The Super Bowl, we can all agree now, is suffering through difficult times. The problem is not merely that it has been six years since the last close contest, but that only once this decade has the game sustained interest for its duration, and that of the 22 Super Bowls only 6 have been in doubt toward the end (and this count includes Super Bowl VII, a four-hour yawn in which the most exciting play was a foreign-born kicker's attempt to throw a pass). To date, the American Football Conference still leads the National, 13-9, but the NFC has now won four in a row--all by large margins.
In the 70s, the AFC won five in a row, but this was not so much a function of one conference's dominance over another as it was that one great AFC team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, followed quickly on the heels of another, the Miami Dolphins. Since the last triumph of the Steelers, in 1980, the AFC has managed only two victories, both by the Raiders' franchise, first in Oakland and then in Los Angeles. The Raiders, we should also point out, have always specialized in a rugged, bullying brand of football more typical of the NFC than the AFC, so that when they put together a good team they cruise relatively untouched into the Super Bowl. The NFC's hold on the league is stronger now than at any time since the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in 1969, and an argument can be made that it is stronger now than even then, before the two separate leagues merged.
Because if there was ever a Super Bowl the AFC representative should have won, this was it. The league's two toughest teams--the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints, both NFC representatives--were knocked out by the upstart Minnesota Vikings, leaving the Washington Redskins to represent the conference with its fourth-best record (the Bears, of course, were third). The Denver Broncos, meanwhile, defended the AFC's home-field advantage the way it should be done, including a tremendous Super Bowl warm-up victory over a very strong vintage of Cleveland Browns. If there was any sort of parity between conferences, this game should have been no contest.
And it wasn't. Yet Super Bowl XXII proved not that the conferences are separate but equal and that the AFC's equal time has come, but that in any football game the old adage still reigns: the bigger. stronger team usually kicks the weaker right off the field, especially, in this case, when given time to prepare for the AFC's intricate offensive schemes. It was an all-too-traditional end to what was an utterly confounding football season. (Confusing detail of 1988: in a year when almost every team found new and unusual ways to be inconsistent, three of the same four teams returned to the conference championship games. So much for the difficulty of repeating. The sport was in such odd shape that even its most cliched truism proved ineffective.)
Speaking as a person who won the office football pool a year ago and who finished near the bottom this year, I'd like to state that this was a nearly impossible year for any tout and that I was not the only one confused. The usual inconsistencies of the NFLs "parity" era were blown completely out of proportion by the confusion that reigned during and after the strike; a team would just be putting it together when suddenly some new trouble would surface and all the good would come tumbling down. The Bears had no monopoly on dissension this season.
All year I kept reading Allen Barra in the Village Voice, and I discovered, in the end, that as far as this season went he didn't know any more than anyone else. Barra is the closest thing football has to a Bill James--boiling the game down to a few (and this is the key word) important statistics--especially when one allows for football's emphasis on gambling. Barra was firmly behind the Niners and the Saints, and had in fact beaten most touts to Sainthood, but this set him up for falls in the playoffs. Like most of us--here and elsewhere--he bought the Jim McMahon religion and missed the Washington Redskins' first upset. Then, in a pre-Super Bowl article with George Ignatin, he pointed out first that this was the weakest Super Bowl of the decade and perhaps the weakest ever--an obvious fact--then presented his case for the Broncos' rout, citing the Skins' easy schedule (one playoff team, only four winning teams) and 8-4 record in real football games (2-1 scab). His only qualms were the way the Skins' running game matched up against the Broncos' defense and, of course, the mounting evidence that the Skins were a different team with Doug Williams at quarterback. Still, he read a rout in the wings.
For those of us among the big-picture trend readers, Super Bowl XXII appeared to be the swing of the pendulum back to the AFC, reflecting a league-wide trend toward more offensive (no pun intended--just yet) football. Offenses have learned to deal with the blitzing defenses of the Bears and Giants, by employing additional blockers in the backfield and more precise crossing and timing patterns in the defensive secondary. These are the Broncos' strengths--as they proved earlier this season against the Bears--and anyone who watched them score practically at will against the Browns had to believe they would make mincemeat of the slower, stodgier Redskins.
So what happened?
The popular thinking is that John Elway didn't have a bad day; it's just that the Redskins' defense was prepared and inspired. It's true that it's no mere coincidence that Jim McMahon, Wade Wilson, and Elway suffered consecutive bad days against the Redskins. Yet to say that Elway didn't play bad and that the Redskins played good is to show ignorance about Elway as a football player. He's no superman (certainly, he's proved he's no Super Bowl man), but he is one of the best at the position today, and anyone who's spent any time watching NBC on Sunday afternoons knows not only that he had an awful day on Super Sunday but that he's made a living of making the passes--difficult as they were--that he kept overthrowing against the Skins. The Redskins' defense did have a good day; they were prepared. Elway's receivers were well covered for most of the day, but he's made completing those pinpoint passes almost routine, and he didn't come anywhere close on the big day. In fact, he had best watch out that he doesn't develop a reputation as a choker, as Fran Tarkenton did. It was Tarkenton's misfortune to butt up against the Steelers the first two times he got into the Super Bowl, so that he really can't be blamed. Yet Elway has now, like Tarkenton, lost two straight--Tarkenton went on to lose a third against the Raiders--and this time he looked plain bad and led the Broncos in their panicky retreat of the second quarter. Even his touchdown pass on the Broncs' first play from scrimmage was underthrown, and after that the highlight of his day was catching--not throwing--a pass to set up a field goal. That was an excellent call, working as it did to discourage the Redskins' pursuit defense, but after this early brilliancy the Broncos' game plan devolved into a series of shovel passes. Whether this was the fault of Elway or of coach Dan Reeves we'll probably never know. The other reason for the Redskins' rout is that they are, indeed, a different team with Doug Williams at quarterback. Williams is a big quarterback with a quick release who played coach Joe Gibbs's game perfectly. The smaller Broncos' defensive line never really challenged the Redskins' offensive line, so that the relatively immobile Williams had the time necessary to wait for his receivers to come open. Of course, this thinking leaves fans of close football games (and fans of the Broneos) open to wondering what would have happened had Williams suffered an ever so slightly more damaging twist of the knee in the first quarter, when the Skins were still down 10-0. Probably, the Broncos would have gone on to win, scoring another touchdown off a Jay Schroeder interception, by a score of something like 17-6. Which is not to say the better team didn't prevail, but that sometimes time and chance happeneth so that the swift still win the race. The bigger team bullied the smaller; this is what it comes down to. By the time the Broncos looked up from their 35-point disaster in the second quarter, not only were they not in their rhythm but they had no hope of ever finding themselves in it again. The rest of us were left watching what the ratings showed was the least popular Super Bowl in 14 years, which presented the poorest Super Bowl champion in longer than that--perhaps the worst ever.
Because although I'll accept the Redskins as the best of this year and as a very good team, I will not accept them as a great team, not by any thinking. Pro football's worst season since the merger produced a strike in which the owners won by undercutting the union in class and taste, and the product was--and remains--a Super Bowl that becomes nothing more than a soapbox for the debut of the latest commiercials with their upscale-yuppie paranoia and Spuds MacKenzie pandering. The Super Bowl is in sad shape, as a reflection of the sport and as an institution, and its decay is symptomatic of the sport's emphasis on its baser tendencies in recent seasons. If after 22 years this is what you get, then there should be no Super Bowl XXIII.