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Game On

For years, the Super Bowl was one numbing blowout after another. Today, many of the contests are instant classics. What changed?

Author Paul Flannery

ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL BYERS

SUPER BOWL SUNDAY HAS LONG BEEN America’s unofficial national holiday. For nearly half the television-owning households in the country, it’s a time for families and friends to gather, swill beer, gorge on nachos and pizza, cheer, jeer and basically lose themselves in the spectacle.

But for years, there was a hitch: Somewhere between the daylong pregame show, the halftime spectacular and the million-dollar commercials, there was a senseless blowout masquerading as a championship game. All through the 1980s and ’90s, the average margin of victory was more than 17 points. A mere half dozen teams won 85 percent of the Super Bowls. Simply put, the Bud Bowl offered more genuine excitement than the main event.

Then, suddenly, everything changed. Over the past decade the games have not only been closer contests, but often instant classics as well. Six of the last nine Super Bowls were decided by less than a touchdown, and even the games won by double digits were in doubt until the final minutes. The Super Bowl is now the most compelling championship game in pro sports. So … what happened?

1. THE PASSING GAME LEVELED THE FIELD.
At the AFC championship game in 2004, an Indianapolis Colts executive named Bill Polian watched in disgust as his winning vision was systematically dismantled one vicious hit at a time by Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. But Polian was more than the Colts’ architect; he was also a powerful member of the NFL’s Competition Committee. That offseason, he pushed for stricter enforcement of the rules of engagement between receivers and defensive backs.

The so-called Polian Rules meant that defenses couldn’t rough up would-be pass catchers beyond five yards past the line of scrimmage. That made passing easier—and a far more effective offensive strategy.

In a delicious bit of irony, few teams have taken greater advantage of the Polian Rules than the Patriots. With their high-tempo shotgun offense and the sublime passing skills of quarterback Tom Brady, the Pats have morphed into one of the greatest offensive shows in the league (even if their once-proud defense melted down against last-minute passing onslaughts in two Super Bowls).

But it’s not only the rules that have changed. Pro football strategists have adopted entirely new pass-oriented mindsets derived in part from innovations developed in the college game, including no-huddle offenses with as many as five receivers. Essentially, NFL teams have grown comfortable using their hurry-up offenses for the entire game, not just the last two minutes. The effect of all that throwing is that an early deficit becomes an invitation to simply throw more and score faster. Why waste time running when you can flick passes to uncovered receivers?

With that in mind, consider the fate of the poor Denver Broncos, who lost three Super Bowls in the ’80s by a combined total of 96 points. Their offense was built on the age-old philosophy of establishing the run, which turned out to be about as effective as a koala attacking a grizzly. Compare that with the Arizona Cardinals, who viewed the run as a way to kill time between passes. When they fell behind in Super Bowl XLIII against the heavily favored Steelers, the Cards aired it out on almost every down and came within a minute of a historic upset.

2. FREE AGENCY FELLED THE DYNASTIES.
Think of the great dynasties of the past century, and the one thing they have in common is consistency. Even today, fans can rattle off the names of Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain defense or the key figures in the 49ers’ West Coast offense. Players were bound to the franchises that drafted them; coaches had time to implement and refine their schemes. Good teams tended to stay very good, while bad teams remained in the cellar.

That all changed in the early ’90s with the advent of unrestricted free agency and the salary cap. Teams today have to make choices. Take Polian’s Colts, who spent lavishly on quarterback Peyton Manning and his support system while relying on their drafting acumen to fill other spots with relatively cheap and utterly replaceable players.

The first great team to be broken up prematurely was the Dallas Cowboys. They won three Super Bowls in four years—but the more they won, the more they kept losing complementary players to other teams. It wasn’t long before attrition whittled down a roster that had been left vulnerable by poor long-term planning.

There’s still a handful of teams who are successful each year, thanks in part to forward-thinking management and smart drafting. For everyone else, though, the constant roster turnover has not just undercut potential dynasties, but also considerably shortened the time frame for rebuilding. Over the past four seasons, more than three quarters of the teams in the NFL have made the playoffs at least once. There have been seven different Super Bowl participants and four different champions, and none of those championship teams had the best record in the league. The outliers in all this are the Patriots, who won three of four Super Bowls in the early 2000s, but even they have been undone in recent years by the fickle nature of the postseason.

3. SPEAKING OF FICKLE …
The most compelling Super Bowl of the modern era was the 2008 contest between the undefeated Pats and the 10-6 Giants, who made the playoffs as a wild card and won three straight playoff games on the road. The Giants emerged with the Lombardi Trophy after a sensational last-minute comeback that included an 83-yard drive in just over two minutes. That kind of postseason run was practically unheard of in the ’80s and ’90s, when the best teams steamrolled through the playoffs and treated the Super Bowl like a four-hour coronation.

The Giants repeated their achievement in eerily similar fashion against the Patriots last season, establishing themselves as something of a model in today’s boom-or-bust NFL. They got hot at exactly the right time, with a roster stacked with pass defenders and a quarterback adept at engineering last-minute comebacks. Yet even with that same lineup, they’d failed to win a single playoff game in the three seasons between their Super Bowl triumphs.

Recent NFL history is rife with other unlikely contenders, while heavily favored teams have been knocked out of the playoffs after one game. Unlike in the NBA, where the best teams almost always win in the seven-game playoff series, or baseball, with its relentless 162-game schedule, success in the NFL has become fleeting and unpredictable. And that, in turn, has helped make the Super Bowl not merely an all-day television spectacle, but also the flat-out best sports event of the year.

Yes, even better than the Bud Bowl.

PAUL FLANNERY plans to spend Super Bowl Sunday in the no-huddle, calling audibles between the guacamole and cheese dip.

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