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.

Why do NFL players kneel during the National Anthem?

Dear Sports Fan,

Please tell us why NFL players want to kneel during the National Anthem. And explain what, if anything, this has to do with respect or disrespect for the U.S. military.

Thanks,
RKR

— — —

Dear RKR,

The experience of seeing NFL football players kneeling during the National Anthem before a game has become a common one of the past couple of years as has the experience of having their act become a subject of political controversy. As the players’ acts of protest have become more controversial, their intent has become increasingly hidden by claims from outside observers. This makes developing an opinion about whether to support the protests and relatedly, whether the protests are disrespectful toward the American Flag much more tricky. Explanations for the reasoning behind the protest are all over the place. For example, here is the start of the Wikipedia entry on the U.S. National Anthem Protests:

Since August 2016, some U.S. athletes have silently protested against “systematic oppression”,[2] “equality and social injustice”,[3] “racism and injustice in our criminal system”,[4] “oppression of people of color in the United States”,[5] and to not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color”[6] during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.[7] Many players since 2017 have started to protest against the policies of President Donald Trump.[8]*

*It’s worth noting that the sources for those claims are, in order: [2] Sporting News, [3] USA Today, [4] Fox News, [5] SB Nation, [6] NFL.com, [7] Fox News, [8] Fox News. 

As someone who follows sports news and political news quite actively, I am sure that I carry my own share of bias into this answer, so I’m going to do my best to answer your question without editorializing.

The first NFL player to protest during the National Anthem was Colin Kaepernick. On August 14, 2016, the San Francisco 49ers — the NFL team that employed Kaepernick at the time — played the Houston Texans in a preseason game. Kaepernick sat on a team bench during the playing of the National Anthem. He did the same thing the following week during the 49ers preseason game against the Denver Broncos. He did the same thing once more in the 49ers next preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, 2016. This time, a few reporters noticed and asked him questions about it after the game.

This got the story going but it didn’t truly explode until three days later, on August 29, when then presidential candidate Donald Trump was asked about it in a KIRO radio interview by Dori Monson and responded by saying, “I have followed it and I think it’s personally not a good thing, I think it’s a terrible thing. And maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try. It won’t happen.” From that moment on, the story of the protests have become increasingly calcified as an “us vs. them” fight with, generally speaking, protesting NFL players and liberals on one side and the NFL commissioner, (most) NFL owners, President Trump, and conservatives on the other. In order to get the clearest possible picture of why, let’s go back to that brief period between August 26 and 29, 2016 after the protest had been noticed but before they had become a controversy.

The day after that August 26 preseason game, the New York Times and NFL.com each ran stories about Kaepernick’s protest. With the benefit of hindsight, they are noticeably balanced in their portrayal. According to Christine Hauser of the New York Times, Kaepernick’s protest was “a statement against racial oppression.” The NFL.com’s article on the same day by Steve Wyche attributed Kaepernick’s protest to, “what he deems are wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the United States.” Both stories carried a quote from Kaepernick’s post-game interview: 

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Both the New York Times and NFL.com seem to have done a fair job of summarizing Kaepernick’s intent, although neither of them provide the specific context of police violence against people of color that is so obvviously present in Kaepernick’s last sentence. The following week, in the final preseason game the 49ers played that year, Kaepernick was joined in his protest by teammate Eric Reid. This time, both players knelt during the National Anthem instead of sitting. A year after this, Reid wrote an op-ed in the New York Times explaining his reasoning for joining Kaepernick. Reid wrote, “In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police… A few weeks later, during preseason, my teammate Colin Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench during the national anthem to protest police brutality.”

In terms of why they switched from sitting to kneeling, here’s what Reid wrote, “After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

It seems clear that the protest was generally about the oppression of people of color in the United States and specifically about police brutality. Whether you believe it is disrespectful is a more complicated question. I am reminded of a long rambling car-ride conversation on the subject of disrespect I had with a childhood friend who is now a philosophy professor. We were debating whether an act is disrespectful because of the intent of the person doing it or based on how the person on the receiving end perceives it. If you believe it’s based on the intent of the actor, then you may have enough information now to make up your own mind. If, however, (and this was my side of the argument,) you believe that whether something is disrespectful is based on how the other person perceived it, then… well… the question you’re left with is this: who gets to decide whether the National Anthem or the United States Flag feels disrespected? Who speaks for the country? And isn’t that the underlying political question of our time?

It’s not going to be solved here but thanks for reading anyway,
Ezra Fischer

Why does the NFL have preseason games?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why does the NFL have preseson games? What’s the point? As far as I can tell, no one watches them and they don’t count for anything!

Thanks,
Guillermo

— — —

Dear Guillermo,

Before I go off on a long, embroidered explanation about who is interested in the NFL preseason and why, I do want to say that I am a big fan of NFL football and I don’t think I’ve ever watched a full preseason game. So far this year, I’ve glanced at one in a bar while having dinner and that’s it. Lots of people — NFL football fans or not — fall somewhere on the scale from ignoring to despising the preseason. There are three categories of people I can think of who find the preseason to be very important: coaches and some players, gamblers/fantasy football experts, and super-fans.

Why NFL coaches (and some players) care about the NFL preseason

For NFL coaches, the preseason is a chance to see players in an environment as close to real NFL games as possible. Of course, preseason games don’t look, from a fan’s perspective, very much like regular season NFL games. The play is scattered, the drama is missing, and the players are not the ones we’re used to; at least not for very long. Starters tend to play for less than a quarter in most preseason games.

During most of each preseason game, the players on the field whose names you may not recognize are playing for jobs. This is because the number of players an NFL team is allowed to “carry” or have on their team shrinks dramatically at the end of the preseason. During the preseason, teams are allowed to carry 90 players. At the start of the regular season, this number drops to 53. Although there are still some ways for teams to hold on to players and for players to hold on to jobs beyond the 53 during the season, making the 53-player roster is a big deal.

Preseason games are the highest stakes moment in a very high stakes tryout for players who are right on the edge of making it or not in the NFL. Make it, and you and your family stands to gain a lot financially (as long as you stay healthy and productive). Miss it and your path to a career as a professional football player takes a major hit. If you’re interested in what that is like, Charles Siebert wrote an amazing article in the New York Times about a linebacker trying to make the Atlanta Falcons.

While their players are concerned with making the team, coaches are equally focused on choosing the right 53 players to start the season with. While a decision about whether to hire one backup right guard or another may not seem like a big deal to outside observers, NFL coaches famously focused on details. They have to be because there are a very limited number of jobs available for head coaches (32) and it’s a lot easier for teams to fire a coach when things aren’t going well than it is to trade star players.

Preseason games also seem like a good time for coaches to try out new tactics to see if they are going to work in the regular season. While I’m sure that coaches do this a bit on the margins, on the whole they tend not to. They are aware of how closely examined everything they do will be by their competitors and they don’t want to reveal any truly new innovations.

What sports could be shortened?

Dear Sports Fan,

My wife is a sports fan. I love sitcoms. My hobby takes 30 minutes to watch. Hers takes three hours, whether it’s football, basketball, hockey, baseball, or soccer. How is this fair? What sports could be shortened without making them less fun for sports fans?

Thanks,
Sam


Dear Sam,

You have a point – sports games are much longer on average than other forms of entertainment. As a sports fan, I find it hard to commit to watching a two hour movie, but I think nothing of sitting down to watch a three hour football game… or more than one! On its face, this behavior doesn’t make much sense. Why commit to three or six hours when you won’t commit to two? Do I really like sports that much more than movies? Probably not – instead, the difference can be explained by the intermittent nature of sports. The average football game famously only has eleven minutes of action spread out over those three hours. This is an exaggeration, but there are lots of times during a three hour game when a sports fan can safely leave the couch to get a snack or a beer or check their email or… I’ve even been known to read a book while watching a game! That said, you may be on to something. Sports games are long. Can any sports be shortened without losing the essence of their appeal? Would any actually become more exciting by being shortened? Let’s play out the hypothetical of cutting each of the five most popular sports in half and see what happens.

Soccer

Soccer is 90 minutes of running around without much happening. It seems ripe for disruption through abbreviation. The problem is, because there is so little scoring, shortening the game would pose a serious problem. Think there are too many ties now in soccer? Wait until games are only 45 minutes. It’s not just the length. Many soccer games don’t really “open up” until the 60 to 70 minute mark. This is when players start getting tired enough to make mistakes that allow the other team to get some legitimate scoring opportunities. If we are going to shorten soccer, we would at least have to require players to tire themselves out before they begin; say, run a 10k before the game starts.

Verdict: Not a good candidate. Soccer requires a long time for one team to win as it is.

Ice Hockey

Ice hockey doesn’t have soccer’s issue with excitement. Hockey is so exhausting to play that players don’t stay on the ice for more than 45 seconds to a minute at a time anyway. While they are on, they go like gang-busters! A 30 minute hockey game would be just as exciting as a 60 minute one. There are two issues with cutting hockey in half. First, the necessity of rotating players makes hockey a uniquely team-oriented sport. Cut the time in half, and you would definitely be able to get away with having only 3/4 or even 1/2 the number of players, which would harm this aspect of the game. Second, and more conclusively, hockey is one of the most random sports because goals are scored in such a chaotic way. A lot of the time, even watching in slow motion on a high definition television doesn’t help the viewer figure out how the puck went into the goal. The average game in 2016 had 5.45 goals scored. Just enough for the weirdness of the game to even out and the better teams to win most of the time. Cut the game in half, and the better team might not win most of the time. The weirdness could easily overpower the statistical significance of the sport.

Verdict: Ice hockey is just too random to be any shorter than it already is and still have the better team win most of the time.

Baseball

Baseball seems like a great candidate for cutting in half. At its heart, it is a series of one on one interactions anyway. Pitcher faces batter, repeat. Because of this, baseball is the sporting culture obsessed most with statistics. Any change to the game which affects the ability to compare contemporary players to players in the past is fiercely resisted. If that could be overcome, the next obstacle to consider would be the endurance of starting pitchers. A lot of baseball games are decided only when one team’s starting pitcher gets tired enough to make a mistake and the other team is able to start hitting their pitches. Over the past decade, baseball teams have adjusted to patch this vulnerability by substituting relief pitchers in for their starting pitcher earlier and earlier – before he even gets tired. So, in a way, cutting the game in half might create a throw-back to an earlier era, when starting pitchers were expected to pitch complete games. Hmm!

Verdict: It would never happen because of the rabid baseball traditionalists, but if it did, they might find themselves oddly pleased.

Football

Why not football? Football is facing a looming crisis anyway. The brutality of the sport and our new understanding of traumatic brain injuries has already forced a number of changes and promises to force many more, or perhaps end the sport entirely. I’ve thought and written a lot about this issue and my conclusion was that NFL football rosters should be reduced from 53 to 20. This would reduce the specialization of football players that allows for 350+ pound men and 180 pound men who run 20+ miles an hour to coexist on the same field. It would also make it impossible for players to “give 110%” on every play. Slow everyone down, encourage everyone to have bodies optimized for endurance over speed and strength, and maybe players will have the split second they need to avoid calamitous collisions. Cutting the game in half is exactly the opposite of this! It would make every play more important and encourage everyone to play even harder on every play. No way!

Verdict: Not a good idea for players’ long term or short term health.

Basketball

Like football, basketball is played harder than ever these days. If you look at film from the 1980s and compare it to now, it’s radically different. Players in the 1980s were not expected to cover nearly as much ground as they do today. The dominance of the three point shot today means that players need to play high intensity defense in parts of the court that they used to simply allow an opponent to dribble in without being contested. This difference showed up in the playoffs last year, when teams built around a single great player, like James Harden on the Houston Rockets or Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder, fell apart in the fourth quarter when their star got too tired to play effectively. This could be an argument against shortening the game — teams should have to be built in a more balanced way, not around a single player. Basketball is already the sport that is affected most by a single player. One player out of five on the court is more impactful than one out of eleven in soccer, eleven (plus eleven, plus special teamers in football), or one out of nine in baseball. (Hockey has only six on the ice at a time, but because they can only play for a minute or so before they need a rest, the impact of a single player is proportionally smaller.) Basketball is the most star-oriented sport but its length, combined with the way it’s now played is getting in the way of the best players being able to play their best when it matters the most.

Verdict: Let’s do it!

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

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.