Well, you don’t see that every day. Actually, since we’re talking about the Super Bowl, it’s more accurate to say you don’t see that every year. This year’s Super Bowl was, on many levels, one for the ages. A good portion of that was what happened on the field, a high-flying, dramatic football game that included a handful of NFL records being broken. The rest of it was a mix of pure spectacle and strange, once-in-a-lifetime occurrences that added just enough spice to the game to give all the non-football people who found themselves watching the game something to talk about tomorrow while the sports nuts are reminiscing about epic drives and blown calls.
In one night, in one game, you saw the first, and almost certainly only, time that brothers will face off as coaches in their sport’s championship game. You also had the utterly inexplicable incident of the biggest game, in the biggest professional sport in the nation, being delayed for just over half an hour due to the apparent equivalent of a blown fuse. You had NFL records set for the longest kickoff return and longest quarterback run for a touchdown, plus came within one play of a new record for biggest-ever Super Bowl comeback. Oh, and one of the NFL’s biggest, and most controversial, stars was playing in his final game. Throw in a psychedelic halftime show that featured Beyoncé in a skimpy sci-fi BDSM get-up that would look right at home in a remake of Barbarella, and it’s not hard to see why the Super Bowl is the biggest TV event of the year, every year. Not every Super Bowl offers those kind of thrills, but who wants to miss the one that does?
CBS covered all this in a remarkably restrained, even subdued, fashion. The opening offered the usual measure of overblown pomp and circumstance, including a children’s choir from Newtown singing “America The Beautiful” and Alicia Keys delivering a strange, piano-ballad version of the national anthem. Once that was over, it could have been a typical CBS mid-season afternoon game. The network didn’t offer up any special graphics, off the wall statistics, or much context at all for the game. It was just thrown out there like, “hey, here’s your Super Bowl. Or, you know, whatever.”
A big part of that is due to the thoroughly unspectacular coverage team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. Nantz is a reasonable play-by-play guy, if not likely to turn any heads, but Simms isn’t much of a color commentator unless the color you’re looking for is gray. He rarely offered anything approaching insightful analysis, preferring to stick to cliches and meaningless double-talk. As the 49ers roared back from a huge deficit to nearly tie the game up, Simms didn’t have a single insight into what was happening beyond offering the sparkling gem that the blackout stoppage didn’t hurt the Ravens, it just helped the 49ers. What the hell does that even mean? Why is this man being paid to talk on TV?
For most of the game, CBS’ less than dynamic duo completely ignored the wealth of storylines that the game offered. This had to have been a conscious decision, presumably to avoid overplaying the back-stories in favor of focusing on the game at hand. That’s not a bad decision in a vacuum, but it’s a little weird in reality. In the weeks leading up to the game, every brother-against-brother cliche, up to and including comparing the game to the Civil War, was trotted out. The battle of the brothers Harbaugh was all the sports world could talk about, until 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made some awkward anti-gay comments, offering a brief respite. Even the Ray Lewis performance-enhancing drugs mini-scandal couldn’t get much traction in the wake of Har-bro mania, and that kind of stuff is usually sports-pundit gold.
Then during the actual game, the fact that the coaches were brothers was mentioned less than half a dozen times, mostly in passing. There was a split-screen shot of the two coaches and a quick shot of the parents in the first quarter, another shot of the folks at the end, a question from Nantz to winner John about it during the trophy presentation, and that’s about it. The commentators also largely ignored the rest of the game’s potential storylines, too. Lewis’ early-career murder charges and obstruction plea deal got a quick mention in the fourth quarter, but the recent odd PED issue was never brought up. Culliver’s incendiary comments were ignored. Even Joe Flacco’s weird contract situation—he was the game’s MVP, but currently is slated to become a free agent, a situation that’s slightly less common than a talking pig—didn’t warrant more than a quick aside.
And why? It’s not like there wasn’t opportunity. During the half-hour play stoppage, there was some time to fill. CBS filled the dead air by trotting out its pre-game analyst team to hash over the 49ers chance of a comeback (they were down 22 points when the lights went out), while the sideline reporters made vague predictions of when the power might return. This was accompanied by footage of professional football players stretching and looking confused, bored and irritated. It didn’t exactly make for gripping TV. Why not talk about anything else? Hell, talk about how weird it was that the power was out, something so unlikely that not even the most creative bookies in Vegas offered a prop bet that would cover that situation.
It’s a good bet plenty of people took that opportunity to tune out. The halftime show was over, and the game looked to be in the bag. It looked to be pretty dull stuff from there on out, for sure. That’s too bad, because the second half was about as dramatic as they come, a flurry of scoring, big plays, and drama that lasted up until the game’s final moments. Everyone who tuned out also missed some good shots of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh all but melting down in the fourth quarter, throwing stuff and looking like he was about to suffer a brain aneurysm. At least CBS didn’t skimp on that, but even there, a little context (Jim’s a notorious hothead who once almost got in a fistfight over a post-game handshake) could have made the footage more meaningful for the people who only watch the one NFL game a year. All in all, it felt like one big missed opportunity for CBS. Next year, Fox gets the game, and while that network tends to go over the top in every way, this year’s underwhelming delivery has convinced me that’s a better, if potentially more abrasive, way to go.
- In his post-game comments Ray Lewis offered this gem: “When God is for you, who can be against you?” And people say that guy is arrogant!
- Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti looks amazingly like he belongs in an episode of The Sopranos, probably getting whacked for trying to move in on one of Tony’s rackets.
- The halftime show was one of the better ones in recent years, offering a trippy, made-for-tv spectacle of video screens, dancers, fireworks, and Beyoncé in an outfit that didn’t need a wardrobe malfunction to push the limits of what the FCC will allow in primetime. All that, and a Destiny’s Child reunion? Score!
- Speaking of the FCC, CBS might have to pony up some cash for putting a hot mike next to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco as he exclaimed “Holy shit! That was fucking awesome” as the confetti fell.