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Latest Super Bowls worthy of title
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.For the better part of its existence, the Super Bowl has been more stupor than super.
During the 1980s and '90s, as the hype surrounding the Super Bowl grew to something approaching its current epic proportions, the game itself regularly failed to live up to expectations.
Although maybe that isn't completely accurate. But only because somewhere along the line, people came to expect the Super Bowl to be a massive disappointment.
That "expect the worst" mentality likely took hold somewhere around Super Bowl XXIV. The 49ers' 55-10 demolition of the Broncos that year didn't just represent the largest rout in Super Bowl history; it also marked the sixth time in seven years that the winning margin was at least 19 points.
The Giants' thrilling 20-19 win over the Bills the following year gave hope to NFL fans, but proved to be an anomaly as the margin of victory didn't crack single digits in the next six Super Bowls.
But just when the commercials were threatening to become the most interesting aspect of Super Sunday on a permanent basis, something odd (at least by the Super Bowl's lopsided standards) happened.
The game got good.
The past 10 years have been witness to no fewer than six Super Bowls that at least have to be in the discussion for the greatest of all time:
2000: Rams 23, Titans 16
2002: Patriots 20, Rams 17
2004: Patriots 32, Panthers 29
2005: Patriots 24, Eagles 21
2008: Giants 17, Patriots 14
2009: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23
All were decided by a touchdown or less. In contrast, only eight of the 33 Super Bowls held in the previous millennium were that tightly contested. None of the six games were decided until the game's final minute and in two cases (Super Bowls XXXIV and XXXVI) the outcome was in doubt until the game's final play.
All of which demands — if only so we can do everything within our power to ensure the trend continues into this next decade — the question: How did this happen?
Best things in life are free
The NFL's current Free Agency system (complete with a dynasty-discouraging salary cap) didn't come into existence until 1993.
By that time, we'd already seen the formation of dynasties in San Francisco, Washington, New York and Dallas. Those four teams won 12 of 20 Super Bowls in the '80s and '90s — only three of which were closer than 10 points — and were responsible for three of the four largest blowouts in Super Bowl history.
But with the salary cap making it difficult (if not outright impossible) for Super Bowl champions to keep their teams intact for an extended run and free agency making it much easier for the have-nots to gain on the haves, the gap between the top teams and the ones chasing them drastically narrowed.
"The 49ers, the Cowboys, the Steelers, they were clearly superior teams," NFL on FOX analyst Brian Billick said. "There was a dropoff after them.
"(Now) the difference between the best team and the next and the next and the next is so fine."
"I think that free agency has had the biggest impact on the Super Bowls being competitive over the last few years," NFL on FOX analyst and three-time Super Bowl champion Daryl "Moose" Johnston said. "Not only are the games competitive but in the last two Super Bowls we have had the Cardinals and Saints make their first appearance in franchise history. In the past decade we have had the Seahawks, Panthers, and Rams play in the Super Bowl. The dynastic teams of the previous decades are a thing of the past."
So with the possibility of an uncapped season just a month away from reality, it might behoove the NFL powers-that-be to consider the role the cap played in making its showcase event worthy of all the attention.
Can I copy off you?
When the Bears and 49ers were busy shattering the Super Bowl record for the largest margin of victory (in 1986 and 1990, respectively), they had more going for them than just Walter Payton and Joe Montana. They also had two of the more innovative schemes in NFL history — the 46 defense and the West Coast offense.
Perhaps even more than talent, the biggest advantage for the teams that were racking up big Super Bowl victories was on the sidelines.
"Back then, it was obvious," FOXSports.com NFL analyst Erik Kramer said. "It was the 49ers, the Cowboys. These teams were so far ahead in the way they ran their organizations, the way they ran their offensive schemes. … It was unfair.
"Now, people have started to figure out there's a right way to run a team and a wrong way."
That's not all they figured out. The rest of the league also learned an important lesson: If you can't beat 'em … copy 'em.
"There isn't one team in the league that doesn't employ some form of the West Coast offense," Kramer said. "Not one."
There aren't many either who don't run a 3-4 defense or use a running back rotation or pass on third-and-short or employ some version of the wildcat. The NFL's a copycat league now and — at least among the top teams — everyone's grades are improving.
It's the QB, stupid
There's no debating that the NFL has entered the golden age of the quarterback. A quick perusal of this season's final regular-season statistics could tell you that.
An unprecedented 10 quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards in 2009, and for the second straight year, the team with the worst running game in the NFL will have the opportunity for the Lombardi Trophy.
What you might not have realized is that improved quarterback play throughout the league has played a role in the Super Bowl's becoming consistently competitive over the past decade.
Just look at the winning quarterbacks in those six instant classic Super Bowls from the 2000s — Kurt Warner, Tom Brady (three wins), Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. The guys they beat? Steve McNair, Warner, Jake Delhomme, Donovan McNabb, Brady and Warner. With the exception of Mr. Delhomme, that’s an awful lot of quarterbacking talent. And it's as good a reason as any why those games were as close as they were.
"(In the '80s and '90s,) there were just a handful of quarterbacks at the end of the day who were capable of winning a Super Bowl," Billick said. "We're as deep at the quarterback position as we've ever been in this league. … That's been the great equalizer."
Which brings us to Super Bowl XLIV, where the two premier passers in the game will be facing off.
Drew Brees has thrown for at least 4,000 yards every year he has been in New Orleans, and while he didn't crack the 5,000-yard plateau this season (as he did in 2008), he did set an NFL record in completing 70.8 percent of his attempts.
Peyton Manning, meanwhile, was just a notch behind Brees in completion percentage at 68.8 percent. And even though defenses were able to key on Manning thanks to the Colts' 32nd-ranked running game, Manning still managed to throw for 4,500 yards — the ninth time in 11 seasons he has thrown for at least 4,000.
While one of them will have to lose, it's hard to imagine either one being out of Sunday's game.
"If Drew Brees can strike and match Peyton Manning on touchdown throws, this can be a great Super Bowl," FOX NFL Sunday analyst and four-time Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw said. "We have the two best quarterbacks playing in the game."
"This game is going to come down to the last possession," Kramer said. "And you have two quarterbacks — two offenses, really — who can deliver in that situation."
In other words, trust us. It's going to be super.