Sunday night's Super Bowl XLV was about as classic as a Super Bowl can get without one signature play. If you had to pick a play of the game, which one are you anointing? Clay Matthews' forced fumble? One of the Aaron Rodgers darts Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson clung to for dear life? Nick Collins' pick-six? There's no clear choice, and for that reason, a game that was close throughout the second half and featured plenty of great play from both the winner and loser will go down as merely an excellent Super Bowl and not an all-timer.
But this Super Bowl might benefit from a bit more hindsight, because of how seismic it may well have been. And with that in mind, I run down the winners and losers from Super Bowl XLV.
Could Rodgers have played a little better? Sure. Some of the passes that his receivers dropped were dropped because their quarterback was whipping the ball in with as much velocity as possible, and Rodgers' mobility translated to a few extended plays, but nothing spectacular. What he did, though, was just this side of legendary.
With no running game to speak of — the Packers ran the ball just 13 times, fewest in Super Bowl history, and gained a paltry 50 yards — Rodgers was tasked with dissecting the Steelers' secondary with only a whiff of play-action, and he did just that. You don't typically get a chance to throw for 304 yards and three touchdowns against a pass rush as good as the one the Steelers' front seven can muster, but Rodgers' offensive line, so beleaguered last year, gave him plenty of time to do some carving. And Rodgers' numbers could have been much better: James Jones dropped a slant that he might have taken for a touchdown, and Nelson couldn't haul what would have been a salt-it-away touchdown late.
A bit of luck could have made Rodgers' night the best in Super Bowl history. As it is, he'll have to settle for the Super Bowl ring, a Super Bowl MVP award — which he accepted with a WWE-style championship belt on his shoulder while lamenting that the Packers couldn't score a touchdown at the end of the game moments after winning the Super Bowl — and the controls to what could be the NFL's next dynasty. Not bad for a guy who was once thought too small for a legend's shadow, huh?
Consider this: What Packers are likely to not return in 2011? Charles Woodson and Donald Driver are both old and, now, ailing; they could retire. Nick Barnett might part ways with the Pack after an uneasy season on injured reserve. Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher could retire. And that might be it.
For a team that drafts this well and got as eviscerated by injuries as it did in 2010 — remember, Barnett, Tauscher Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley, Morgan Burnett and Brandon Chillar were just five of the 16 players the Packers put on injured reserve — it's not hard to imagine the 2011 Packers being better than the 2010 Packers. Adding just Finley to the offense gives Rodgers a receiving corps that's an embarrassment to embarrassments of riches.
Packers fans are used to dynasties and decades of great play. With Rodgers at the helm and smart coaching and management above him, especially from general manager Ted Thompson, they might get another Super Bowl run or two out of this team.
Thompson's list of accomplishments could stop at drafting Aaron Rodgers, standing by him, and pairing him with Mike McCarthy — who came to Green Bay after coordinating a 49ers offense that ranked dead last in the NFL — and that would be impressive enough. But Thompson's done so much more.
Thompson built a team with enough depth to survive a rash of injuries in the regular season and a number of nicks in the Super Bowl. (I mean, Brett Swain made a key catch.) Thompson waited out the Brett Favre Era, confident enough in his core to avoid mortgaging the future for a last fling with the Ol' Gunslinger after the Packers' NFC Championship Game run in the 2007 season. Thompson's drafted brilliantly, so much so that his arguable misses (Nelson was taken before DeSean Jackson; A.J. Hawk has underperformed for a fifth pick) are still good picks, and his terrible misses (Justin Harrell) get papered over by picks like B.J. Raji and pick-ups like Ryan Pickett and Howard Green.
As a Packers fan, I've been wondering about a certain what-if since early 2007: What if Thompson had acceded to Favre's wishes and flipped the pick that became career turnstile Allen Barbre for then-Raiders receiver Randy Moss? Would that have gotten the Packers a Super Bowl in 2007, or any future years? Did the Packers miss their best chance at creating an instant contender?
It turns out that they did — but Thompson wasn't looking for a microwave dynasty. With the development of Rodgers and the keen eye that's brought players like Jennings and Matthews to Green Bay, he's pieced together a young team that is as talented and deep as any in the NFL. And, on a more personal level, Thompson proved that my way of thinking was almost entirely wrong.
So mea culpa, Ted Thompson. And thanks.
Check how ideal this scenario is, from the NFL's perspective: Two of the league's most likable teams (Ben Roethlisberger excluded) play an excellent Super Bowl in a beautiful stadium, and while the winner seems to have well earned the crown as the NFL's best team, the loser falls with dignity and only minimally diminished — if at all — in the public's mind. That's a recipe for ratings, both now and in the future, and it's a money geyser the NFL would be foolish to stopper at any point.
Chances are you already knew that Mike Tomlin was a cool human being before Super Bowl XLV. But this is what he said after the Steelers' loss:
"What I will do is say Green Bay played a pretty good game and made the necessary plays to be world champions."
Oh, and Tomlin shrugged off every attempt to make excuses about the game, and told reporters looking for easy solutions to look harder, in more words than that, and pointed out that his practice of greeting players individually as they returned to the locker room didn't just start with the Super Bowl.
I don't like to get bogged down in subjective arguments about whether a person demonstrates "class," because we all react to things differently, and no one person has a monopoly on right. But Tomlin's behavior in defeat — holding his and his team's head high for being good but not good enough, and crediting the victors for being better — is the sort of thing a lot of parents would probably like to teach their children. And I hope we keep paying attention to Tomlin, who will likely have a long and illustrious NFL coaching career: I suspect will we learn a lot from him.
Charles Woodson and Donald Driver
Each could probably get his own feature, but the Packers' two most visible veterans both left Super Bowl XLV with injuries and had to watch their teammates make the plays to win the Lombardi Trophy. That's a nice story for each of them, even if the manner in which it transpired will likely always be a bit bittersweet.
The NFL got lucky when the Packers-Steelers matchup of Super Bowl XLV was finalized, and got lucky that the game itself was quite good. In between those two events, the league was buffeted by caprice and besieged by its own bumbling.
No football fan who watched that Super Bowl wants a fall without an NFL season, not even the Steelers fans. (They want another shot at Aaron Rodgers, trust.) But the NFL's insistence on the importance of negotiating a compromise without giving even an inch to the NFL Players Association on the most important issues players face — fairer revenue trickle-down to the players who make the NFL so valuable, and a more thorough commitment to player safety and care — makes the league look mulish at best. And with players better connected to fans than ever, thanks to social media, there's a really good chance the players will be able to call the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell on their empty posturing and sway fans to their side. That can only help the NFLPA in the upcoming labor dispute: the more fans learn that this isn't a "millionaires vs. billionaires" issue, but rather an attempt to continue making scads more cash than the players who risk their well-being do in generating that cash while disservicing those players, the worse the NFL's position gets.
And the labor issues were just the NFL's own doing. It also got repeatedly snowed by the, um, snow in North Texas, which made the sometimes far-flung sites for Super Bowl Week a much harder schlep for fans and forced events from outdoor venues to backup buildings. And the flap that resulted in hundreds of ticket-bearing fans being turned away is another black eye for both the league and Jerry Jones' efforts to pack Cowboys Stadium with more consumers of Cowboyritas than had ever before seen a football game in person.
Fittingly, Jones' bid for record Super Bowl attendance fell just short. Let this be a lesson to the NFL: squeeze an orange to get all the juice out too many times, and you will get hit in the eye.
More than a few folks were probably very happy to see Roethlisberger's team lose on Sunday. (It wasn't uncommon to see tweets lamenting that the Steelers had to lose — save for Roethlisberger.) He's gotten a reputation as a boor and collected two rape allegations; those don't go away, even with championships, but losing gives critics fewer pieces of evidence to sidestep when lashing out.
And losing the way Roethlisberger did, with his stretches of truly poor play — two early interceptions, including a terrible pick-six, and an unimpressive final drive that didn't cross midfield — bookending resilience and execution that kept the Steelers in the game? It's almost a worse fate than not making it to this stage, especially for Roethlisberger's image. Now we get to ignore that 2-1 record in Super Bowls and paste his mediocre Super Bowl stats (55-of-91 for 642 yards, three touchdowns, and five interceptions, with a rushing touchdown) on our favorite message boards.
Manipulating perception can be a fun but misleading game to play, it's true. That's why some tails get to wagging prematurely when Roethlisberger is out at a piano bar with teammates, indulging in a completely benign night of adulthood, and it's the game that had Roethlisberger's Hall of Fame bust all but scuplted and shipped to Canton before he broke that narrative by losing a Super Bowl for a change.
But that funny habit we have of seeing what we want to see is also what stands in the way of Roethlisberger's supposed change for the better as a person being truly accepted: the fiance and new-found faith will be dismissed by some percentage of those barstool pundits and blog-based jurists who have convicted him of rape in the court of public opinion and don't want to believe he can change or forgive him for merely trying. And there's not much Big Ben can do about convincing those folks otherwise.
I'll admit that I believe, though I do not know and likely will never know, that there's some truth to the accusations about Roethlisberger's night in Milledgeville, and that there was enough miscarriage of justice to cast doubt on whether Roethlisberger's accuser ever had a chance at a fair trial. I've been trying to evaluate his actions after that night as those of a person trying to change, but it's going to be very tough for me to get past the allegations.
I'm not every person, though, far from it, and Roethlisberger never convincing me to support him doesn't mean he can't win over and win back America in the way he has much of Pittsburgh. At least, he can hope that winning will paper over the flaws he has and earn him some disinfecting respect, much as success has pressure-washed Kobe Bryant's image. Theoretically, we'll see him as a champion, as a magnificent football player — which he certainly can be — because that's easier than remembering the rape accusations, less complicated and more fun.
But here's the trick: what Roethlisberger must do to succeed at that and succeed as a football player is win Super Bowls. That's the bar he has set for himself with a slew of wins early in his career. And on Sunday, he didn't clear it. Roethlisberger can take the blame all he wants: winning is what is going to change most of the minds that can be changed.
Polamalu is in a completely different vein from Roethlisberger. He's revered by analysts and fans alike, for his lustrous hair and ferocious play as much as for his thoughtful approach to the game and classy conduct in pursuit of wins. It's generalizing, sure, but we want to see Polamalu win and succeed; we want to see Roethlisberger flame out and fail.
And so that's what makes it hard to see Polamalu fail to make an impact in a game like this, as his team falls to a team that took advantage of his inability to do so. Polamalu was also hurt — though he said his Achilles felt as good as it had midway through the season, and he cobbled together a worthy NFL Defensive Player of the Year campaign despite that injury — and that makes things worse. We root for a player like Polamalu to never have to hear an opposing wideout say "he let me just run right by him," as Jennings did. We root for him to make plays, not register as a mere blip on the face of a Super Bowl, appearing most memorably in the background of an opposing player's touchdown catch.
Polamalu's lasting criticism, for all his otherworldly talents and unassailable appeal, has been his inability to stay healthy. He's had seven concussions, and a host of other maladies, and he sounded well aware of the wear and tear in quotes he gave to the New Yorker for a January piece on concussions in football:
"Honestly, it hurts both players, you know, and, whenever you see those big hits, it’s not just offensive guys lying on the ground."
Would it surprise me if Polamalu chose to retire with his health this offseason? Not in the slightest. Would it stun me if Polamalu returned and unleashed hell on the league? No. Would I be should if Polamalu returns as a shadow of himself? Not really.
But am I genuinely taken aback to be writing about a Super Bowl Troy Polamalu failed to impact? Yes.
That concern about concussions in football may need to focus on mid-air collisions before all else, and clean up the launching, targeting and spearing that seems to cause so many of the concussions in the modern NFL. That's not that the running game doesn't produce concussion chances; it's just that running games are getting less and less viable as a winning strategy.
The Packers ran on 13 of 55 offensive plays, or 23.6 percent of their offensive snaps; the Steelers, despite a 5.5 yards per carry average, ran just 23 times on 64 plays, or 35.9 percent of the time. That's a combined 33.0% of the time, meaning that in the NFL's biggest game, two of the NFL's oldest and most reputedly tough teams chose to run two passing plays for every running play.
More strangely, neither of the exotic 3-4 schemes of Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers were tuned up to full bore in Super Bowl XLV. LeBeau would blitz and get burned by Rodgers finding a hot route, while Roethlisberger would escape the few pressures Capers could create — the defenses notched four combined sacks — but a combination of both conservatism and ineffective blitzing meant both quarterbacks had chances to throw to seams and holes. And they did, combining for 567 yards.
In fact, in the last five years, only Super Bowl XLI, played in the driving rain in Miami, failed to produce both a 300-yard passing performance from a quarterback or a combined 500 passing yards by both teams.
"Defense wins championships" might need an update. How does "Throw to win, cover for crowns" sound?