Super Bowl hype revolved around Peyton Manning and his legacy. Max White explains how the need to define individual greatness in our sports narratives misleads us into believing that great players can beat great teams.
This year’s Superbowl was supposed to be a referendum on Peyton Manning’s legacy. If he won, then he would be universally considered the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). If he lost, then his legacy would be open to interpretation. Some people still might have considered him the GOAT, but most probably wouldn’t.
This narrative, though, assumed that Manning would play a pivotal role in the Super Bowl. That if the Broncos won, it would be on the strength of Manning’s multiple touchdowns. If the Broncos won but Manning didn’t throw any touchdowns, somehow his guidance and leadership would have inspired the rest of the team to overachieve and compensate for a crippling barrage of injuries to defensive starters. If hell froze over and the Broncos won the Super Bowl 7-6 behind a special teams’ touchdown and a stout performance by the defense, Manning still would have been at the center of the narrative. Oh, the power of a silly little narrative.
If the Seahawks’ evisceration of the Broncos taught us anything—and this should be a lesson we’ve already learned—it’s that the best team wins the championship game, not the best player. (NBA excluded, of course, but we all know the NBA playoffs are about as real as Wrestlemania. I’m convinced that one of these years, very soon, a Heat player will clock a ref with a steel chair and, by doing so, add 200 points to the Miami score, but I digress.).
And there were plenty of media pundits who did, in fact, pick the Seahawks to win the Super Bowl. By and large, their explanations invoked the best team principal, and acknowledged that one player, no matter how great, cannot win a Super Bowl by himself. But even those predictions centered on Manning, thereby assuming that he would play a pivotal role in the game, for better or worse. And in some sense Manning did play a pivotal role in the game—he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, accounting for three turnovers that probably lost the game all by themselves—but was that role a product of his own making, or the result of a dominant and relentless Seahawks defense that quite simply was not going to allow Peyton Manning to play like Peyton Manning?
My take is that Manning really had no chance in Sunday’s game, something that at least a few Seahawks said in several different ways during postgame interviews. Many pundits concurred, and added that no other quarterback would have fared any better. The fact is that the Seahawks defense was so much better than the very best offense in the league that the Super Bowl amounted to an historic blowout; hard to believe when you’re talking about a Denver offense that scored more than 600 points this year behind Manning’s record-setting performance.
As a result, yesterday (the day after the game) saw more than a few commentators reassessing their understanding of how to win a Super Bowl. What they failed to address, however, was the way in which sports commentators tend to construct narratives centered around identifiable, familiar, and iconic players rather than new, unfamiliar, and in some cases unrecognizable players. That is the matter I’d like to address, here.
It seems to me that sports fans and commentators are involved in some kind of collective search for a hero. They’re looking for a player, a coach, a manager—heck, an owner is some cases—who can rise above the mediocrity that surrounds him, put the team on his back, and deliver a championship.
Hence the story goes that in his final two years as a player, John Elway put the Broncos on his back and delivered back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Sure, Terrell Davis gets his props, but those Broncos championships are still all about Elway.
Now, the narrative is that Elway, the front office executive, puts the Broncos on his back again—along with his buddy Peyton—with hopes of delivering another championship to Denver. Or that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will make one last championship run together, recapturing their glory days that look more and more like the result of strong defenses. Or that Drew Brees and Sean Payton will outsmart and outgun the league and reward their loyal, diehard fans with another parade down Bourbon Street.
None of those story lines materialized this season. The Broncos got blasted in the Super Bowl, the Patriots got punted in the AFC Championship, and the Saints got sacked in the Divisional Round.
Instead of our conventional heroes hoisting the Lombardi trophy and confirming yet again that one or two great men can save a nation, an unconventional family of yoga practicing, health food eating, positive thinking players from Cascadia passed around the trophy and asserted that they employed a simple game plan completely in line with what they’d done all season. This strategy originated in Coach Pete Carroll’s philosophy, which he enumerated to the NFL Network’s post-game crew, that players play best when you give them all the positive energy, resources, and support they need to succeed, and that the team whose players play best are the teams that win Super Bowls.
On yesterday’s edition of The Herd with Colin Cowherd, Cowherd speculated that Carroll’s laidback, stripped-down approach might have helped relieve his players of the otherwise overwhelming stress that can accompany a big game, and that this approach contrasts with Manning’s intense, overbearing, micromanaging approach that can make his teammates nervous and anxious. Cowherd pointed to the Broncos’ opening snap as support for this hypothesis, and I think he’s right.
So what does this tell us about the hero narrative? Well, according to that narrative, Manning’s the goat, not the GOAT. But that narrative emphasizes irrelevant aspects of the game and is incapable of capturing the truly terrific play of Seattle’s defense. Indeed, Peter King wrote that he wished he could have voted for the entire Seahawks defense for Super Bowl MVP, but that the award had to go to a single player.
By nature, MVP awards identify singular excellence among groups of players; they reward, but do not encourage, greatness. Despite his three turnovers, Manning set a Super Bowl record for completions with 34. The stat was meaningless, of course, as was Demaryius Thomas’s record for Super Bowl receptions. Malcolm Smith, the de facto MVP because he happened to be in the right place at the right time to grab Manning’s errant pass and return it 69 yards for a touchdown, might have had less impact on the game than pass rusher Cliff Avril, but Avril’s contributions didn’t end up in the box score. If we were to go by box score alone, perhaps Manning, even in defeat, should have been the MVP. Wouldn’t that have been a nice consolation to losing the Super Bowl? And doesn’t it seem as if the best individual performances always come from players on losing teams? Can that really be a coincidence?
My take is that the GOAT narrative—the search for a hero—results from a cultural aversion to collectivity and teamwork. We all want to feel empowered, that if we work hard enough, we can change the world. We don’t want to admit that there are things we can’t impact, things we can’t change, things we can’t control. And yet nothing could be more true.
Peyton Manning couldn’t change the Seahawks’ incredible pass rush and couldn’t magically transport the football sixty yards downfield for a score. When the support system around him crumbled—primarily his offensive line—he fell, too. What the GOAT narrative overlooks is precisely this, the integrated and communal element of team sports that more often than not leaves pundits searching for answers to predictions gone awry.
When the Super Bowl media hype revolves around Manning and his legacy, around the GOAT debate, it encourages this aversion to collectivity and teamwork. It encourages us to think that somehow, we’re different from the next guy. That we’re special. It’s a great way to generate ratings and get viewers engaged, but it’s a terrible way to predict a Super Bowl. The Seahawks showed us all that we’re not special, not different from the next guy; at least not by ourselves. Hopefully, this is a lesson that we learn. And maybe, just maybe, the next time a team like Seattle runs into a potential GOAT, no one will be surprised when the better team beats the better player.
Photo: Charlie Riedel/Associated Press