. The Broncos have more talent in their supporting cast, especially on defense, than the Patriots do. Still, the Patriots have the better quarterback and the better coach, and that’s usually enough to win the game, as it will be in this very close AFC Championship game.