Wednesday, February 09, 2011

SPORTS >> Once a bust, Super Bowl rewards fans

Leader sports editor

I had just refreshed my drink and was settling down on the edge of my armchair.

It was the two-minute warning, Super Bowl Sunday, and the outcome of the Pittsburgh Steelers-Green Bay Packers matchup was still in doubt.

“This is all you can ask for,” I said.

And then I glanced at my son Nathan, all of 15, and while he was into the game — rooting like me against the hated Packers and all they stand for — it was nothing he hadn’t seen before.

Oh, what magical times we live in when a teenager can be blasé about a close Super Bowl. When I was growing up it was usually the worst game of the year.

In my son’s lifetime eight Super Bowls have been decided by 10 or fewer points, two on the last play while the rest hung in doubt until the closing seconds.

My son, for that matter all football fans, has a right to expect the most-hyped game to be the best — and Nathan does because he has lived through two game-winning field goals by New England’s Adam Vinatieri and the falling down catch by New York’s David Tyree as he pinned the ball to his helmet in the Giants’ upset of unbeaten New England in 2008.

My son has seen the New Orleans Saints not only win a Super Bowl, but do it while gambling on an onside kick to start the second half last year. Nathan saw the Steelers score the winning touchdown with 35 seconds left to beat the Arizona Cardinals in 2009.

He might have been more interested in his Pokemon cards at the time, but my son was around when the St. Louis Rams stopped the Tennessee Titans a yard short on the last play in 2000.

He may have been more hung up on his Nintendo DS, but my son was with us when New England edged Carolina on yet another Vinatieri field goal with 4 seconds left in 2004.

And on Sunday, Nathan saw Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger throw incomplete in the final minute as Green Bay hung on for a 31-25 victory.

My own Super Bowl memories are tarnished by a horrible run of one-sided games like the 52-17 and 30-13 drubbings Dallas gave Buffalo in 1994 and 1993.

In 1995, a few months before Nathan was born, the San Francisco 49ers walloped the San Diego Chargers 49-26, and I was in New Orleans — at least I think that’s what I remember — when the 49ers clobbered Denver 55-10 in 1990.

Then there was that stretch from 1984-88 when the smallest margin of victory was New York’s 39-20 “squeaker” over Denver in 1987. In that stretch the Chicago Bears posted what was then the most lopsided score when they beat the Patriots 46-10 in 1986.

I don’t mind saying the Bears’ lone Super Bowl victory was sheer poetry to me, though Ditka couldn’t get Payton a touchdown, but it surely was no picnic for the casual football fan.

So why does the Super Bowl, with a record 111 million viewers this year, seem to have gotten so much better in the past 10-15 years?

First let’s remember they haven’t all been gems. That 48-21 victory by Tampa Bay over Oakland in 2003 was a dog and the Baltimore Ravens put a sleeper hold on the Giants, and the viewing audience, with a 34-7 victory in January 2001.

But if the game has become more competitive on the average I think we can chalk it up to free agency and the salary cap.

With players coming and going more frequently now, a team can find a couple key players in the offseason and get up to speed a lot more quickly than the days when a club had to build through draft picks the way college teams build through recruiting.

Like players, coaches are less apt to stay put, and they take their talents from conference to conference, leading to a more homogenized style of play.

In the old matchups, the AFC pitted its bomb-throwing passing games against the ground games and defense of the NFC, and with such a difference in styles, Super Bowls had a tendency to get out of hand more quickly.

But you know, I looked up a few scores in writing this, and I realize not every Super Bowl of my youth was a suspense-free beat-down.

While with the Air Force in England in 1989, I stayed up past midnight local time to watch Joe Montana rally the 49ers past the Bengals, 20-16. And I still vaguely remember the Colts’ Jim O’Brien beating Dallas with a field goal in 1971.

Dallas and Pittsburgh embellished their legends with a pair of classics, both won by Pittsburgh, 27-17 in 1976 and 35-31 in 1979. The Los Angeles Rams held a fourth-quarter lead on Pittsburgh in 1980 before the Steelers rallied to win 31-19.

The difference between my generation and my son’s is that the good game always felt like a stroke of good fortune. To my son, the nail-biters are the norm.

So we’re already looking forward to the Bears beating the New York Jets 2-0 on a safety next year.