I love dissecting Super Bowl angles as the first Sunday in February approaches. Here are a few to enhance your viewing pleasure when the Patriots and Giants get it on.
(A note before we begin. I find it tiring when I read Super Bowl stories in which Roman numerals are in every third line. Quick: Who was the hero of Super Bowl XXIII? If I asked you who was the hero after the 1988 season, you’re much more likely to remember Joe Montana’s game-winning drive. When I make a reference to a specific Super Bowl, it will be the season for which that Super Bowl determined the champion. Green Bay beat Kansas City in the first Super Bowl after the 1966 season. Super Bowl XLVI will decide the champion for the 2011 season. And so on.)
• Not only will this Sunday’s game be a rematch of the epic Super Bowl four years ago (where are you, David Tyree?), but it will be only the third time franchises with at least five Super Bowl appearances have met. Dallas beat Pittsburgh in 1995 and Green Bay beat the Steelers last year. The Patriots’ seven Super Bowl appearances are now third among NFL teams, behind only the Cowboys and Steelers (eight each).
• Over the course of the first 13 Super Bowls, six of the games featured a pair of starting quarterbacks bound for the Hall of Fame (Dawson/Starr, Staubach/Griese, Griese/Tarkenton, Bradshaw/Tarkenton, and Bradshaw/Staubach twice). Over the last 32 Super Bowls, only four can claim such a match-up (Montana/Marino, Montana/Elway, and Aikman/Kelly twice). This will change, of course, as players not yet eligible for the Hall are enshrined (two examples: Elway/Favre in 1997 and Peyton Manning/Brees in 2009).
Tom Brady has been a first-ballot Hall of Famer for a few years now. And if Eli Manning wins a second Lombardi Trophy, he’ll have Canton in his sights. (The only quarterback to win two Super Bowls and not gain Hall induction when eligible is the Raiders’ Jim Plunkett.) Making things extra juicy, this is only the third quarterback rematch in Super Bowl history (Terry Bradshaw beat Roger Staubach twice and Troy Aikman did the same to Jim Kelly). But it’s the first rematch between quarterbacks who have each been named Super Bowl MVP. (Bradshaw earned the honor in 1978 when he beat Staubach — MVP in ’71 — in their rematch.)
• Brady will join John Elway as the only quarterbacks to start five Super Bowls. And should he win, he’ll be just the third to earn four rings (after Bradshaw and Montana). So he’s in the conversation about “greatest quarterback of all time.” For all his championships, Bradshaw doesn’t earn much love in this debate, having won his titles for teams remembered largely for the defense they played.
Thankfully, football historians don’t call upon career stats when debating the greatest signal-callers. (Vinny Testaverde passed for more yardage and touchdowns than did Montana.) Before we narrow the debate of greatest QB to Montana and Brady, though, I’d ask you to remember some great football was played before the first Super Bowl. And two legends deserve a mention here. Johnny Unitas won four championships for his Baltimore Colts and Otto Graham won an astounding seven titles for the Cleveland Browns in the Forties and Fifties (the first four in the All-America Football Conference, an early competitor to the NFL). If you asked me to rank these titans, I’d go with (1) Unitas, (2) Montana, (3) Brady, (4) Graham.
• The Giants are the third team to finish the regular season 9-7 and reach the Super Bowl (after the 1979 Rams and 2008 Cardinals). But they’re the first to do so having been 7-7 at one point. Which means New York has essentially won five straight elimination games on its way to Indianapolis.
• This factoid may interest only me, but worth sharing. The AFC is 4-10 in Super Bowls played under a roof. Two of those four wins, though, belong to New England (2001 and 2003).
• He’s as crusty as they come, and dresses like a 7th-grader, but Bill Belichick has established credentials almost beyond compare in the Super Bowl era. Should he win a fourth Lombardi Trophy, he’ll stand alongside Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll as the only two coaches to do so. But Noll accumulated his rings over the course of merely six seasons, loaded with Hall of Famers — Bradshaw, Harris, Greene, Stallworth, Lambert, Ham, Blount, Swann, Webster — who played for all four teams. That dynasty essentially repeated three times, with a short interruption.
If Belichick wins Sunday, his four championships will have come over 11 seasons, with Brady the only linchpin throughout. An entire NFL roster will have been turned over (around a brilliant quarterback) under the same coach, with championship results. And were it not for that helmet-catch by Tyree four years ago, Belichick might have a fifth ring and an undefeated season on his resume. He stands to join a category of one.
• The pick: For me it comes down to the weapons at the disposal of the star quarterbacks. I’m convinced New England’s record-setting tight end, Rob Gronkowski, will be a shadow of himself as he nurses a severely damaged ankle. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are valuable targets for Brady, but they’ll be easier marks for the Giant defense with Gronkowski diminished.
In addition to having the superior defense (end Jason Pierre-Paul is my dark horse for MVP), the Giants’ offensive weapons are healthy and peaking. Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Wideouts Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. Eli Manning likes this stage. With that many weapons, you can’t bet against him. GIANTS 34, PATRIOTS 20
AFC: Baltimore at New England
• In watching Tom Brady shred Denver’s defense last Saturday night (six touchdown passes), you got the impression that the future Hall of Famer was making a point. His 5,235 passing yards this season surpassed the record Dan Marino set 27 years ago, but was merely second in the NFL this season to the Saints’ Drew Brees. Brady tossed 39 touchdown passes in 2011, the second-most in his 12-year career, but all we read about before Saturday was the new Tim Tebow world in which we all now live. If New England wins Sunday, Brady will become only the second quarterback (after John Elway) to start five Super Bowls. He has the chance to become the third quarterback (after Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana) to win four Super Bowls. And as for Tebow, it turns out legend trumps cult in January.
• You have to wonder if the bust Bill Belichick eventually gets at the Pro Football Hall of Fame will include a hood. I’ll never get used to seeing a leader of grown men do his thing in the same outfit you might find on a bench-dweller in Boston Common. It’s always been about results, though, with the Patriot coach. Like Brady, Belichick will join an exclusive club with a win over Baltimore. Only Don Shula (with the Baltimore Colts and Miami) and Tom Landry (with Dallas) have coached in five Super Bowls. And only Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll has won four. To date, Belichick is 3-1 on Super Sunday.
• The AFC title will be decided between the league’s second-ranked offense (New England averaged 467.1 yards per game) and third-ranked defense (Baltimore allowed 288.9 yards per game). Despite making the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, the Ravens will be appearing in only their third AFC championship game (they won after the 2000 season and lost after the 2008 campaign). Even with Ray Rice taking a starring role (he finished second in the NFL with 1,364 rushing yards), Baltimore is headlined by two future Hall of Famers on the defensive side: linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Which makes the cat-and-mouse with Brady all the more intriguing.
• The pick: Again, Brady seems like he’s out to make a point. New England 27, Baltimore 13.
NFC: New York Giants at San Francisco
• I’m guilty of painting Giant quarterback Eli Manning as Peyton’s little brother, with every connotation the word “little” might conjure. And I’ve been wrong for some time. Four years after leading a four-game postseason charge to a championship (upsetting the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII), Manning passed for 4,933 yards this season and set a record for fourth-quarter touchdown passes with 15. New York snuck into the playoffs by winning their last two regular-season games to finish 9-7. But with Manning at the helm, the Giants piled up points against both Atlanta and mighty Green Bay. (Remember when it was impossible for a visiting team to win at Lambeau Field in January?) Like his brother, Eli Manning is a winner. Bet against him at your peril.
• We tend to see championships taken by teams that get hot at the right time on the scoreboard. A basketball team finds its range from long distance or a baseball team starts spraying line drives in the late innings. Well, the Giant defense is getting hot at the right time. The franchise that gave us Sam Huff and Lawrence Taylor finished 27th in the NFL in defense this season. But with defensive end Osi Umenyiora healthy again and joining Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks) on the Giant pass rush, New York has begun playing the brand of football its fans know and love. A hot defense should be feared.
• I watched Alex Smith lead his Utah Utes to a win over Southern Miss in the 2003 Liberty Bowl. He looked like a good system quarterback (his coach at the time was Urban Meyer), but nothing like a top NFL draft pick (as he became in 2005) or a successor to Joe Montana and Steve Young in the lineage of San Francisco Super Bowl signal-callers. With a win Sunday, Smith would finally silence skeptics who have followed his seven-year career as though he were a death-row inmate awaiting that final meal order. Like the other Harbaugh-coached team still alive, the 49ers reached a conference championship by playing stellar defense (fourth in the league) in the Year of the Quarterback. Add the guts they showed offensively in winning that shootout with New Orleans and you have the makings of something super.
• The pick: I’d like to see the 49ers become the 11th different NFC team to reach the Super Bowl over the last 11 years. But they’re playing Eli Manning with high stakes. New York 24, San Francisco 13.
Over the last several years, I probably ran into Gene Bartow a dozen times, usually in a basketball arena. Every time I got the chance, I’d shake his hand and introduce myself. (He’s Gene Bartow, I thought, and surely has no room in his mental Rolodex for weekly sports columnists.) Every time I shook his hand, though, Bartow would smile at me and offer an enthusiastic, “Good to see you again!” As though we were old college buddies.
We knew Coach Bartow was sick since his cancer diagnosis in 2009. But just like Larry Finch’s passing nine months ago — another Memphis icon that fought illness longer than he should have had to — Bartow’s death on January 3rd is painful. Not so much because we lost a Collegiate Basketball Hall of Famer (Bartow was inducted in 2009), but because we lost a rare member of the Humanity Hall of Fame.
I’m too young to have covered Bartow’s Tiger teams in the early Seventies. And I didn’t know him as well as he’d lead me to believe. But I’ve lived in Memphis 20 years and have heard and researched my share of stories, and I’ve yet to hear a single, solitary negative comment about Gene Bartow. Perhaps the greatest achievement of a man’s life is to be loved by others as much as the love he’s able to share. If possible, Bartow had a surplus of love from not one, but two communities (also Birmingham) he impacted with his talents as a basketball coach and his supreme skills at the game of life.
Let’s not forget Bartow was a coach of the highest standard. The season before his arrival in Memphis, the Tigers went 6-20 under Moe Iba. In Bartow’s first season (1970-71), with a pair of hometown sophomores (Finch and Ronnie Robinson) suiting up for the varsity, the Tigers went 18-8 and beat 13th-ranked Louisville at the Mid-South Coliseum. They won 21 games the next season then, of course, played what remains the most epic season in Tiger hoops history. Despite starting the 1972-73 season 2-3, the Tigers reached the NCAA tournament (with a record of 21-5) and gave mighty UCLA all it could handle (at least for a half) in the championship game. Two years later, Bartow was the chosen successor to John Wooden. Not a bad line for your resume.
Sports are about time and place. The confluence of Gene Bartow and Larry Finch in the early 1970s in Memphis, Tennessee, provided this city with a pair of lead actors — one black, one white — for a story it desperately needed told. The argument could be made that this was (and remains) the most significant development in the history of Memphis sports. Bartow and Finch didn’t just give a community — reeling from the horror of Martin Luther King’s murder — something to cheer. They gave Memphis an interracial marriage in which class, dignity, and kindness were the foundation.
I’ll miss introducing myself to Gene Bartow.
• When the Baseball Hall of Fame announces the results of the writers’ vote Monday afternoon, we’ll likely see Barry Larkin — the 12-time All-Star shortstop who led Cincinnati to the 1990 world championship — join the late Ron Santo (elected by the veterans committee last month) as the only 2012 inductees. But if I had a ballot, there are three more players who would have my support:
JEFF BAGWELL — Despite hitting 449 home runs, scoring and driving in more than 1,500 runs, and earning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, Bagwell only received 42 percent of the vote last year, his first on the ballot (75 percent is needed for election). He’s clearly been lumped into the steroid crowd despite never being implicated for using performance enhancers. Based on evidence to date, Bagwell’s a Hall of Famer.
LEE SMITH — He saved at least 30 games 12 times (and led the National League with 29 in 1983). He retired in 1997 as the career saves leader with 478. He represented four different teams in the All-Star Game. If Rich Gossage is a Hall of Famer, so is Lee Smith.
JACK MORRIS — I’ve gone back and forth on Morris. He won 15 games 12 times but won 20 only three seasons. His strikeout total (2,478) falls short of the magical 3,000 for starting pitchers. His career ERA is 3.90. But here’s the clincher: Morris pitched in the rotation for world champion teams in Detroit (1984), Minnesota (1991), and Toronto (1992). He pitched and won one of the most famous games in World Series history (1991, Game 7). Morris was a gamer, and a Hall of Famer.
This year, of course, is mere prelude to the 2013 Hall of Fame vote, when the Larry, Moe, and Curly of the Steroid Era (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa) will appear on the ballot for the first time. Let the debates begin.