This was the year when the corporate cancer that afflicts all major sports almost succeeded in overwhelming the Super Bowl finally and for good. The National Football League title matchup was itself a sign of the problem, a game played between nomadic teams moved by fat-cat owners to take advantage of sweetheart deals. The Tennessee Titans, previously the Houston Oilers, had been moved by Bud Adams to a smaller market where greater profits were waiting, while the Saint Louis Rams, previously settled in Los Angeles, had been moved by Georgia Frontiere to exploit Saint Louis's desperation after it lost the Cardinals to Phoenix. As if the game itself weren't bad enough, it was televised by Disney's ABC network, which flexed its corporate ties with ESPN in the pregame coverage, and the halftime show was turned over to Disney's theatrical-production subsidiary, complete with Phil Collins performing a song from the just-about-to-be-released-on-video Disney movie Tarzan. All this, of course, was in addition to the usual mania surrounding the Super Bowl TV commercials, which always threaten to make the game a sideshow.
It took perhaps the most thrilling fourth quarter in Super Bowl history to keep the corporate muscle at bay, and I'm not even sure the Rams' 23-16 barn burner of a victory over the Titans did the trick. Look, I'm usually the first to insist that a sports fan has to come to terms with the modern-day environment--including the corporate environment--in order to fully appreciate today's athletes. Escalating salaries and sponsorship deals are just part of that atmosphere. Yet the Super Bowl is perhaps the epitome of the larger problem; it's a gargantuan event in which it no longer matters whether the game is good or not, the matchups intriguing or not. It's going to be there as an excuse to sell beer and launch Internet firms whether one likes it or not, whether the game is minimized or not. The question becomes: If the game was a remarkably good one, what does that matter, what good does that do?
Suspicions run high from the moment one sits down in front of the TV for the Super Bowl. It probably didn't help that I'd prepared for it by taking my four-year-old daughter to the early Wiggleworms Dads matinee at the Old Town School of Folk Music, a delightfully anarchic concert devoted to childhood songs of gore and mutilation as performed by Jon Langford, Jeff Tweedy, and Tim Rutili. (It ended with Langford's dramatic reading of Where the Wild Things Are mutating into a rendition of the Troggs' "Wild Thing," considered a risque sex song not too long ago.) This was certainly better than the Super Bowl pregame with ESPN/ABC host Chris Berman, but it had the added effect that by the time I did sit down in front of the TV, about an hour before game time, my bullshit detector was on high alert.
But the NFL propaganda machine, which was in overdrive, probably would have set it off no matter what. Look, I like how the Rams' quarterback, Kurt Warner, has gone from Arena Football to become the NFL's most valuable player, and I like his erect throwing style and even his eternal Miami Vice two days' growth of beard, but does a viewer have to be subjected all the time to what a great guy he is and what a loving, Christian relationship he has with his wife? Not only was Brenda Warner, sitting in the front row of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, on-screen more than most players over the course of the afternoon, on-field reporter Lesley Visser had to emphasize how Kurt Warner went so far as to pray over Blaine Bishop, an injured Titan, who went down with a sprained neck early in the second half. In this context, even the pregame Walter Payton tribute was reduced to treacle.
Once the game began, I found myself rooting for the Titans, though I'm not sure why. Certainly Bud Adams is no more lovable than Georgia Frontiere. Yet the Titans had a more athletic if less talented quarterback in Steve McNair, who's a limber gazelle of a field leader, and a more basic approach to the game under their coach, former Bears assistant Jeff Fisher. On offense they mixed the run with the pass the old-fashioned way, and on defense they simply tried to keep the Rams within arm's reach. The Rams, who ran some teams off the field this season with their speed-oriented passing attack, had more razzle-dazzle, to be sure. Though Warner came out looking a little nervous, Saint Louis coach Dick Vermeil and his offensive coordinator, Mike Martz, got him started with a game plan based on short, high-percentage passes, and by the end of the first half he was hitting his receivers as they dashed back and forth over the middle with the efficiency of a short-order cook dealing out meals to a staff of waiters. Warner hit 19 of 35 passes for 277 yards in the first half--a full day's work for most quarterbacks. Yet he displayed rattled nerves here and there (on an atrocious shuffle pass that helped kill a Saint Louis drive, for instance), and the Rams' holder was having trouble getting the ball down for kicker Jeff Wilkins. For all the yardage the Rams piled up in the first half, they had only a 9-0 lead to show for it. What natural fan of underdogs wouldn't have been rooting for the Titans, who after all had avoided a first-round playoff upset with a cross-field lateral on a kickoff return to win the game in the final minute, and whose uniforms were so downscale that Chicago scribe Lester Munson said on The Sportswriters that they looked like a Public League team?
The Titans kept the Rams within reach thanks in part to Saint Louis mistakes and in part to their own moxie, as safety Bishop dislodged a pass from Warner to Torry Holt that otherwise would have been a first-half touchdown. But in the second half, after Bishop left the game, the Rams marched again, and this time Warner hit Holt with the same slant play run to the opposite side of the field, and this time Bishop wasn't there to block it. Holt scored, making the game 16-0 Rams and all but sealing it in a tidy corporate package. Yet the Titans didn't panic, which was another thing to like about them. Mixing runs to Eddie George with short passes to tight end Frank Wycheck, McNair led them downfield, then exploited the Rams' scattered defense to scramble up the middle to the Saint Louis two yard line. George scored seconds later, and though the Titans' attempt at a two-point conversion failed they at least were on the board at 16-6.
Then the Tennessee defense stiffened as the Rams grew cautious in the fourth quarter. Saint Louis was three plays and out with a punt, and the Titans came right back, the big play being a reverse screen from McNair to tight end Jackie Harris, who rumbled down to the three yard line. George scored on pure grit a couple of plays later; stacked up on a run off tackle, he raced outside and bulled over a couple of defensive backs to make the score 16-13 with the point after. The momentum had shifted and the football itself seemed to sense it. Again the Titans held the Rams to three offensive plays, and the ensuing punt bounced backward like a Tiger Woods wedge shot to give Tennessee a start at midfield. McNair hit Harris with a sharp pass, and when Harris fumbled the ball rolled to teammate Isaac Byrd, who covered it at the Saint Louis 28. That was just close enough for kicker Al Del Greco. He'd missed two earlier 47-yard field-goal attempts, but a couple of plays later he drilled a 43-yarder straight through to tie the game at 16 seconds before the two-minute warning.
The Titans had come back so far so fast--only to fall victim to one of the Rams' trademark bolts of lightning. On their first play from scrimmage, Warner dropped back and looked long. Pressured by a lineman, he hurled the ball up for grabs; it was actually underthrown to a well-covered receiver. Yet Tennessee cornerback Denard Walker ran with his back to Warner and never looked for the ball. The Rams' Isaac Bruce pulled up at the last second, caught the pass, then sidestepped a stunned Walker and dashed for the end zone. Like that, it was 23-16 Rams. Saint Louis did its best to force overtime, helping the Titans drive downfield with penalties that not only gave away yardage but stopped the clock. Yet McNair, who had burned two of his three timeouts on previous drives, came up short at the end. He got the Titans to the Saint Louis ten with a great play in which he stepped out of a tackle, found an open spot, and passed to an open receiver. Yet on the next play, with only six seconds to go, he hit Kevin Dyson on a quick slant and Dyson was pulled down by the hips at the one yard line by Saint Louis linebacker Mike Jones. It was a tremendous defensive play--and it preserved the Rams' victory.
Only a game like that could have negated all the corporate crapola and made football seem important. Or so I thought, until, in the last on-field image before ABC went to more ads, I saw Warner leaning into a bank of cameras and mouthing the words, "I'm going to Disney World!"