What Jerry Jones, & the NFL, Can Learn from Detroit

>> 2.11.2011

Michigan Central Station, Detroit MI

This is the Michigan Central Station. It’s familiar to Detroiters as the avatar of the city’s decline. Any national “Woe is Detroit” story has to be accompanied by an image of this beautiful, awful edifice.  Designed by the same firm that penned New York’s Grand Central Terminal, the Beaux-Arts Classical visage of this 18-story monolith contains a message for the NFL.

The MCS was built to accommodate a large volume of rail traffic, part of a grand vision to unite the station and the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel to Canada along the main Detroit-Chicago railway line. The 18-story tower was to provide office space for the future businesses sure to spring up around the new transportation hub.

That’s right, the city’s new main train depot was not in the heart of the city. Situated along the main line, as opposed to the branch that ran through downtown, passengers got to and from the station via intercity trains and shuttles, at least until 1938. Unfortunately, thanks to the Great Depression, that development never really came—and the original designers hadn’t planned on people driving there, so there was no passenger parking lot.

After World War II, the automotive revolution that fueled the growth of the Motor City sapped the MCS of much of its relevance. At various points throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies, the station was put up for sale, partially shut down, sold off, partially re-opened, shut down, and sold off again, until 1988, when the last Amtrak train rolled out of Michigan Central Station. It cost fifteen million dollars to build in 1913. It was put up for sale (with no takers) for five million in 1961, and eventually changed hands several times for undisclosed sums in the 80s and 90s, with rumored prices as low as $80,000.

Now it sits empty. Now looters have stripped it of wiring and fixtures. Now it’s a quietly decaying monument to a bygone era of unbridled growth and fantastic excess: too far gone to revive, far too beautiful to tear down, and far too ugly to let stand.

“Unbridled growth” and “fantastic excess” are apt descriptions of the state of the NFL. While America’s economic belt has been slowly tightening for several years, the NFL’s revenues have exploded. In a time when cable and satellite offer hundreds of viewing options, and America has never split its TV focus so wildly, the NFL’s ratings continue to smash records. Attendance has been flat at nearly the maximum possible numbers; even the Lions sold out all but one of their home games.

The NFL and NFLPA scheduled two negotiating sessions this week, and the first one went so poorly that the second one was cancelled. The rumored dividing point was the most basic one, the one that started it all: how to divide all the money that the NFL earns. The owners already receive the first billion of revenue off the top, to cover expenses.  The owners want to increase that by 18%, to cover anticipated capital investments in the game that will bring in more revenue. What capital investments—designed to bring in revenue—could require that much money?

Cowboys-Stadium-Innovative-Stadium-by-HKS-in-Dallas-United-States-4This is Cowboys Stadium. This $1.1 billion-dollar edifice sits on a 140-acre site a 45 minute drive from downtown Dallas. Its 300 luxury suites, along with its concessions stands, bars, and restaurants—not to mention auxiliary attractions like a football-inspired art gallery—provide huge streams of revenue that have little to do with watching a live football game. In fact, “live” might not be the best way to watch a football game inside Cowboys Stadium: there are 2,900 TVs scattered throughout the dome, plus the infamous titan that hangs over the field, a sixty-yard HD monitor able to display a blue whale at a 1:1 scale.

Nicknamed “Jerryworld” after the Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, this stadium marks the endpoint of one stadium-building craze, and perhaps the beginning of another. In the mid-90s, teams explored the brave new salary-cap world, and realized that unshared revenue like luxury suites and concessions not only didn’t have to be shared with other owners, it didn’t have to be shared with the players! This kicked off almost two decades of teams building new stadiums filled with luxury suites and swank accommodations. Teams, for the most part, took advantage of easy credit and/or public financing. Jones used $325 million worth of public funds, secured $625 million of credit—and received a $150 million loan from the NFL.

That's the money the owners are looking to keep from the players: nearly a billion dollars a year to help build the Vikings’ Zygiworld, the Bills’ Ralphworld, and many others. Even the Panthers, a team whose stadium is was built in 1996, are already talking about building another one. Over the next ten-to-twenty years, most NFL cities will feel the pressure to either build a similar monuments to unbridled growth and fantastic excess—or risk their teams’ Ownerworld being built in another town.

The problem is, it’s not sustainable. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote, brilliantly, that Super Bowl XLV’s rough edges hint at the fault lines running through the “billionization” of the NFL:

It's not clear what the pain threshold of the average NFL fan is: Thirty-two owners digging relentlessly in our pockets haven't found the bottom yet. But the NFL would be advised to recognize that it's getting close. Those folks who found themselves without seats? Many were among the league's most loyal paying customers, season ticket holders. Yet they were treated like afterthoughts, awarded half-built, jerry-rigged seats, folding chairs on auxiliary platforms. Which begs the question of what the "NFL fan experience" really means anymore.

The NFL’s surge in popularity has granted it great profits in the face of an economic downturn—but that downturn is real. Municipalities are out of stadium-building funds; free stadiums, like the one Hamilton County built the Bengals, don’t come with sixty-yard TVs. The credit bubble has burst; loans are much tougher to secure—and imagine how big Jerry’s mortgage payments must be on his borrowed $725 million! Roger Goodell said it himself, in his email to fans:

“Economic conditions, however, have changed dramatically inside and outside the NFL since 2006 when we negotiated the last CBA. A 10 percent unemployment rate hurts us all. Fans have limited budgets and rightly want the most for their money. I get it.”

If Jerryworld is the template for new stadiums going forward, I don’t think he does. He—and the owners—need to learn a lesson from Michigan Central Station. It cost about  $335 million in today’s dollars—almost exactly the same amount the city of Arlington paid for Jerryworld. If the CBA is not extended, that massive revenue pie owners and players are fighting over will shrink. Even with the public thirst for football, the Cowboys pushed the envelope. If that thirst is quenched by other sports during a needless lockout, they’ll be unable to fill Jerryworld, or Zygiworld, or Stephenworld once play begins again.

America’s cities can’t afford to drain their public coffers again. Americans can’t afford to blow their personal budgets on even-more-expensive tickets, parking, and concessions. America—for our entertainment, and for the thousands, maybe millions whose livelihood depends directly or indirectly on professional sports—needs the NFL to keep chugging along.


Shaun Rogers: Once and Future Lion?

>> 2.10.2011

This is how I like to remember Shaun Rogers. Likely, it’s how you like to remember him too: an impossible combination of size and athleticism. A relentless, disruptive force that demanded—and overwhelmed—double-teams. A goofy, lumbering country boy, simultaneously awkward and balletic, gamboling and galloping, groan-inducing and breathtaking.

Shaun Rogers had some incredible highlights in his seven years as a Lion—and more than a few lowlights, too. For the most part, when the Lions dealt him to Cleveland, fans knew it was simply time to part ways. Of course, it stung when he immediately made an impact there—especially as the 0-16 Lions’ defense was manhandled by opposing offensive lines. As opposing running backs averaged 5.1 yards per carry against the helpless, hapless Lions, we looked south to Cleveland and got all nostalgic. As the Dawg Pound swooned over Rogers’ ability, many of us were bitterly jealous.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long. Thanks to a perceived slight by new coach Eric Mangini, Rogers asked the team to not pay his option bonus, presumably to finagle a quicker trade or release. Eventually, the ice between Rogers and Mangini thawed, or at least partially so. From that Akron Beacon-Journal come successive paragraphs that sum up everything you need to know about Shaun Rogers:

Rogers insists he can still dunk. ''All day,'' he said. Two hands? ''Two hands. All day. Vertical? 360? What you want?'' Rogers said. Two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said dunking is probably the least of what Rogers can do. ''He tests better than any player on the team when we do testing in the spring,'' Thomas said. ''He's faster than any lineman, offense and defense. He can jump higher. He's got incredible speed. He's probably a 4.6, 4.7 guy.'' Anderson doesn't think a healthy Rogers can be blocked. ''Not when he's going and he's healthy and rested, there's not a human being who can stop him one-on-one,'' Anderson said. ''I've seen him take double-teams with his body and one arm and get through guys. He spins . . . he's a freak.''

. . . and then the flip side:

Former Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli told former Tampa Bay Bucs and Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp that Rogers didn't want to be featured in Detroit. ''Rod Marinelli went to Detroit (in 2006), showed Shaun Rogers my tape and said, 'I'm going to get you one on one,' '' Sapp, now on Showtime's Inside the NFL, said last month in New York. ''Shaun Rogers looked at Marinelli and said, 'What if I don't want to be one on one?' ''Gilligan wanted off that island, too, right? That island is a lonely place. Either you want it or you don't. The great ones do.''

Shaun Rogers’ talent, his potential, his upside—it’s intoxicating. It’s addictive. But, to borrow a phrase, he’s a grown-ass man. He’s 31. He’s—if visual evidence is any indication—way over his listed 350, possibly over 400. He’s been unable to stay healthy, getting just 12 starts and 26 games played in the last two seasons—and when he’s played, he’s been less effective; he has just 41 tackles and 4 sacks in that time.

Now, he’s been released--and unlike other free-agents-to-be, he can actually be signed right now. Should the Lions bring him back to Detroit? As a commenter on the Browns blog Dawgs by Nature said:

Shaun had become a part-time part-timer. At his age and given his shape/condition it’s better to get rid of him, rather than overpay him. He’ll sign for a fraction of that amount somewhere. I’d be happy if it were Cleveland, but not at $5mill.

He’s a rotational player who’s struggling to stay healthy. As a 400-pound two-gap tackle, he doesn’t have a clear role in this defense, either. He’d essentially take up Sammie Hill’s role, but Hill is a very young, very raw, developing player whose best football is all in front of him. As amazing as it still is to daydream about a 400-pound man who can run a 4.6 40 and dunk from a standstill, Shaun Rogers is a ten-year veteran. He was Matt Millen’s third-ever draft pick. He is what he is. He’s not going to realize that incredible potential any sooner than Dominic Raiola is grow two inches and add thirty pounds of muscle.

Those of you who say, “But what if he really is motivated to play? What if a change of scenery does him good?” Well, then are a dozen wannabe 3-4 teams out there who need a nose tackle more than the Lions need a fifth DT to rotate—and they’ll certainly be willing to pay more than the Lions will. The case is stronger, and the role is clearer, for Albert Haynesworth—and I’m not all that anxious to get him on the Lions’ roster, either. The Lions’ defensive line, both starters and depth, was the strength of the team in 2010. Players like Sammie Hill and Andre Fluellen made major contributions late in the year, and both of those players haven’t yet hit their primes.

I’d rather the Lions continue to try to win like the Packers, always thinking about the future, than try in vain to recapture the recent—godawful—past.


The Detroit Transplant’s Lions Nike Pro Combat Kits

>> 2.09.2011

The Detroit Transplant is a very cool Detroit-focused sports blog, penned by a graphic designer named Doug. Last year, he (along with the rest of us) learned that that the NFL had chosen Nike to begin supplying all uniforms and apparel in 2012. Doug mulled the possibilities, and late last year applied his considerable talents to four possible Lions Nike Pro Combat uniforms.

Here’s my favorite, a reboot of the infamous black alternates:


I loved this one, especially the detail of the blue tire tread patter on the numbers, sleeves, and socks. However, I was less enthused by the liberal application of black in the home and away concepts; in my mind they look very “Panthers” and not very Lions. Doug responded to similar feedback with a second set of three Lions Nike Pro Combat concepts; they’re very much to my liking. The white helmet, especially, intrigues me.

However, as cool as these designs are, and as much fun as we’re about to have discussing them, I feel compelled to note: I love the current unis. I think they’re the perfect balance between unmistakably the Detroit Lions’ uniforms, and being fresh and up-to-date.  They’re clean, they’re classy, they have a touch of style in the numbers. I think the Lions finally got the uniforms perfect, and I’m worried the move to Pro Combats will mess them up.

As you can see in Doug’s designs, the busier, Oregon-esque stuff looks really cool on the second-skin fabric . . . but simple, clean looks just don’t look clean. It’s almost as though the fit and finish of the Pro Combat uniforms not only enable intricate patterns and nontraditional design elements to look good, but demand them. Otherwise, it just looks like dudes out there in long johns.

To that end, Doug Tweeted (@drdougfresh) that he's going to start working on a complete brand ID package for the Lions. He warns that "traditionalists" like myself may not care for it . . . but I'm looking forward to it anyway. Thoughts'?


Lions Announcement "Big," Likely Not Awesome

>> 2.08.2011

Sean Yuille at Pride of Detroit noticed that WXYZ’s Tom Layden fired off a very interesting Tweet on Monday Night. It said that the Lions would make an announcement tonight at 7 pm, and it would be “something big.” Sean, though,  followed the breadcrumbs amazingly well. Since it’s a scheduled announcement rather than an immediate release or presser, it’s likely not anything having to do with the on-field product. Since it’s an WXYZ talent that broke the story, it may well have something to do with that channel. Therefore . . . the announcement is likely that WXYZ will get the broadcast rights to the Lions’ preseason games this year.

Tom Kowalski said he couldn't confirm it, but Sean's guess was his guess too. Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press said that’s her best guess, too. John Niyo of the Detroit News flatly stated, “Lions ditching Ch. 62 for Ch. 7 for preseason games.” This, as Sean said, would be welcome news; last year’s preseason game broadcasts were flatly awful. Sean even chronicled all of the wretchedness of the WWJ production last year:

Perhaps I'm being a little too tough on WWJ considering they aren't used to covering football games, but I'm sorry, this is the NFL. The quality of the broadcast should not rival that of a public access show. Heck, I think my local high school's TV station does a better job of covering football than this. There's no excuse for having so many errors and in general just doing a terrible job of covering the game.

I’ve had some folks ask things along the lines of, “But what if that’s not it? What if it’s [insert something about player or coach movement]?” Here’s the thing: there is no free agency.  There are no free agents right now, restricted or un-. There may, or may not be, a salary cap going forward. I suppose the Lions could come to terms with a player already under contract, but doing so in this uncertainty would be foolish, at best.

Further, I don’t think there are any openings in the Lions’ coaching staff—OC Scott Linehan and DC Gunther Cunningham did amazing jobs in the past season; even with the staff meltdown in Tennessee, I don’t see a coach who’d be an upgrade at any of the Lions position coach spots (not counting never-gonna-happen silliness like former Titans OC Mike Heimerdinger coaching our WRs). I could see a front office change, something like Shack Harris retiring, and the Lions hiring his replacement, but again—they wouldn’t schedule an announcement like that 24 hours in advance, and leak it to one media outlet; it’d be a press release or a quickie press conference.

No, as desperate as we are for Real Lions News, nothing Earth-shattering will be going down tonight. With luck, WXYZ will be able to give the Lions 2011 preseason games (if, please God, they happen) the professional HD treatment they deserve.


Three Cups Deep: Winning Like the Packers

Green Bay Packers QB and Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers #12 holds up the Lombardi Trophy with former NFL QB and Fox Sports broadcaster Terry Bradshaw after the Green Bay Packers defeat Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 to win Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.Congratulations to the Green Bay Packers. Congratulations to Aaron Rodgers, MVP. Congratulations to Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson, a great coach and a fantastic franchise architect. Congratulations to all the awesome Packer bloggers, through whom I’ve been living vicariously throughout the playoffs. Most of all, congratulations to the Packers’ owners: their fans.

Last season, I wrote a post called “Winning Like the Saints.” In it, I talked about how the NFL is a copycat league—but they often copy wrong. When the Dolphins deployed the Wildcat, they were wildly successful; most teams in the NFL spent the next summer experimenting with some sort of Wildcat or Pistol formation. The Dolphins’ use of the Wildcat, though, was an intelligent response to a desperate situation: they weren’t winning games, and needed a way to maximize their only talent advantage: two strong tailbacks. The reason they went to the Wildcat is because most teams don’t have two strong tailbacks.

The way to copycat the Dolphins was not to “run the Wildcat” with whoever was on the roster, but to have smart coaches who’ll schematically maximize the talent they have. The Saints were a perfect example:

Think about it. What did Drew Brees do so well at Purdue? Pick defenses apart with short-range passes out of multi-WR sets. As a conventional quarterback in San Diego, he was at best inconsistent and at worst a failure. In New Orleans, Sean Payton asks him to do only what he’s excellent at; people think Brees is now “better” than Peyton Manning, which flatly isn’t true.

Sean Payton figured out that Reggie Bush is Kevin Faulk, not Marshall Faulk, and employs him in only in that role—to great success. Payton figured out that Robert Meacham is a short-yardage monster, and employs him in that role—to great success. Payton knew that with his fast-scoring, high-powered offense, he needed an aggressive, blitzing defense that could protect a lead. He hired hyperaggressive DC Gregg Williams to install such a defense, even though he had to give up $250,000 of his own money to do so!

Ironically the Dolphins, having found a way to maximize their talent, latched onto it as their offensive identity. They began reaching for marginal players that fit the scheme, rather than continuing to adapt and respond. This season, their powerful offense fizzled out, as the no-longer-novel Wildcat failed to surprise—and the relative lack of talent prevented the Dolphins from running a conventional offense well. Head coach Tony Sparano was nearly replaced by Jim Harbaugh as a result. Sparano’s eventual extension came hand-in-hand with the departure of Dan Henning—the offensive coordinator who implemented the Wildcat to begin with.

Don’t this next bit wrong: I don’t mean to demean the Packers’ coaching staff. Mike McCarthy is respected schemer, instrumental in getting the most out of both Favre and Rodgers—and, we’re now finding out, he’s a gifted motivator as well. Further, DC Dom Capers’s long track record of innovation and success is well-known, and his defense was magnificent this year. However, this Super Bowl belongs to Ted Thompson.

Thompson, the Packers’ GM, has long been a target of criticism—not least of which from Packers fans—because he approaches team-building in an unconventional way. His first major moves as GM were to let perennial All-Pros Marco Rivera, Mike Wahle, and Darren Sharper walk. His first draft pick was Aaron Rodgers, after the top quarterback prospect fell all the way to the 24th pick. Thompson continued to draft for value, build slowly, refuse to re-sign aging veterans for a penny more than he valued them at, and—with a notable exception in Charles Woodson—eschew free agency almost entirely. It was a long, slow process, that was successful in maddening fits and starts: 4-12, 8-8, 13-3, 6-10, 11-5.

It must be (and has) been said: Thompson had the temerity to sent Brett Favre packing when it was time. Thompson had the confidence in McCarthy and Rodgers to make the correct move for the franchise. When the first season of the Rodgers Era ended with a 6-10 record, and he was asked about coaching staff changes, Thompson replied, “That’s not my bailiwick.” When the Packers’ offensive line again struggled badly to protect Rodgers at the start of 2009, the tide of public sentiment fully turned. Aaron Nagler of Cheesehead TV, up until then one of his most faithful supporters, vehemently outlined Thompson and McCarthy’s failures.

Of course, the very next game, Daunte Culpepper "led" the Lions into Lambeau, and the slaughter that ensued kicked off a 9-3 run to the playoffs. However, a notable undercurrent of anti-Thompson sentiment still ran through the Packers’ fanbase. I repeatedly encountered Pack fans on blogs and Twitter and elsewhere who were convinced McCarthy was the right guy—but successful in spite of Thompson’s lackadaisical talent management. “firetedthompsonnow.com” was registered in March of 2010 . . .

. . . now, all that’s hosted there is a picture of Thompson, overlaid by the words “I’m not afraid to admit it. I was wrong. Congrats Ted.Thompson’s vindication comes not only in the winning of a championship with Aaron Rodgers, while Favre sits at home, disgraced, but in the Packers doing it with the bottom half of their roster. The Pack’s stunning injury losses, and subsequent triumph, proved the top-to-bottom quality of the house Thompson’s built.

So, how do you win “like the Packers”? It’s not by having a #1-overall-pick-caliber quarterback fall into your lap at the bottom of the first, making him wait three years to play, or pushing his veteran superior out the door. It’s not by having a raft of intelligent, talented, hardworking receiving targets. It’s not by deploying a multiple-look 3-4 defense,  or having two great complementary cornerbacks. You win “like the Packers” by building the roster through the draft. You win “like the Packers” by refusing to compromise your long-term vision with stopgap solutions. You win “like the Packers” by refusing to pay a player more than he’s worth, for any reason. You win “like the Packers” by meticulously building a championship-caliber roster, that rolls 53 men deep.

Martin Mayhew is not Ted Thompson. He lacks Thompson’s public idiosyncrasies. He’s been slightly more cognizant of immediate need—see Foote, Larry—and is okay with stopgaps for the right price. Thompson has been judicious in signing players, while Mayhew has churned the roster with incredible vigor: literally hundreds of players have been a Lion for at least a day since Mayhew took over. Then again, Thompson didn’t start with a truly talentless, 0-16 team—who knows what Ted’s approach would have been in Martin’s place?

On the whole, though, Mayhew’s strategy has been much like Thompson’s: the Lions have built their current roster almost entirely through the draft. When they’ve reached into free agency, they’ve been swift and decisive; as in the brilliant all-in move for Kyle Vanden Bosch. The Lions have also refused to pay more than they feel a player is worth. Foote’s arrival was delayed because the Lions refused to part with any more than a seventh-rounder for him. When the Steelers insisted on more, the Lions called their bluff—and got Foote for nothing when the Steelers released him.

Over this offseason, look for both men to stay the course: drafting the best player that fits a need, making judicious moves when the value is there, and being willing to part with unneeded parts. Between the Packers’ injured players coming back, and the Lions’ third full offseason of reconstruction, both teams will be in position to win several more games than they did this year—and both teams will be built to last.

Strap yourselves in, folks--this is going to be a hell of a ride.


The Super Bowl, the Hall of Fame, and Greatness

>> 2.06.2011

                  15 January 2011: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) drops back to pass in first half action of the Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons NFC Divisional playoff at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Georgia.    03 January 2010: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) plays against the Miami Dolphins  in the Steelers' 30-24 victory at Land Shark Stadium, Miami, Florida.

Yesterday, the 2011 induction class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame was announced. Today, the Packers and Steelers will play in Super Bowl XLV. At stake is the Lombardi trophy, a championship ring, and a slice of greatness. With a spectacular performance—or even a single spectacular play—any of the 90 men active for this game has the chance to write his name in the history books. Whether it’s an also-ran like David Tyree, or a young veteran like Santonio Holmes, or a superstar like Peyton Manning, the Super Bowl provides a direct path to football immortality.

The Hall of Fame, though, is football immortality, literally. Once a player’s bust is enshrined, it’s not ever coming out—and future generations, whether they know that player as a legend or don’t know him at all, will be see that bust and know that he was great. Not just good, not just very good, but great . . . right?

When players are on the cusp of induction, we often hear the phrase “It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Very Good.” Usually, we hear it immediately before someone says a consistently good, but never dominant, player shouldn’t be in the Hall. There’s something that bugs me about that phrase, though: the semantic difference between a “very good player” and a “Hall of Famer” isn’t greatness . . . it’s fame. It may not be the Hall of Very Good, but it’s not the Hall of Great, either.

On Saturday evening, my tweep @derylgarland linked me to a brand-spanking-new football blog, “Outside the Hashes.” The author, Monte McNair, wrote an awesome piece called “The Championship Myth” where he discusses the tenuous link between playoff game boxscores and a player’s relative worth:

People tend to react to an outcome retroactively as if it were a certainty, when we live in a world of probabilities. Brady started his postseason career a perfect 10-0, but is just 4-5 in his last 9 games. Did he instantly turn from a clutch performer into a middling playoff QB? No, it is much more likely that Brady was simply the recipient of some good luck early on (think the Tuck Rule game) and the victim of bad luck more recently (two words: Helmet Catch).

Those of you who’ve been reading for a while know that this is a big thing with me. All season long, the Lions were playing much better than their record would indicate, they just weren’t catching the breaks, just weren’t closing the deal. They weren’t playing dramatically better at the end of the season, but the breaks started going their way. Was there some element of “learning how to win?” Possibly, but given the massive injuries the Lions suffered to critical areas, I doubt that “learning how to win” turned them from 4th-quarter stooges to ice-blooded assassins in the span of a single season.

Likewise, Peyton Manning has demonstrated that he is an elite quarterback over the past 13 seasons. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he is one of the best in the game—and by the time he’s finished, he’ll be considered one of the best ever. Yet, over the past two seasons—despite having won a Super Bowl with this Colts team not long ago—we’re hearing mutters about Peyton’s inability to get it done when it counts. As McNair wrote:

I have already touched on how randomness alone can affect an outcome. Now we see how tangible factors such as teammates, coaches, and opponents are also responsible for the final result of a game. Just two weeks ago, Peyton Manning led the Colts down the field for a field goal to take the lead. Had that lead held, he would have received a disproportionate amount of credit for “willing” his team to victory, despite the fact that his line blocked, his receivers caught passes, and Adam Vinatieri made a field goal from over 50 yards out. Of course, Antonio Cromartie returned the ensuing kickoff near midfield and the Jets ended up pulling out the victory. Manning didn’t even step on the field, yet went from hero to goat in under a minute. The answer, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.

The narrative of Super Bowl XLV has already been framed: a battle of two great young quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger is playing for redemption, playing to win his first Super Bowl MVP award in three tries. Aaron Rodgers, playing Luke Skywalker to Brett Favre’s Anakin, is trying to become a Jedi master in his own right. Whoever hoists the Lombardi Trophy will climb further up the historical quarterback ranks. In reality, this game is more about two of the NFL’s best defenses, which team’s pass rush can more often hit home, and which team’s secondary can more effectively neutralize the opponents’ receiving threats.

This is not to take away from the quarterbacks—they really are two of the best in the game, and these games will indeed play a significant role in how we, the fans remember their careers. Depending on how things play out, this game could be the first bullet point on their Hall of Fame resume, or a major blow to their Canton hopes.

But no matter what happens, let’s not discount what either Rodgers or Roethlisberger has done this season. They’ve both had outstanding statistical years, despite both being asked to carry their offense almost singlehandedly. They’re already two of the best quarterbacks in the business, and—knock on wood—they each have much more football left to play. For them, today could be the day when they secure their their place amongst the most famous quarterbacks of all time . . . but we can already see that they’re great.


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