So far the Super Bowl is very boring - not nearly as exciting as politics - MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2016
Normally, such a statement by a man with a long history of bias against the NFL and an equally long résumé of difficulties with the truth might be taken with a grain of salt. But judged against the reaction of plenty of smart sports reporters, pundits, and even former NFL players, PolitiFact would have likely had to rate that particular Trump claim as “mostly true.”
Sunday’s game felt quite simply, like a stinker. The Denver Broncos grinded out an interminable-feeling 24–10 win over the Carolina Panthers in a night full of turnovers, miscues, and bizarre ads about bowel movements. Justin Peters, who recently watched and ranked every single Super Bowl for Slate, rated the golden anniversary edition as the 11th worst Super Bowl of all time, describing it as “a grim, joyless, maddeningly ugly football game.”
The statistics bore out that assessment. The losing team was a dreadful 3-for-15 on third-down attempts. The team that won was an even worse 1-for-14 on those efforts. There were only 32 first downs in the entire game, with Peyton Manning’s Broncos advancing the chains just 11 times on the way to victory (and only nine if you exclude first-downs off of penalties). The Broncos finished with 194 yards of total offense, the fewest of any Super Bowl winner ever. The game’s six turnovers were tied for the seventh most since 1971. The Panthers were sacked seven times, tying a Super Bowl record. The two teams were sacked a combined 12 times, also a Super Bowl record. Adding to the woes of Carolina’s offensive line, league MVP Cam Newton was pressured the most times of any game in his career. There was also fewer yardage gained on offensive touchdowns—a grand total of 3 yards on two scores—than in any previous Super Bowl. For its part, Denver nearly became the first team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl without scoring an offensive touchdown, only finding the end zone with a few minutes left in the game, and only thanks to a turnover by the Panthers near the goal line and a dumb holding penalty against Carolina when Denver had failed to convert on third-and-goal. Oh, and there were 15 punts, tied for the second-highest total in any Super Bowl.
So not only did the game look atrocious on every level, it was also played absolutely atrociously. Unless, maybe, it wasn’t. The other way to look at Sunday’s game was that it was a contest between two of the best defenses in Super Bowl history. You could look at it that way, because that’s actually what happened. As FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine pointed out before the game, this was the third-best defensive matchup in 50 Super Bowls. Heading into the game, Paine described how the Broncos’ stifling pass defense was the 11th best of any team ever in the Super Bowl era, according to Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the first score of the game came after human wrecking ball Von Miller sprinted around Carolina tackle Mike Remmers and ripped the ball out of Newton’s hands, forcing a fumble that Malik Jackson recovered in the end zone for the score. At the end of the game, Miller essentially clinched the win for the Broncos with another extraordinary forced fumble, swatting the ball out of Newton’s hand in the final few minutes. He finished the game having collected 2.5 sacks, 6 tackles, and the MVP trophy. His teammates were nearly as impressive, though, stifling Carolina’s normally potent run and holding Newton to just 18 completions on 41 passing attempts. This was an astounding defensive performance by one of the truly astounding pass defenses in NFL history.
The Panthers defense was nearly as good. As previously mentioned, the team held the Broncos to the lowest yardage total of any Super Bowl winner ever and almost prevented them from scoring a touchdown. If the Panthers had won, the MVP would have likely gone to defensive end Kony Ealy, who had three sacks, a forced fumble, and an interception in his first 16 snaps on the field. So, Carolina also lived up to its billing as one of the best defenses ever to play in a Super Bowl.
Why then, was the game so aesthetically painful? The NFL Network’s Deion Sanders suggested what could be seen as a possible answer in discussing why he was one of the few commentators to pick the Broncos to score the upset win. “I would never pick against a No. 1 defense in the NFL,” he said. “I’m a defensive player. Most of television is former offensive players who [are] offensive [minded].” If what Sanders said about his colleagues is true, it could be that there’s a bias among NFL pundits toward offense that is priming viewers to care more about one half of the game than the other.
But fans have been bored to tears by good defenses (and bad offenses) since well before the punditry at the NFL Network existed. As FootballPerspective.com’s Chase Stuart wrote in the Washington Post before the game, this “Broncos team look like a carbon copy of the ’00 Ravens,” which made them one of the worst offensive teams ever to reach a Super Bowl. That Ravens team also won the Super Bowl, beating the New York Giants 34–7. And that Ravens defense in Super Bowl XXXV was also historically great. And—like the Panthers—the Giants were not bad either. But pundits and fans hated the game. One Los Angeles Times pundit called it the “Stupor Bowl,” while the Washington Post’s Norman Chad called the Giants that year “more boring than a Donald Rumsfeld dinner party.” (This was a pre-9/11 mentality, to be fair.)
That Super Bowl could either be viewed as a high-water mark in defensive performance, or in pure tedium. At the time, it set the record for fewest total yards in the game by both teams and tied the records for fewest first downs by both teams and most interceptions by a single team. It was also the only Super Bowl ever to feature more punts than Sunday’s contest, with 21 total punts. In his definitive rankings, Peters placed this game in the bottom-15 of worst Super Bowls ever played.
But this wasn’t the first time football fans watched a possibly great defensive performance and yawned. It’s worth remembering the other half of Bear Bryant’s famous adage that “defense wins championships,” which is “offense sells tickets.” NFL Network pundits were not influencing ticket sales to University of Alabama games when Bryant won his first national championship in 1961, and they weren’t impacting how people viewed the Super Bowl 15 years ago either.
So why do most people hate these types of games so very, very much? It could be that when an offense plays well it looks like that team is doing what it’s supposed to be doing, that it’s succeeding. When a defense plays well, though, it often just looks like the other team is failing. So when Miller beats his man with a beautiful stutter move to sack-strip the best player in the league and help his team score a touchdown, that’s the opposite of what is supposed to happen. And it looks like the Panthers offensive line and Cam Newton have just cost their team a touchdown, as much as it looks like the amazing Broncos defense has scored one.
Because football is such a complicated sport with so many moving parts, it’s very difficult to see who deservers credit and who should get blame on any given play when 11 different people on each side could be responsible for the play’s results in a hundred different ways. But when the offenses sputter to such a drastic degree—whether or not such sputtering is caused by a pair of historically great defenses—everything in the game just looks like failure.