When people talk about "the Super Bowl," they mean any number of related but emphatically not identical things. There is, first of all, the massive logistical undertaking of the event: the technocratic marvel of allowing hundreds of thousands of drunk people to come to a city to get even drunker and making sure they do not kill themselves or other people. Then there is the first-class feast of the capitalist religion — the consumerist equivalent of Candlemas — that closes out the "holidays." Did you know it costs 50 bazillion dollars to show this commercial? Look, Random Celebrity made a funny. Yawn.
Sunday in Atlanta seems to have been largely free of violence. I for one was saddened when the Bud Knight, that chivalrous persecutor of craft beer nerds, turned out to be a corn syrup-averse health nut after all. Maybe it was good that he got killed by a Game of Thrones dragon. Never mind Jim Nantz's weirdly insistent compliments: Hearing Tony Romo explain that Jared Goff will likely throw the football on third and eight or say, "This is what is known as the jet sweep," as if he were a marine biologist lecturing on the anatomy of the ccean sunfish, is not what I call broadcasting genius.
But as a football game? I thought Sunday was not only a thoroughly enjoyable game but one of the best Super Bowls in many years.
The main reason is that it featured two teams doing both of the things that teams try to do in football — i.e., score and prevent the other team from scoring. In recent years, however, the latter has receded in importance thanks to a series of rule changes that make quarterbacks all but unassailable in the pocket and receivers sometimes literally "defenseless players." The supposed "no-call" from the NFC championship game between the Rams and the Saints that people are still whining about involved a hit that would barely have a raised an eyebrow, much less drawn a flag, even 10 years ago.
A quiet story of the 2018 regular season was the league's attempt to dial down the unpopular (at least among fans) targeting rule and keep the number of replays to a minimum. It turns out that a large portion of the actual football-viewing public misses hard hits and hates endless metaphysical speculation about the ontology of the catch that have become hallmarks of the modern professional game. It wasn't perfect this year, but the ratings don't lie — when football is played like football, people watch it.
Apart from a phantom defensive penalty that — imagine that — benefited the Patriots near the end of the first quarter, there was almost none of this stuff on Sunday night. For years now, people have been calling the NFL the "Big 12 on Sundays," a reference to the pass-happy, defense-free, high-scoring atmosphere of the college football conference out of which some of the league's best young quarterbacks have been drafted. Super Bowl LIII looked more like the Big 10 or, until fairly recently, the SEC: power running, fullbacks, tight ends, brutal pash rushers, defensive wizardry, tactical punts, field goals, low scores — what Les Miles used to call "big-boy football." What does it say that the most significant offensive play of the evening — the only one to end in a touchdown — was a two-yard run up the gut from a fullback? To me it says that it was great football.
Sunday showed us how easy it is to take the air out of a modern high-flying offense if you're actually allowed to come after them. Jared Goff was a frustrated and at times even terrible quarterback not because he is lacking in talent but because he was being asked to play without the protection younger players have come to expect from the referees even when their teammates fail them. By the end of the night he was so sloppy and inaccurate that you could hear the screams of "BENCH GOFF" from all six of the Rams' actual fans at home in Los Angeles all the way across the country. Everyone has heard of the butt fumble. Good luck to Goff trying to live down the abject humiliation of what I hope I am the first to call the "Ass Pass" to C.J. Anderson's exposed hind quarters.
People calling Sunday night's game "boring" sound like baseball-watching 10-year-olds circa 1999 who can't sit still through all the lame fundamental stuff like fielding and tactical walks because they want to watch Mark McGwire crank another homer. If you want to see random objects zip through the air, go play frisbee with your dog. If you want to watch numbers go up on a screen as part of a "fantasy" game, join a Dungeons and Dragons party.
If, on the other hand, you actually enjoy the slow-moving chess grandmaster showdown-cum-trench warfare of the sport known as American football, well — why you are reading this piece? You already agree with me and Jonathan Chait that Super Bowl LIII was an instant classic.