Five Super Bowl Week controversies that made no difference in the game
With less than a week to go before Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz., surely we must all be tired of talking about the big game — wait, that can’t be right because we’ve hardly discussed the game at all. Instead, it’s been nothing but balls and bladders and deflation and pressure.
Technically, this is about football, but it also definitely not football.
There’s been little talk about matchups and game plans and which team will make history at University of Phoenix Stadium in a few days’ time, and you know why that’s a shame? Because Deflategate or Ballghazi or whatever you care to call it won’t make a hill of beans’ difference in the end. (Pardon my French.)
But, ah, this is nothing new for the NFL and Super Bowl Week, which has seen its ample share of do-nothing controversies arise from the doldrums of anticipation. Mind you, there have been myriad instances where a Big Pre-Super Bowl Thing has, you could argue, impacted the game itself. Cincinnati Bengals fullback Stanley Wilson caught using cocaine the night before a four-point loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Atlanta Falcons defensive back Eugene Robinson getting arrested for soliciting a prostitute the night before Super Bowl XXXIII … then getting beat on an 80-yard touchdown, putting the Falcons in a first-half hole from which they never emerged.
But nature abhors a vacuum, and so does professional football. Let’s take a look back now at the drummed-up newspaper-leading stories that ultimately had little to do with the actual game result itself.
5. Joe Namath guaranteeing a win (1969)
One of the great motivational moments in sports? Sure sounds good, except it’s not like Namath’s bluster actually inspired the AFL’s upstart New York Jets to overcome their status as 18-point underdogs to the NFL’s Baltimore Colts. In fact, the Jets players and staff were mostly upset with Namath for appearing to rile up the opposition.
As Johnny Sample, who was the Jets’ defensive captain at the time, told NFL.com, "The thing was, we all thought we’d win the game. We had studied film on the Colts, and we were really confident. But a guarantee? Joe said, ‘Well, we’re gonna win, aren’t we?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Joe, we’re gonna win, but you shouldn’t have said it.’ "
No, the Jets won 16-7 because coach Weeb Ewbank put together one of the smartest game plans in NFL playoff history, forcing the Colts to swap starter Earl Morrall with a hobbled Johnny Unitas midgame. Namath won MVP honors with a solid, mistake-free performance, but all his guarantee really did was sell a few more newspapers.
4. Barret Robbins going AWOL (2003)
It might be easy to scapegoat Robbins, a center who had been elected to the Pro Bowl that year, for NFL MVP Rich Gannon’s record five interceptions in Super Bowl XXXVII, but those dots just don’t connect. Robbins went partying in Tijuana, Mexico, and wound up missing the Super Bowl, but an O-line of five focused Barret Robbinses likely wouldn’t have saved the Raiders from a determined Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense.
And remember: Bucs head coach Jon Gruden had been Raiders head coach Jon Gruden until just that season, so if you think the silver-and-black (which actually came into the game as a 3.5-point favorite) ever really had a legit chance of winning that game, with the kind of inside knowledge that Gruden was packing, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you. (A positive postscript: Robbins, still only 41, is back in the Bay Area and sober again after a tumultuous 10-plus years.)
3. Chris Culliver’s anti-gay comments (2013)
Culliver’s abhorrent anti-gay remarks uttered a few days before Super Bowl XLVII made for a nice bit of schadenfreude when he was beat by Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones for a 56-yard score in the waning moments of the second quarter.
Problem with that narrative is that even days after the game, the Niners still had no idea how Jones was able to beat so many defenders (Culliver included) for the TD. Culliver and Donte Whitner should share equal blame on that one. And besides, the 49ers still had a whole 30-plus minutes of football after that score to improve their overall play and get back in the game.
Too bad the San Francisco special teams kicked off the second half by giving up a 108-yard return TD … to Jacoby Jones.
2. Jerramy Stevens’ comments about Jerome Bettis (2006)
Stevens, the former Seattle Seahawks tight end who is out of the NFL but in the headlines as the husband of Hope Solo, has been the originator of his fair share of screw-ups over the past few years, but his pre-Super Bowl XL comments about how retiring Steelers running back Jerome Bettis wasn’t going to "walk away with that trophy" now seem quite insignificant among them all. And they certainly weren’t the reason Seattle eventually lost 21-10 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, Stevens did drop three targets that day, but he also caught Seattle’s lone TD.
And the Steelers were comfortable favorites coming into the game anyway. As dutifully proved by current-day Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin — who played the "no respect" card after Seattle won the NFC championship game — a narrative doesn’t need logic to survive.
1. Belichick’s "decision": Brady or Bledsoe? (2002)
Oh, how Patriots fans sweated when young phenom Tom Brady went down in the second quarter of the AFC championship game at Heinz Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers and in stepped Drew Bledsoe, the old starter who’d since been replaced after an injury earlier in the season.
But when Bledsoe led the Pats to a shocking 24-17 win — his TD pass to David Patten in the back corner of the end zone was a moment of beauty — there was a mini-debate about whether he or Brady, who would be healthy again by the time the Super Bowl came around, would start in the big game. (Bledsoe, after all, had already started Super Bowl XXXI five years earlier against the Green Bay Packers.)
Belichick, to his eternal credit, never wavered and stuck with Brady. That’s why the controversy didn’t matter, because Belichick never indicated he would do anything other than go with a healthy Brady.
A 20-17 upset win over the vaunted St. Louis Rams proved that "decision" wise.