Feature

How the Super Bowl became 'hero ball'

The genius of football is that it is not a mere athletic competition, but a bizarre amalgamation of tag, rugby, Stratego, and military history

For millions of Americans, Super Bowl LV was a miserable coda to a miserable year. The most popular athlete in the country played the worst game of his career. Arguably the most hated one was nearly perfect. The officiating was bad and at times blatantly favored the Buccaneers. From the middle of the second quarter on, it never felt close.

Despite my best efforts to recall just how badly Tom Brady and the Buccaneers defense had looked earlier in the season (from their opening loss to New Orleans all the way through the playoffs, when they gave up 23 points to a former undrafted free agent quarterback who had been out of the league working on his degree), when the game was over, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was always going to end like this.

With Patrick Mahomes playing through an injury that will require surgery in the offseason and two starting offensive linemen out, the Chiefs should not have been favored to win on Sunday. This seems blinkeringly obvious now, but like so many others I ignored the testimony of my senses and contented myself with golden visions of fourth-quarter heroics even, indeed perhaps especially, when the game was out of reach.

Despite what the box score suggests, there were some of these moments. Mahomes threw some of the most beautiful incomplete passes I have ever seen, perfect balls that had barely escaped his hands as he hit the ground that were dropped or managed to bounce almost improbably off receivers' helmets. Even when the outcome was not meaningfully in doubt, he refused to pad his stats, and drove the Chiefs all the way to the endzone with two minutes left on the clock, where he threw his second interception of the evening. He scrambled better with turf toe (and goodness knows what other undisclosed injuries) than anyone in the league not named Lamar Jackson, dancing farther and farther into the backfield and, making one, two, three, even four Leonard Friscoe-like escapes before getting sacked or (more often) letting the ball float into the breeze, as Tyreek Hill ran gorgeously choreographed but meaningless routes in double coverage.

Whatever else can be said for Brady's performance, by the standards of most observers it was decidedly non-heroic. All of the great shifts in momentum on Sunday occurred as a result of penalties, which he is better at drawing either on his own behalf or that of his teammates than any player in the history of the game. The vast majority of his throws were easy completions (screens, short throws to Rob Gronkowski off play-action) or bombs in the direction of handsy defensive backs rather than his receivers.

My question is why we insist upon seeing things this way. The genius of football is that it is not a mere athletic competition, but a bizarre amalgamation of tag, rugby, Stratego, and military history. The style of play we think of as "heroic" rarely correlates with long-term success, especially at the highest level, for more or less the same reason that the generals study Bonaparte's campaigns rather than the defense of the Alamo. Brett Favre played hero ball better than any quarterback before or since and has one Super Bowl ring to show for it. Michael Vick was the single most thrilling athlete at his position I have ever seen — the strongest, the fastest, the most powerful arm — and finished his career with a 2-6 record in the postseason. Meanwhile Brady, who has always had a mediocre arm and moves with all the grace of a phthisic giraffe, has won 13 percent of all Super Bowls ever played.

The Buccaneers did not beat the Chiefs because they had a vastly more talented roster. They were more disciplined. They were more balanced on offense, more focused on the other side of the ball, and certainly better prepared. Perhaps most important, they were almost unrecognizable from a schematic perspective, bearing almost no resemblance to the perilous vertical offense of 2019 that put two receivers in the Pro Bowl and destroyed the career of a very talented quarterback, who led the league in passing yards and interceptions.

This was not because Bruce Arians became a better head coach but because he allowed his quarterback to be one. By sheer force of will, Brady transformed a sloppy, heavily penalized group of prima donnas into a winning football team. This, too, is a kind of heroism, one that has more analogues in the world of say, classical music (the old maestro guiding an unruly provincial orchestra through an unfamiliar score) than in other sports. This is why even though they are strictly speaking accurate, the comparisons between Brady and Michael Jordan will always ring false. The man Lloyd Carr benched repeatedly in favor of Drew Henson when I was in elementary school is the greatest player in the history of the game.

All of this can be true without our having to like or accept it.

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