For All the Marbles

Jesse Pantuosco
Rotoworld

Let’s be honest. Last year’s Super Bowl … kind of a dud (One combined touchdown? Who do I call about a refund?). If it were an Uber ride? Probably one star—two if we’re being generous. 

Harsh? Maybe. But we don’t pull any punches here at Rotoworld and those familiar with my work know I’ve always been a “call it like I see it” guy. I’m sure that candor, along with my gratuitous pop culture references and occasional football analysis is what brings you all back here each Tuesday. Self-analysis aside, this year’s Super Bowl, the franchise’s 54th installment (take that, Marvel!), has a chance to right all of last year’s wrongs. 

Not that I need to sell you on the biggest event in sports. Whether it’s the football you’re interested in or something outside that realm—commercials, office grids, the halftime show (any year Imagine Dragons isn’t headlining is a good year), watching in awe as I clean the bones off every chicken wing in sight (I’m a five on this scale)—the Super Bowl is about as all-encompassing as it gets. If there’s anything more American than watching football (ideally on the biggest TV possible), mainlining light beer and eating your body weight in appetizers, all while tweeting every second of it, I’d sure love to know about it. 

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But alas, there is football to be played, narratives to write, scores to settle. So what’s at stake, besides seven pounds of silver (that’s how much the Lombardi Trophy weighs, FYI), a lavish parade that will inevitably lead to a drunken F-bomb being uttered on live TV and the obligatory Disney World visit? Well, a lot actually. Here are 10 storylines to focus on ahead of Sunday’s finale in South Beach.

Speed: What is it Good For?

I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. But does defense really win championships? It did last year and if San Francisco, the league’s second-stingiest defense during the regular season (281.8 yards per game), takes care of business Sunday, defense will have another day in the spotlight. But the Chiefs didn’t build their empire on defense. They built it on hot, nasty, bad-ass speed. Between deep assassin Tyreek Hill (4.34 forty), explosive rookie and All-Pro return man Mecole Hardman (4.33) and Sammy Watkins (4.42), it’s not hyperbole to say Kansas City may have constructed the fastest receiving corps of all-time. That could spell trouble for the famously molasses-legged Richard Sherman (4.60), though Sherm’s lack of speed didn’t hinder him much during the regular season when he received PFF’s top coverage grade among cornerbacks while attaining All-Pro status for the fifth time in his storied career. Sherman got the better of Hill in their last encounter (Tyreek turned five targets into two catches for 51 scoreless yards in Week 3 of 2018), though it should be noted the veteran rarely travels with top receivers at this late juncture in his career.

The Tight End Olympics

With Rob Gronkowski ditching football for a lucrative career in party planning (Mmmmmaybach Music), heir apparents Travis Kelce and George Kittle are left to fight it out for the tight end crown. Both will be on display for our viewing pleasure in Super Bowl LIV with Kelce—he of four straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons (a record for NFL tight ends)—opposing the charismatic Kittle, who, in addition to holding the single-season receiving record for tight ends, also keeps this phenomenal t-shirt in his closet. Kittle may be the more well-rounded of the two (among tight ends, only Arizona’s Maxx Williams earned higher run-blocking marks from ProFootballFocus) and certainly merits a style point or two for playing through a broken ankle, but let’s not be too quick to dismiss Kelce, who laid down the hammer with three touchdowns as the Chiefs erased a 24-point deficit in their Divisional Round win over Houston. If tight ends are your jam, well rise and shine because Sunday has your name written all over it. Super Bowl LIV will go a long way toward determining the league’s post-Gronk pecking order at tight end.

Big Red’s Big Moment

Andy Reid has long been acknowledged as one of the game’s best coaches, a level of accomplishment that will be reflected on his eventual Hall of Fame plaque in Canton. And unlike the ruthless Bill Belichick, Reid’s soul remains more or less intact. Between his continued affinity for beach attire (Tommy Bahama or bust), burgers and hitting the hay early (not to mention his jet-ski-dealing brother Randy or the hilarious footage from his early days on the punt, pass and kick circuit), Reid may be the most likeable great coach we’ve ever known. His coaching tree keeps sprouting branches and while critics continue to harp on his perceived postseason failures, the truth of the matter is, only three coaches in the history of the sport—Belichick, Don Shula and Tom Landry—have won more playoff games than Reid’s 28. But there’s still one thing missing from Reid’s resume and we all know what it is—a ring. Reid has never won the big one (his lone Super Bowl appearance resulted in a loss to the Patriots in 2004), but if the 21-year coaching vet were ever to slay his postseason demons, this would be the team to do it with. Armed with a generational quarterback (more on him in a minute), a slew of warp-speed pass-catchers and a defense invigorated by the return of disruptor Chris Jones, Reid has never been better-equipped in his career-long quest for the elusive Lombardi Trophy. Is it Big Red’s time? We’ll know Sunday. 

Kyle Shanahan’s Redemption Arc

Nobody needs a Super Bowl win more than the long-suffering Reid (or his similarly aggrieved fan base in Kansas City), except for maybe the man he’s coaching against, Kyle “28-3” Shanahan. Sure, it’s low-hanging fruit and not a fair or accurate assessment of who he is as a coach, but to the general public, Shanahan is still most known for his debacle late in Super Bowl LI, joining the likes of Bill Buckner, Chris Webber and others in the pantheon of tragic sports figures. And try as he might to hide it, you know Atlanta’s second-half collapse to New England still eats at Shanahan, pestering his subconscious like a hangnail or an untimely pimple that sprouts up the night before school picture day. Even last week when the Packers mounted their second-half comeback (which would ultimately prove futile), you could hear the whispers of doubt emanating from the Twitter masses, an army of keyboard critics ready to repurpose the venom they spewed when Atlanta choked so memorably in 2016 (even if Dan Quinn’s listless defense was more to blame than Shanahan’s offense). But winning cures all in this game and Super Bowl LIV offers a new beginning for Shanahan who, despite his past travails, has established himself as a master tactician and elite motivator, beloved by coaches and players alike. Just like when the Red Sox put those 1918 chants to bed with their World Series title in 2004 (and to think it all started with Dave Roberts stealing second), a win Sunday would allow Shanahan to finally leave behind the most painful chapter in his NFL journey. It would also serve as a “warm glass of shut the hell up” for anyone who cast doubt on his credentials (it would be a big L for the nepotism truthers) or didn’t think Shanny had the chops to lead a team to Super Bowl glory.  

Sure, Dee Ford, You Get a Redemption Arc Too

Dee Ford made an honest mistake jumping offsides late in last year’s AFC title clash at Arrowhead. But even as the former first-round pick tormented QBs to the tune of 13 sacks en route to Pro Bowl status during his breakout 2018, Ford’s lasting legacy with the Chiefs will always be his costly penalty against New England, a gaffe that not only let Tom Brady off the hook (had it counted, his fourth-quarter pick would have sealed the win for KC) but also subjected the embattled Kansas City fan-base to the latest in a long lineage of heartbreaking defeats. Rather than show him mercy, the Chiefs packed his bags, flipping Ford for a second-round pick on the eve of free agency last offseason. While Ford’s debut season in San Fran hasn’t always gone to plan—repeated hamstring woes cost him five regular-season games—a Super Bowl triumph over his former employer would be the cherry on top of the 28-year-old’s redemption sundae. 

Let’s Settle It: Do Running Backs Matter?

The NFL has been a pass-first league for quite some time and with analytics gaining traction just about everywhere (even cocoon posterchild Dave Gettleman is warming up to the idea of having “computer folks” on the Giants’ payroll), that’s not going to change anytime soon. And while Derrick Henry’s playoff eruption (which included consecutive takedowns of New England and Baltimore) briefly called the league’s pass-centric agenda into question, this year’s Super Bowl matchup may be the most compelling case yet for “zero running back.” Why pay hand over fist for Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott (the two highest earners at their position) when neither of the featured backs in this year’s Super Bowl (Raheem Mostert and Damien Williams) even had the privilege of being drafted? Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley have largely lived up to their first-round billing but it can’t be a coincidence that neither participated in this year’s (or last year’s) postseason. Rather than commit to a workhorse (or god forbid, signing said workhorse to a second contract), the 49ers and Chiefs have largely relied on grab bags of unheralded committee backs, keeping opponents on their toes (while also limiting wear and tear) by employing the “hot hand.” If Mostert—a former core special teamer who suited up for six other franchises before latching on with the Niners—can lead San Francisco to the promised land, will others follow suit by substituting bell-cows for high-octane committees? A war is being waged and it could spell the death of the traditional workhorse once and for all. 

The One That Got Away

Bill Belichick has pulled many of the right levers throughout his New England coaching tenure (the whole drafting Tom Brady thing seemed to work out for him), but some of his recent personnel choices have left us scratching our heads. New England’s ill-fated Mohamed Sanu experiment, the decision to spend a first-round pick on one-dimensional plodder Sony Michel, punting tight end altogether following Rob Gronkowski’s retirement—all were costly missteps with potential long-term ramifications. But Bill’s instincts were correct when it came to Jimmy Garoppolo. The initial plan was for Brady to groom Jimmy G as his successor but Touchdown Tom wasn’t ready to give up his throne, prompting Garoppolo’s eventual trade to San Francisco (Belichick bristled before finally kowtowing to long-time Brady sympathizer Robert Kraft). Maybe history will chalk it up as a win for both—Brady lifted the Lombardi in 2018 and Garoppolo can say the same with a win Sunday. But jettisoning Garoppolo may also prove shortsighted for a Patriots team staring down the barrel of a dying dynasty. How much credit Garoppolo deserves for the Niners’ success is debatable—he attempted all of eight passes in the Conference Championship. But it’s hard not to dwell on what could have been. Would a win for Garoppolo vindicate Belichick, who never wanted to trade him in the first place? Or would it have all played out the same? Unsolvable hypotheticals and alternate timelines can drive a person insane, but if Garoppolo is able to climb football’s highest mountain Sunday, it will undoubtedly come with mixed emotions from Patriots fans.

In the Words of Kevin Garnett, “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLLLLLLE!”

All these years later, it’s still baffling that Kevin Garnett’s largely incoherent interview with Michelle Tafoya gave rise to one of the most repeated sports catchphrases of all time. No one would ever confuse Garnett (who recently made the podcast rounds to promote his film debut in Adam Sandler’s Uncut Gems) for Socrates, but the 49ers have nonetheless adopted his rallying cry, defying the odds to capture their first conference title since Colin Kaepernick was steering the ship in 2012. San Francisco’s meteoric rise should give hope to struggling franchises everywhere. Still licking their wounds from a disastrous 4-12 season, expectations were understandably low for San Francisco heading into this year but this time, all the pieces fit. A healthy Garoppolo turned the offense around (adding Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders to the fray definitely didn’t hurt) while newcomers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford anchored a resurgent Niners defense. Sunday they’ll play for all the marbles. Jumping from four to 13 wins in a year’s time is not an everyday occurrence, but with a capable coaching staff and players that buy in, sudden turnarounds are more than possible. Props to Shanahan & Co. for making a quick 180, transforming the 49ers from afterthoughts to Super Bowl hopefuls in record time.

Mahomes’ Place on Quarterback’s Mount Rushmore

Of all the players donning Super Bowl patches on their chest this week, one stands above the rest. You know who he is. Hell, I devoted somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,600 words to him last week. Even if the follow-up to Mahomes’ breakout 2018 wasn’t quite as brilliant as its predecessor, the 24-year-old gunslinger was still a rock star in cleats, accounting for 28 touchdowns (26 passing, two rushing) while leading the Chiefs to a first-round bye and, more importantly, their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years. They don’t let just anyone into Canton but the recently retired Eli Manning is assuredly headed there on the strength of his two Super Bowl wins and a victory Sunday would put Mahomes on a similar Hall of Fame trajectory. The reigning MVP (a title he’ll soon relinquish to Lamar Jackson) has already established himself as a household name—you don’t throw 50 touchdowns at age 23 without becoming a national phenomenon—but a win Sunday would undoubtedly heighten his profile while further entrenching himself as a Chiefs legend. Inventive, rocket-armed and boisterously confident, Mahomes’ electric brand of football is a sight to behold, continually laughing in the face of fundamentals with his never-ending arsenal of off-balanced throws, daring escapes and impossible comebacks. It’s obviously too early for the “greatest ever” conversation, but earning a ring, something he can accomplish Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium, would be a good first step. 

Richard Sherman’s Legacy

Richard Sherman’s ticket to Canton is all but punched. Formerly the face of Seattle’s vaunted Legion of Boom secondary, Sherman has changed allegiances, now becoming a key cog on a San Francisco defense that allowed the league’s fewest passing yards per game during the regular season. Cerebral and huge for his position (6’3”/205), the 31-year-old remains one of the league’s toughest assignments. Aaron Rodgers wisely avoided him in the Conference Championship, only throwing his way on two occasions. Both passes were caught—one by Davante Adams, the other by Sherman for a game-sealing interception. You don’t have to like him—Sherman’s tough guy shtick has worn thin on some (Skip Bayless, Baker Mayfield and Michael Crabtree are among his many enemies)—but even in his 10th season and second with San Francisco, the Stanford alum can still flat-out ball. Raising another banner to the rafters will only strengthen his Hall of Fame candidacy.  

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