Troy Aikman

SUPER BOWL LI

2017 – A big-market team with legions of fans takes on a small-market team that no one cares about. WHO WILL WIN?!?

I have to give the NFL creative team credit – after a few missteps earlier in the season, they executed a near-perfect storyline to close things out and stave off disaster for another year.

They really dug themselves a hole at first, though. Never before had creative blunders nearly resulted in the ruin of the promotion itself. Remember when they thought an insurgent Colin Kaepernick was going to be the anti-hero the people would rally around? Remember Cam Newton’s hats and Odell Beckham’s backstage antics?

All the guys they were counting on to sell their video games and T-shirts let them down.

Ratings declined 8% for the 2016 season. The playoff games were dull and poorly-worked. The championship they ended up with – perennial favorite New England vs. chronic choke artist Atlanta – could not have been, on the surface, less inspiring. Creative had vastly misjudged the league’s audience, which was getting sick of a sterile, gutless, predictable product.

Then someone – and I hope they get a bonus or a promotion for thinking this up – decided they already had the perfect angle. While the “Attitude Era” of professional wrestling had the rebellious Stone Cold Steve Austin battling the insidious machinations of the reviled “Mr. McMahon” character, the NFL had the ready-made conflict of baby-face Tom Brady vs. the power-hungry “Mr. Goodell” character. Initially relegated to a secondary storyline behind heroic anthem protests and rookies with stars on their helmets, the “determined Patriots fight the system” plot was tailor-made for the big stage.

The fact that everyone knew what the result was going to be didn’t matter – what mattered was how they got there. Who better to save the league than the guy they built up, in the patriotic post-9/11 era, as the greatest of all time? Therefore: Brady sets nine records (including most Super Bowl MVP awards, passing yards, and wins as a QB) and ties a tenth; Belichick wins the most Super Bowls as a head coach; the Patriots pull off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history; and the game becomes the first Super Bowl to go to overtime. The eeeeevil Mr. Goodell, who was out to get the poor Patriots all year, got his comeuppance in front of a delighted nation.

It was everything an audience could wish to see. More than anything, the league simply could not afford a boring game – either a low-scoring affair or a lop-sided blowout. Something dramatic needed to happen.

Creative needed audiences on the edge of their collective seats, and they pulled out all the stops to do it. The series of plays toward the end of the first half, which saw the Patriots in three consecutive 3rd down situations, was a staging masterpiece. Each time, a flag flew. Each time, the flag was for defensive holding against the Falcons, keeping the Patriot drive alive and resulting in their only points of the first half.

One quibble I have – and this is admittedly a minor one – is that NFL creative seems to rely on this “halftime” thing a little too much. “Halftime” in the NFL is like Hulk Hogan suddenly becoming invincible at the end of a match; it’s a mystical, magical, inexplicable thing that we’re just expected to swallow without question. “They made some halftime adjustments,” we’re told, but can we really swallow the Patriots going from completely inept on both sides of the ball to historically dominant after a brief rest?

Another clumsy moment: the mysterious loss of communication on the Falcons’ sideline during the third quarter. Unfortunately the FOX broadcast caught practice quarterback Matt Simms tapping his earpiece and saying, “I can’t hear shit.” Fortunately they had soulless cardboard cutouts like Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth, who were so busy belaboring an obvious point that they never even mentioned the incident.

Buck and Aikman were similarly silent regarding the pass interference call that made the Patriots’ game-winning overtime touchdown a foregone conclusion, and that’s their real skill. Their almost identical monotone voices help smooth over any little bumps in the performance. Audiences will usually miss an obvious momentum-shifting flag after Aikman spends five minutes bawling about great downfield blocking.

This was an unqualified success for NFL creative. The media, at least, is already crowning this “the greatest Super Bowl ever played.” I’m not sure about that, but it was exactly what the league needed to reassure advertisers that their millions of dollars are still well-spent.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what they whip up in 2017.