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Dumb Football with Mike Tunison: Super Bowl 50

After all that build-up, Super Bowl 50 delivered a game that felt a lot like the season that preceded it—a little bit off, and somehow caught in between.

by Mike Tunison
Feb 8 2016, 3:50pm

Photo by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.

The Super Bowl is the time for the NFL to put on its most telegenic face for an audience that, in no small part, doesn't care about the league most of the time. Super Bowl 50 as a game was a poor fit for casual fans, who typically want a lot of points and offensive highlights. Instead, the story was about what Von Miller, ol' Wade Phillips, and the rest Broncos defense stopped the Carolina offense from doing—which was just about everything. The commercials aired on schedule, but Carolina never really got started.

For the type of football fan who wants to see a particular joyless idea of football validated, it was a great night, the kind that begged for the solemn intoning that Defense Wins Championships, before moving on to more excitedly find fault with how the losers expressed disappointment. Millions tuned in expecting to celebrate Cam Newton's humanity and instead found it was once more time to praise the machine.

Read More: The Big Game and the Super Bowl

The winning quarterback getting all the attention is just a fundamental part of the culture of the sport, whether or not it makes sense. This is unavoidable in most circumstances and especially so when the winning passer happens to be NFL elder statesman and senior brand ambassador Peyton Manning. The Sheriff—a Jon Gruden nickname if there's ever been one—had the worst season of any quarterback to reach the Super Bowl, and was similarly subpar in the Super Bowl itself. He threw one inexplicable interception that cost Denver points and never produced that one signature throw that will get to live on in highlight packages. The most telling moment of Peyton's present state of decline came late in the game, as Manning opted to hand off the ball in what was essentially a give-up play call on a critical third-and-9 with about five minutes remaining and a one-score lead. It's hard to remember any Super Bowl champions that seemed quite so eager to punt.

Denver bet on winning with defense and it worked out swimmingly. What could have been Carolina's triumphant drive to steal the lead late was snuffed out in just three plays, as Super Bowl MVP Von Miller forced his second Cam Newton fumble of the game. It was only then, starting with the ball on the Carolina four-yard line, that Denver was able to score its only offensive touchdown of the game.

For as much Peyton loves the media and the media love him back, he withheld the storybook ending. Manning could have had the John Elway/Jerome Bettis moment by calling it a career on the podium with the Lombardi in hand. That he didn't must have come as a great disappointment to Jim Nantz, the type of person who uses the verb "swirl" to describe the HGH allegations leveled against the quarterback. The presumption is still that Manning will retire, and that he is presumably waiting to do it in the most brand-friendly way possible—as part of a Papa John's ad, maybe. That said, knowing Peyton's single-minded obsession with the sport, him playing until he's dragged away kicking and screaming shouldn't be ruled out. It's easier than it should be to imagine a Peyton Manning L.A. Rams jersey.

Call me old school, but I find his posture indefensibly disrespectful, here. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In many ways, Super Bowl 50 was the championship game the 2015 season deserved, filled as it was with all the hallmarks of preventable NFL disorder. There were, not unexpectedly, issues with the Levi's Stadium turf, as players were frantically changing cleats during the game and complaining of slippery conditions. Midway through the first quarter, the usual riddle of what constitutes a football catch was puzzled over by the officials before they decided not to overturn a ruling of an incompletion even though it appeared that Panthers receiver Jerricho Cotchery had control of the ball as it came into contact with the ground. It was not an insignificant decision. Two plays later, the Broncos scored the first touchdown of the Super Bowl when a fumble forced by Von Miller trickled out right at the Carolina goal line.

Fans at home being bombarded by commercials is hardly a strange occurrence during a NFL broadcast, and that goes double for the Super Bowl, when the advertising industry makes sure to trot out its best collection of Paul Blart-level gags to fill million-dollar spots. If you can glean anything from an audience by the commercials it gets, NFL fans haven't taken a good shit in several years. An anthropomorphic intestine served as the unofficial mascot of the game, showing a face not dissimilar from that on many Panthers fans right about now.

intest.jpg

It was a not-good coda to a not-good season, and it only somehow got worse after the final whistle sounded. Peyton giving the first postgame kiss to Papa John then twice brand-checking Budweiser free of charge during the trophy presentation was cute if your tolerance for Peyton as corporate spokesbot is sufficiently high. Less amusing was the onslaught of takes about "classiness" that followed Cam Newton's press conference, which, if you've been following any media since, you know lasted less than three minutes. The press conference did, to be clear. The classiness takes have been going for 12 hours now and show no sign of letting up.

There are certainly valid criticisms to make of Cam Newton's play during the game. He overthrew a number of passes in the first half. He declined to go all-out to recover a fumble in the fourth quarter when Carolina still had a chance to come back. The culture of football may publicly wring its hands about the importance of player safety, but woe betide any athlete thinking about their health when a ring is on the line. To be sure, Cam did not have a good game, though he was hardly alone in that respect for Carolina, whose sole standout performer was the little-known Kony Ealy. Cam didn't make Mike Tolbert fumble twice. He can't be blamed for poor blocking. The 13 hits Newton took in the Super Bowl were more than double the previous high of six he took in any one game during the season.

When you are reliving the memories, Josh Norman–style. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

How you feel about Cam Newton's presser surely has a lot to do with how you felt about Cam Newton before the game. Despite his warm congratulation of Manning after the final whistle, Cam was somehow seen as less than sporting for not subjecting himself to more non-questions along the lines of "Can you put into words the disappointment you feel right now." From there, a mighty chorus of dog whistles did sound, including condemnation issued forth from the likes of an actor with a sex crime on his record and a former linebacker accused of using slurs during his playing days. To his credit, at least Bill Romanowski later apologized for the racially loaded phrasing of calling Cam Newton "boy" during a dismissive rant.

As many have and will point out, Cam's brusque dealings with those questions was the sort of thing Bill Belichick is typically celebrated for. One can make the point that Belichick's emotions—or lack thereof—are more consistent, and that Bill also isn't the guy to pose for a celebratory sideline photo with teammates in the waning minutes of a blowout. That's fine, though it's a deflection from a more worthwhile conversation about exactly what athletes and coaches supposedly owe the public immediately following a game. Cam's team lost the most important game of the season, so he must pull on a hair shirt and blankly accept responsibility like he's in the dock at a war tribunal? Why?

It's entirely too fitting, in retrospect, that not even an hour before the Newton media drama took place, Marshawn Lynch implied that he is retiring from football on Twitter in the middle of the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Lynch's dealings with the credentialed media over the previous two Super Bowl seasons are already the stuff of legend. That he could bury his retirement announcement when attention was firmly fixed elsewhere was just one last kiss-off to that grumpy and gratitude-averse media apparatus. Even with the end of a championship game going on, saltiness was evident.

Newton's behavior late in the game and with the media is sure to become a talking point for his detractors for the foreseeable future. This is not unfamiliar territory for a quarterback used to having every mannerism intensely scrutinized, and we all know how this goes, and how the people who will handle it that way will handle it. The rest of us will take a step back, realize how close Newton just came to the sport's ultimate prize despite a lackluster supporting cast, and think that there could still be better days to come. In a while, we'll probably even start looking forward to them.

See all of VICE Sports' Super Bowl 50 coverage here.

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