As Sunday’s gripping, chaotic, and dizzying Super Bowl wound to a close, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth inadvertently revealed something critical about understanding the NFL. With the New England Patriots facing a third-and-long with less than 12 minutes left in the game and trailing the Seattle Seahawks by 10 points, Collinsworth described a conversation he had with Tom Brady about the ball deflation controversy that had roiled the league for two straight weeks.
“I said, ‘Tom, look me in the eye and tell me you couldn’t have possibly said anything to a ball boy, an assistant coach, somebody in the organization that would lead them to believe that you wanted air let out of that football,’ ” Collinsworth recounted, “and he said ‘absolutely not.’ ” His tone was of a man who had peered into the soul of the Patriots quarterback and found pure snow.
Seconds after he finished this thought, Collinsworth moaned “Owhhh!” with an apparent mix of euphoria and awe as Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor dropped Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman with a brutal and unmistakable helmet-to-helmet smack. Edelman, who missed the final two games of the regular season due to a concussion but competed in every playoff game and was one of the team’s most important players, rose to his feet and wobbled forward to try to gain extra yardage, before finally crumpling to the ground in a heap. After he struggled to get up, Collinsworth glowed at the “great play by Edelman” after the “hard hit” by a player who, teammates proudly declare, “damages people’s souls.” After such a violent play, the NFL’s concussion protocol says that a head-injury spotter in the booth is supposed to call down to the sidelines and tell the team doctors to check the player for a concussion during an eight-to-12-minute-long assessment. Detroit Free Press beat reporter Dave Birkett reported that the very first part of this process appeared to take place.
But then a funny thing happened. Edelman stayed in the game. On yet another third-and-long on the same drive, Edelman made another critical first-down reception. Again, he struggled to lift his head before ultimately picking himself up off of the ground with the help of a teammate, who grabbed him in a stabilizing hug. Collinsworth’s booth partner Al Michaels mentioned a previous Edelman hip injury to explain his apparent droopiness, but did not talk about his recent concussive history or the blow to the head he had suffered minutes earlier. These facts would be ignored for the rest of the Super Bowl broadcast. Edelman remained in the game—perhaps after undergoing a shorter than usual concussion protocol—and, after Brady threw a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola to cut the deficit to three points, he would go on to score the go-ahead touchdown one drive later.
Edelman finished the game with nine receptions, 109 yards, and that game-winning touchdown, and the Patriots went on to their fourth Super Bowl title in perhaps the most dramatic and bizarre finish the sport has ever seen. But back to Edelman and Collinsworth. What the NBC broadcaster unintentionally showed with his paeans to Brady’s moral rectitude and Edelman’s “toughness” was just how absurd the sport has become, even as it has reached the pinnacle of cultural dominance. In a post-game interview, Edelman declined to tell a reporter whether or not he had been checked for a concussion. At one point, he reportedly referred to the team the Patriots had just beaten as “St. Louis” before correcting himself.
In the context of the ugliest season in the league’s history—one where two of the league’s biggest stars were charged respectively with domestic violence and child abuse, and the league horribly botched the investigation into one of those crimes—the weekslong obsession with whether or not the Patriots violated the rulebook by allegedly playing with intentionally underinflated balls was a demonstration of collective insanity. Even the president was asked about his thoughts on whether the Patriots were a bunch of cheating cheaters in a pregame interview, while the issue of domestic violence—in a game featuring two Seahawks defensive starters with previous domestic violence charges and Edelman, who was once arrested for assaulting a woman at a Halloween party—and the issue of concussions were not raised. (The charges against Edelman were later dropped based on the provability of the case.*)
To focus on Deflategate as yet another study of former players finding signs of cognitive damage linked to playing football was released last week is like worrying about the guy who’s stealing fake $20 bills from the bank in Monopoly while another player is swallowing handfuls of little plastic mansions. The game of football is just that, a game, and worrying over an apparent violation of its byzantine rulebook while human beings literally bash their brains in is, by any definition, silly.
And yet, I am a football fan. And I watched that football game. And, as far as games go, nothing could have been more dramatic, transfixing, and powerful as those final 12 minutes. First, there was the simultaneous improbability and inevitability of Brady leading the Patriots to the largest fourth-quarter comeback in the history of the Super Bowl. Then, after the Patriots left just enough time on the clock, there was the Seahawks’ lightning-quick drive down the field for what looked like it would certainly be a game-winning touchdown.
That drive started with one of the game’s great running backs, Marshawn Lynch, rumbling down the sideline for a beautiful 31-yard reception to put the Seahawks into Patriots territory with just under two minutes to play. At that point, a sense that this team was unstoppable, like the feeling of inevitability that occurred in their equally dramatic NFC Championship comeback, began to take hold. The series continued with improbable Seahawks hero Chris Matthews making a canny drive-saving play by breaking up what would have been a likely interception. Matthews, who had kept the team’s season alive two weeks earlier by recovering an onside kick in that championship game, had already sparked the team’s languishing offense with a long reception when it struggled early in the first half and scored a game-tying touchdown with two seconds left in that half. A year ago Matthews was working two jobs as a Foot Locker employee and a security guard, and now he was making plays that seemed like they might determine the outcome of the Super Bowl.
Seconds later, though, Matthews was overshadowed by an even more unlikely hero when Jermaine Kearse momentarily became the Seahawks’ David Tyree, making an unfathomable catch that left Brady shaking his head in bewilderment. He had to be thinking the same thing as everyone else who was watching: How could this happen again? The Patriots defender Malcolm Butler seemed to have made a great defensive play, but his tipped ball landed on top of Kearse without hitting the ground and bounced just close enough to his hands to allow him to complete a catch as unlikely as Tyree’s.
The virtually tackle-proof Marshawn Lynch then dragged defenders on his back for a 4-yard carry to put his team on the edge of the goal line with one minute remaining. This left three more potential opportunities for one of the most efficient rushers in the game to hammer the ball in for the game-winner from as close as possible. But on the next play, Patriots coach Bill Belichick showed a goal-line defense, even as the Seahawks lined up with three wide receivers. Seattle coach Pete Carroll saw this, and decided the team would be better off throwing. Butler, the Patriots’ unwitting stooge just moments earlier, spotted the offensive formation and the route, and slammed his body between Russell Wilson’s throw and Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette to claim what would be the game-clinching interception.
After the game a shocked Butler seemed more relieved that he wouldn’t be remembered for his role in Kearse’s spectacular catch than thrilled about his game-winning play. “I felt like if they would have won that game, it would have been my fault,” Butler said, explaining why he needed to make that interception.
To top it all off, Butler had actually seen and been beaten by that very same play in practice earlier in the week. Had he never seen the play before, maybe he wouldn’t make that pick and maybe the NFL’s commentators would be talking about the Seahawks’ brilliant title defense rather than excoriating Carroll for the worst play call in all of history.
That’s the point, though. The reason why the NFL is the most popular sports league in America and the Super Bowl is the most watched television program in the country year after year, is precisely because it provides this opportunity for live escapist drama unlike virtually any other sport. You just have to look at the wildly fluctuating win probability chart of Super Bowl XLIX to see how dramatically the game can, and often does, shift on single, improbable plays. If just one of these crucial plays goes a different direction, Brady’s two interceptions negate all 37 of his completions and the Patriots lose. After the game, the 15-year veteran, four-time Super Bowl champion, and three-time Super Bowl MVP expressed the exact fear that the undrafted rookie free agent Butler had said drove him on that final Seahawks drive. “When you lose the game, those are the ones that just sit with you for the rest of your freaking life,” Brady said. “That’s what I was thinking about when I threw those picks.”
This knife’s edge is what we love and what makes football, for all its myriad flaws, a sport that is hopefully worth saving.
*Update, Feb. 3, 2015: This article has been updated to clarify that the charges against Edelman were later dropped. (Return.)