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.

Are there Super Bowl rematches every week this NFL season?

Dear Sports Fan,

Is it true there will be a rematch of a prior Super Bowl every week this season?

Thanks,
OmitsWordsByAccident


Dear OmitsWordsByAccident,

Not quite every week, but there are a surprising number of them. In all, there are 19 Super Bowl rematches this season, but not every week has one. The large number of rematches is no coincidence, it’s part of the NFL’s promotional campaign to promote this year’s Super Bowl, the league’s 50th. The exact number of the Super Bowl is always a little confusing. For one thing, the league insists on labeling the game with Roman Numerals instead of numbers. Since most of us were not educated in late 19th century elite prep schools, a number like XLVIII (48) is not intuitively obvious. This year, for the 50th, they are going with the number “50” and not just “L”. For a second level of obfuscation, the Super Bowl for each calendar-year season occurs in the next calendar year. When I was writing a series of posts describing what was special about each NFL team, I was never sure whether to refer to a Super Bowl by the year it was in or the year of the regular season it crowned the champion of. Lastly, the numbering is tricky because it’s hard to remember when the first Super Bowl was.

The NFL is much older than 50 years. It’s first year of competition was in 1920, and by 1930, five of today’s teams: the Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions were in existence. The reason why the Super Bowl is not 95 years old instead of 50, is that it began specifically as an end-of-season competition between the NFL and a competing league, the American Football League. The American Football League was founded in 1959 and began play in 1960 in direct competition to the NFL. By 1970, the two leagues had merged. So, if you count back 49 from 2016, you should get one of those years – 1960 or 1970 – right? Nope – you get 1967, a year that hasn’t popped up in conversation yet. Why? The NFL and AFL actually agreed on and announced their merger in 1966, it just took four years for them to merge the operations of the leagues and begin playing as one. The one major element of merging that they decided to act on immediately was the creation of what they called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game“. It wasn’t until the third such game, in 1969 that the game became known as the Super Bowl.

Celebrating past Super Bowls by inserting rematches into this year’s schedule is a nice idea (although it must have been a tricky scheduling feat). Here, taken directly from the Super Bowl 50 website, with my links, are the games:

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What do football players earn from winning the Super Bowl?

Dear Sports Fan,

What do football players earn from winning the Super Bowl? From the looks of abject despair on the faces of the losers and joy on the faces of the winners, it’s hard for me to imagine that they’re playing just for love of the game.

Thanks,
Devin


Dear Devin,

You sound awfully cynical about the motives of professional football players! You’re right that the players in the Super Bowl were not just playing for love of the game but my guess is that the joy and excitement or despair and anger you saw in the final moments of the Super Bowl were more purely motivated by a desire to win than you expect. There’s a long argument to be had there but instead, let’s focus on the other aspect of your question: what do football players earn from winning the Super Bowl? As with many questions of money, the truth is surprisingly elusive. There are lots of hard-to-know or define details about the potential financial benefit of winning a Super Bowl. There are also some very well known parts of the equation. We’ll start with those.

The National Football League (NFL) itself has a set group of financial rewards that go to players who play in each round of the playoffs, including the Super Bowl. Here are those figures:

  • Wild Card round – $22,000 for members of wild card teams and $24,000 for members of division winning teams.
  • Divisional round – $24,000
  • Championship round – $44,000
  • Super Bowl – $49,000 for members of the losing team and $97,000 for members of the winning team.

There are a complicated set of rules about which players are eligible to receive playoff money. Although the National Football Post has a detailed explanation of how it works here, probably all we need to know is that some amount is given to players who were injured during the season. Even a player who was traded away from a playoff team during the season, like former member of the Seahawks, Percy Harvin, might collect some money. In addition to the amounts above, the NFL sets aside $5,000 per player for a Super Bowl ring. This may not seem like a lot, but the rings are not an insubstantial financial reward, although most players probably regard theirs as mementos rather than an investment. According to Brad Tuttle in his Time article on the topic:

Then we must add in the fact that each of the 150 or so players and coaches on the winning team gets a blingy Super Bowl ring. The NFL allocates $5,000 per ring, but the winning teams are known to spend much more on them. Given how rare and collectible they are, a Super Bowl ring is easily valued at $50,000 to $75,000 and sometimes is worth in the hundreds of thousands if it’s owned by a notable player or coach.

Players do not generally earn salary during the playoffs. At first, it seems awful to ask players to risk their bodies and minds in playoff games without being paid for it, but if you look at it another way, it seems reasonable. Only 12 of 32 teams make the playoffs. If I were an NFL player, I would be far more angry if my salary was only paid to me in full if my team made the playoffs. Whether it’s literally paid during the 17-week regular season or over the 22-week season with the playoffs, or even in even chunks across the entire year would not matter as much. Still, this split between regular season salaries and playoff  payouts from the NFL does lead to some curious differences. Bloomberg has a beautifully illustrated article by David Ingold and Adam Pearce that points out the absurdity of the Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who is still on his relatively limited rookie contract, being able to make up to 20% extra during the playoffs while New England Quarterback Tom Brady capping out at only an additional 1.1% because his normal salary is so big. If it were really all about the NFL payouts, Brady wouldn’t care nearly as much as Wilson about winning the Super Bowl.

There are many other financial factors though. Players can negotiate for performance-based incentives in their contract. Some of these may be playoff or even Super Bowl incentives. It’s hard to know what all of these are for the players on the Patriots and Seahawks, but you can get a hint by looking into each player’s contract history in a tool like Spotrac. Take a look at Patriots tight end, Rob Gronkowski. The last time the team made the Super Bowl, in 2011, he got a $800,000 incentive bonus. I don’t know specifically what that was for, but he didn’t get anything like that much in any other year. Spotrac lists out the performance incentives for Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork for 2014 and they included a $2.5 million bonus for playing 70% of the team’s snaps and making the divisional playoffs. We don’t know the particulars of every player contract but it’s safe to say that some have significant playoff or Super Bowl bonuses worked into them.

The last piece of financial reward is the hardest to quantify. Winning a Super Bowl makes you more famous and well-regarded. Fame can easily transform into endorsement or advertising deals, at least for players in visible positions or who made extraordinary plays. Being regarded helps players get more money during their next contract negotiations. Teams value players who have had the experience of going to and winning a Super Bowl and are sometimes willing to pay extra for a player who has done that.

Put all together, the NFL playoff payouts, the Super Bowl rings, the various possible performance incentives, and the hard to quantify but significant benefit that being a Super Bowl lends a player in future football or business contracts, there is a large amount of money riding on the outcome of the Super Bowl. I still don’t think that’s what players are thinking about in the weeks leading up to the game or even the weeks following it, but it is possible.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Super Bowl XLIX: What was going on after the Patriots' interception?

In my daily podcasts where I give a forecast of the next day’s sports happenings, I always start out with the refrain, “Sports is no fun if you don’t know what’s going on!” That might never have been more true than last night at the end of the Super Bowl. A lot of dramatic things happened very quickly at the end of the game and if you weren’t well versed in football’s rules, tactics, and language, it was probably difficult to understand what was happening. Lord knows, the football fans in the room were too busy screaming and hollering to explain it rationally to you. This morning I ran through the biggest play of the game, the interception that Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler made to win the game. The truth of the matter is that the game wasn’t completely over after that play. There were still  20 seconds on the clock. This was enough time for a few confusing things, including a scuffle between players that almost turned into a brawl, and an important penalty. Here’s what happened after the interception and why.

After Malcolm Butler’s interception, there were 20 seconds left and the Patriots had possession of the ball. With that little time, and with the Seahawks only having one timeout, the rest of the game would normally be a formality. There’s a funny little end-game trick about the NFL. It goes back to the rules we talked about in this morning’s post that dictate when the clock runs and when it stops at the end of a play. The clock keeps running if a player is tackled within the field. Because of a loophole in the NFL rule book, a quarterback can simulate being tackled in this manner by simply kneeling with the football. I wrote a whole post about how the kneeling thing works if you want more details. By kneeling with the ball, a team can run up to 40 seconds off the clock on a single play. With only one timeout, Seattle could only stop the clock once — therefore the Patriots needed to kneel twice to win the game.

The problem for the Patriots was where they had the ball. They were so close to their own goal line that there wasn’t enough room to kneel without kneeling in their own end-zone. Remember that the kneel-down is a simulation of being tackled. If a player is tackled with the ball in his own end-zone, the other team has scored a safety. A safety, (covered in more detail in our post about how scoring works in football) is worth two points. Giving up two points wouldn’t have been the end of the world for the Patriots because they were up by four points, but after a safety, the Patriots would have had to kick the ball to the Seahawks. Given even as few as 15 seconds, the Seahawks could possibly have completed a pass or two and kicked a game winning field goal. No way did the Patriots want to risk that!

The Patriots had two options. They had to either call a play that moved the ball forward and then execute it without mistakenly turning the ball over to the Seahawks — a dangerous proposition — or they could try the sneaky way out. As is their M.O., the Patriots went sneaky. They lined up for the play and then just sat there while Tom Brady hollered and screamed to make the Seahawks think he was about to snap the ball and start the play. Movement on both sides of the ball before the play begins is heavily regulated. If members of the offense flinch, their team gets a false start penalty. If members of the defense come across the line of scrimmage where the ball is and touch the offense or force the offense to move in response, they have committed an encroachment penalty. The Patriots knew that Seattle’s defense was furious at the change of fortune from the interception and that they understood the only chance they had left was to tackle whoever had the ball in the end-zone. The Patriots used Seattle’s aggression against them and tricked them into taking a penalty.

The penalty moved the ball five yards up the field and with that much room, the Patriots could easily kneel the ball twice (kneel, Seahawks use their last timeout, kneel again and the clock would run out) and win the Super Bowl. The Seahawks knew that too and the Patriots knew they knew that. It’s customary in these situations for the defense to allow the kneeling to happen. It’s virtually impossible for a defender to get to the quarterback after the ball is snapped but before he can kneel. All that can reasonably happen is an injury. Whether it was because of the unique situation before the penalty where attacking the kneel-down was a reasonable thing to do or just because the Seahawks were angry, they attacked. When this happened, the Patriots got a little angry back at them, more for breaking with convention than anything else, and there was a little bit of a brawl. Once the brawl ended, the Patriots kneeled one last time and then began the celebration in earnest.

Hopefully that made some sense out of what was legitimately a confusing situation, even for football fans. Thanks for reading!