When the most tedious Super Bowl in history had ended and you had picked up your jaw after learning that Tom Brady had not been named the game’s most valuable player out of desperation and habit, you realized that, fittingly, most people did not get what they wanted out of America’s Jesus-Free Christmas.
Oh, New England Patriots fans got what they want, and so did New England bettors and Julian Edelman acolytes and people who think punting is undervalued and people who thought the Super Bowl lost its magic in 1974. You can’t displease all of the people all of the time.
But mostly, this was Bill Belichick’s masterpiece, his Sistine Chapel with video capability. As the game’s pre-eminent historian, he has known more ways to win a game than most of us have learned to watch one, and with every trend in the sport going toward offensive pyrosptectaculars and playbooks powered by dilithium crystals, he decided to force-feed America a three-hour tutorial on Chuck Noll and Don Shula and George Allen and Bud Grant. It was the early 1970s, and you were there.
It is a lesson America didn’t enjoy and one it will hate all the more in years to come, but Belichick, who has adapted to changing mores in the sport as much as any coach, dragged us all by our our slackened eyelids back to a time when we thought presidents didn’t come worse than Richard Nixon and sports was designed solely as a lesson in denial of pleasure and a repudiation of style.
This was him saying, “This is a game you’re too young to remember, but I’m not, and I know how to make you sit at this table and eat it until it’s gone.”
Players make games, of course, and while Edelman had the best numbers, it is hard to make the case that he had a more impactful game than cornerback Stephon Gilmore or linebackers Dont’a Hightower or Kyle Van Noy. The Los Angeles Rams, the vanguard of the game’s future, were capable of nothing in the biggest game of their lives, and though Wade Phillips, the Rams’ 71-year-old defensive coordinator, can swath himself in one of his unit’s finest games, only the winners get to take credit.
Which brings us back, hate it a lot or hate it slightly less, to Belichick, whose true M.O. is as the defensive coordinator who could break you quicker than you could break him. And even now, he still can. Actual defensive coordinator Brian Flores, the new head coach of/victim of the Miami Dolphins, earned his new gig and may even make the Dolphins noticeable again, but it cannot have hurt his educational development that he had the universally acknowledged walking resource on the subject an office away at any moment.
This was not a game to enjoy on any real level if you weren’t wearing a headset and well-schooled in the art of looking like you’d eaten your own face. Belichick has been football’s response to Darryl Sutter for more than two decades, but we suspect that his appearance is just his brain telling him that the things he knows require that he display that look. On a day that opened with debates over which Ram offensive player he would decide to take out of Sean McVay’s arsenal, he said in clear terms, Well, what if I take them all away? Whatcha got then, sonny? Then he did.
And in doing so, he helped frame America’s latest national schism—by offering all the proponents of the football of the future a mail-fisted slap from the football of the past. Not that the raw numbers beyond the score would say that much, but Belichick seemed to offer us a pre-metric form of football that we had all been led to believe could no longer function. And maybe it can’t; I mean, one game between the 1972 Steelers and 1973 Dolphins does not make a full repudiation of the new NFL.
But Belichick retains his place as the sport’s most qualified tactical contrarian, and served up a game that told us all that the revolution isn’t finished yet. The Rams could not possibly have been held to three points (or six, if Greg Zuerlein’s participation-trophy field goal attempt at game’s end hadn’t fled the jurisdiction stage left), yet here we are. Belichick’s library of old football books, inherited from his father and augmented since then by his own curiosity, got a word in edgewise Sunday, which surely amused him more than any of his other championships (“Now here is where we used a little of Tom Landry’s 1958 Giants defense, and after we scored the touchdown we showed a little bit of the front Zhukov used at the Battle of Kursk, and...”). They didn’t do anything that can be described as “new,” but they did employ a zone defense after a year as a dominant man team. They blueprinted and foretold the end of the jet sweep as the new hot thing in football. They didn’t elevate one Ram as the must-stop guy as much as they forced Jared Goff to make a lot of decisions play after play, and the more decisions a young quarterback has to make, the more likely that some of them will be at best ineffectual and at worst outright poor.
What Belichick and Flores did was play the best percentage of all—make a team built on the quick strike grind out a game, and the Rams are not yet built for grinding. Almost no modern team is. It’s too hard and too dull and too pedestrian.
As a result, the game was never fun, and it was never exciting, and it was never suspenseful or filled with whimsy or even glimpses of distastefulness unless you want to see Tracy Wolfson nearly being trampled to death by a wall of camera-toting hell-cows stage-rushing the guy who wasn’t the MVP. In many ways, its gargantuan dullness is the only thing about it that did exceed expectations. Maroon 5 was edgier, and by a considerable margin.
But Bill Belichick isn’t here to entertain. Sunday, he was here to educate, and to show us all sometimes the best way to counter the future is to re-present the past. Sunday, he showed us how a team can score 13 points and never be in danger of losing. Sunday, he showed us that youth still has its drawbacks. Sunday, he was John Houseman in The Paper Chase, only he was a much harsher grader.
And he could not have been happier.
Ray Ratto has typed and spoken on sports for several outlets and decades, and is currently between corporate overlords.