The NFL’s modern era has always been about the quarterbacks. Whether it was Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath and Len Dawson, or Joe Montana, John Elway, and Dan Marino — it’s been about the guys under center. Troy Aikman, Steve Young, and Warren Moon led to Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger. And now, it’s Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Andrew Luck. After them, it’ll be the next generation. And so on and so on.
But once upon a time, defense got the love, too. Writers used to wax poetic about Chuck Bednarik and Dick Butkus. The broadcasters would talk about Mike Singletary’s eyes and Reggie White’s first step. We’d marvel at Lawrence Taylor’s burst, thrive on Ray Lewis’s range, and Deion was everything the NFL had never seen and more.
Don’t get me wrong, J.J. Watt gets his commercials and Richard Sherman can still sell beef jerky. But on the whole, defense — truly great defense — is the enemy these days. We once celebrated the 1978 Steelers, the 1985 Bears, and the 2000 Ravens. Now? A dominant defense just doesn’t have the sizzle of a 500-yard passing day. They’re not a big weekly Daily Fantasy must start.
But I think defense gets its revenge on Sunday.
Consider Super Bowl 50 — the golden one by (or somewhat near in proximity) the Golden Gate Bridge — a throwback to the days when it was OK to celebrate the ugly, too.
I can’t wait for it. It’s going to be the Super Bowl that scoreboards and fantasy leagues forgot. It’s going to be grimy. It’s going to be ferocious. It’s going to be brutal. It’s going to be awesome.
Forget about the quarterbacks for a moment. Great storylines. I’m quarterback’d out. Because this one’s about two of the best defenses in the league. Carolina led the NFL in takeaways this season and has arguably the best defensive tackle tandem (Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei) in the NFL, the best linebacker (Luke Kuechly) of his generation, and the best cornerback (Josh Norman) this season.
Denver’s offense gave the ball away more than every team in the league but two. Their defense saved them all season. Denver’s D led the NFL in 2015 with 52 sacks. They led the NFL in total defense, too, giving up just 283 yards per game. They were first in the league against the pass, third against the run, and fourth in opponent passer rating. Unlike two years ago when the Broncos D came limping in to their last Super Bowl with Von Miller and Chris Harris, Jr. on the sidelines, they’re fully healthy and ready to pounce on these Panthers.
Ask around the league and the story after the AFC Championship Game wasn’t just about Peyton and that defensive effort. It was about Wade Phillips and the chess game he won against Josh McDaniels, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady. The Patriots fired their offensive line coach just days after the beating Denver put on New England. And now Phillips has two weeks to prepare for Carolina.
I’ve read things all week. I’ve heard every current and ex-player make their predictions. I think this one is a tribute. A tribute — not to the gun slingers or the playmakers or the guys who carry the rock — but to the ones who’ve been plugging holes, taking on two blockers, and minimizing separation on the deep passing route. This one’s for Jack Ham, Charles Haley, and Darrell Green. This one’s going to be about the defense.
I like Denver.
And I like them in one of the lowest scoring Super Bowls of all-time. Peyton Manning will win the MVP, because, hell, if we goes out hoisting a Lombardi after the season he’s had — he deserves all that and more. But it’ll be remembered as the one game in this era where the D won the tug of war with big offense. Even just for a night.