Welcome to the most important political primary of the year! It's Super Bowl 50 Week, a nationwide referendum on race, privilege, perception, the modern pharmaceutical culture and lots of other critical topics, followed by a football game the Panthers will probably win.
Cam Newton got the sizzling off-field chatter rolling on Wednesday when asked why he receives so much criticism about his touchdown celebrations and the like. "I'm an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to," he told reporters.
Some nodded at Newton's remark as being blindingly obvious. Others responded with predictable thou doth protest too much faux shock that race might somehow still play a role in our perceptions of anything in this multicultural utopia we have built. There's the How dare he play the race card angle, of course. There's also the Obama's politically correct nanny state interpretation. In the slightly less hawkish middle of the spectrum lie measured condemnations of "showboating" (a term derived from 19th-century Mississippi riverboat shows usually performed by...oh, you get it) or exhortations, both in the articles already linked and in some radio interviews I have done, along the lines of: Has Cam Newton ever heard of a fellow named RUSSELL WILSON?
Or something like that. I have drunk beer in enough West Virginia taprooms on road trips, monitored enough middle school cafeterias and sweated in enough suburban saunas (filled with nothing but other gray-bearded white guys) to chuckle resignedly to myself when I hear "no-no-no, this has nothing to do with race" about any particular topic. I have heard enough not-so-carefully coded language in media rooms and NFL circles to know the problem hasn't been relegated to Confederate flag rallies or Archie Bunker's living room.
Some folks still have trouble thinking clearly about black quarterbacks, folks. It did not come up so much in connection with Russell Wilson because: a) Wilson has an extremely conservative demeanor; and b) we had Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch to obsess over in the last two Super Bowls.
The battle over Newton's remarks, like all the best American political battles, is being waged through: a) Internet memes; b) pull quotes from everyone tangentially related to the issue, from Doug Williams to Steve Smith; and c) think pieces. Lots of think pieces.
For the next week, a complex, multilayered social issue will be oversimplified into a conversation between hundreds of sportswriters with no expertise in this topic and tight deadlines and one 26-year-old football player with a Yogi Berra-like command of the language. Somehow, it will still be a more informed conversation than most of what is emanating from the presidential primaries these days. Heck, at least we are talking about race, not talking around it.
Peyton Manning, our other Super Bowl quarterback, stands accused by a media investigation of obtaining a banned-by-the-NFL, legal-when-prescribed substance five years ago, when Manning was recovering from an injury. If somehow found guilty (like, Ted Wells finds a cellphone in Manning's trash can with an "HGH rules, Brady drools" sticker on it), Manning faces a six-game suspension according to the NFL collective bargaining agreement. But the Manning HGH story wouldn't be a story if it was about policy and procedure. It's about DRUGS, and CHEATING and PRESERVING THE SANCTITY OF SPORTS, a phrase so silly it should be read in a Monty Python voice, and of course the DOWNFALL OF AN AMERICAN ICON, something we weirdly root for.
The NFL is investigating the allegations, because if there is one thing we all trust, it's an NFL investigation. Human growth hormone is difficult to detect in the best of circumstances, and the NFL investigators couldn't spot a Bond villain if they saw a dude with a monocle stroking a kitty cat in a volcano lair. There is zero chance the Manning allegations will result in anything definite, which makes it both the perfect NFL scandal and the perfect political scandal. Everyone can take sides based on their preconceived notions and walk away satisfied.
Just as we still obsess about black quarterbacks' athleticism, maturity and leadership decades after Doug Williams and James Harris, we still hear the phrase "performance-enhancing drugs" and think of Drago from Rocky IV. America isn't very good at nuanced debates.
Manning's involvement, of course, brings layers of preconceived notions, potential double standards, regional rivalries and the inescapable fact that this story was about to disappear quietly before the Broncos reached the Super Bowl. We don't focus on the most important topics—just the ones that happen to move into the spotlight.
(The Manning story admittedly appears pretty small right now when stacked up against the all-trumping racial issue and last year's Deflategate mass hysteria. But all it takes is one suspicious-sounding text message exchange to put us in the path of a tidal wave, folks. And this will be a long week).
If we polled a thousand people on their feelings about Cam Newton's racial opinions and Peyton Manning's HGH allegations on some kind of 0-to-10 scale, then graphed the results on an x/y-axis, we would probably find lots of demographic clusters and trends. The graph could be used as a litmus test to determine a respondent's age, race, education level, socioeconomic class, political party, geographic region, whether they think Seth MacFarlane is a comic genius, whether they are actually Seth MacFarlane, where they shop and various other insights.
As a society, we are so polarized and predictable that we wear our values on our sleeves when talking about NFL quarterbacks. And nothing you post in the comment thread or shout at me on Twitter will change my mind, just as nothing I write can change yours, though I appreciate your readership.
We can't talk politics (or race or class or gender equity or even Star Wars spoilers) in polite company anymore, even though we really need to (well, all but the spoilers). We can, however, have a proxy argument during Super Bowl week about whether dabbing is bad sportsmanship, if the drug policies of major sports are regressive, where "gotcha" journalism ends and how much benefit-of-the-doubt is too much and for whom, and so on.
Then we can all sit down together and watch a football game, cheer and gasp and laugh, then return to our neutral corners, determine what the game's outcome means for society at large and individual players' legacies and prepare for a nine-month election season that's bound to leave us all more outraged and exasperated than enlightened.
Super Bowl 50 gives us all a chance to speak our minds, then to vicariously hash out our differences on the field. Let's enjoy this chance to tackle Big Topics in simple ways while we still have it.
Super Bowl Week in Preview
Here is a brief rundown of some of the other big stories entering Super Bowl week. The first guy on this list is the only person with any chance of breaking through the Cam-Peyton ceiling, though he may have to use a bionic arm to do so.
The Big Injury
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis hopes to play despite 12 screws and a plate in the right arm he broke last week. Davis will also have to endure the throbbing migraine he will have by the end of the week after answering 20,000 questions about the status of his broken arm.
The Davis situation reminds me of Maurkice Pouncey in Super Bowl XLV. Pouncey, then a rookie, suffered a high ankle sprain during the AFC Championship Game. The week before Super Bowl week was full of optimistic/hopeful reports about the Steelers center walking without crutches, hoping to participate in practice and so forth. But Pouncey was ruled out five days before that Super Bowl, because you cannot play center on a badly sprained ankle.
I wish Thomas Davis all the best, but you cannot play linebacker with a broken arm, either.
Will Broncos Safeties Play?
Stewart and Ward are vital players for the Broncos defense, of course.
Just to deliver a taste of the kind of deep-dive analysis you will drown in for six days: The Broncos rank eighth in the NFL in defending opponents' tight ends, according to Football Outsiders. They rank in the top five against just about every other type of receiver. The Panthers use tight end Greg Olsen as their primary possession receiver, and Ward and Stewart would typically divvy up coverage responsibilities against him. If Stewart and/or Ward are limited, it's one more matchup working against the Broncos in a game where many of the matchups appear to work against the Broncos.
Ryan Clady Willing to Rework Contract
Um, can it wait until next week, Ryan? Everyone's a little busy.
Clady is due nearly $20 million over the next two years and missed all of this season with an ACL tear, so it makes sense for him and his agent, as reported by the Associated Press, to get ahead of contract-restructuring talks before cap-casualty season begins.
Getting the story into the Super Bowl stack also reminds us that the Broncos had this remarkable season without their Pro Bowl left tackle, which can be interpreted either as, "Imagine how good they could be with him" or "Gee, they seemed to do pretty well without him."
When it comes to long-range financial planning, Clady isn't the Broncos veteran who raises the most questions, of course. But the other guy still has one football game to play.
Can Denver Run for 105 yards?
The Broncos are 9-0 this season when they run for 105 yards or more. This stat actually flashed on NFL Network's crawl throughout the weekend. It's the kind of nutty nugget that makes Super Bowl coverage seem trite (when only most of it is) while keeping football analytics firmly rooted in the Stone Age. It's a double whammy of statistical tomfoolery.
First, it rehashes the old cause-and-effect problem of running the ball and winning games. Teams tend to accumulate higher rushing totals because they are playing with a lead; they don't take the lead (in most NFL circumstances) because they are accumulating high rushing totals.
The Broncos also have a gaudy record when they kick off more than their opponent and their quarterback kneels more often than the opponent's quarterback, but no one says that a team should "establish the kickoffs and kneels."
Second, that "105 yards" plateau is flashing like a neon sign, isn't it? You look at it and just know that the Broncos lost a game in which they rushed for between 100 and 104 yards.
Sure enough, they rushed for 104 yards in their regular-season loss to the Steelers. For some reason, an NFL Network staffer didn't think a 9-1 record when rushing for over 100 yards was impressive enough.
The Broncos do play better when their running game is humming, and running the ball is more important to them than it is to a team like the Patriots. Just don't expect the Panthers to fall to their knees and surrender if the Broncos reach 106 rushing yards.
The Donald's Choice
Donald Trump is rooting for the Broncos because he knows Peyton Manning. There are all sorts of ways to go here. I just can't stop picturing the Trump, Peyton and Trump-buddy Tom Brady bowling together like the guys from The Big Lebowski.
Around the League
Las Vegas building, domed stadium; hopes to attract the Raiders. "I'm shocked, SHOCKED, to find that gambling is going on in here!"
"Here are your daily fantasy winnings."
"Oh, thank you very much."
Payment-processing company cuts ties with FanDuel and DraftKings. It could be a major blow to the daily fantasy services, which need reliable ways of moving huge sums of money around quickly. If anyone needs to leave the country in a hurry, the letters of transit are in Sam's piano.
Chiefs sign Travis Kelce to a lucrative extension. The no-brainer talks probably took about five minutes. Just like your typical Chiefs two-minute drill.
Chargers to play in San Diego in 2016; may move in 2017. Someone please go unchain Philip Rivers from that bulldozer.
49ers owner Jed York tells Rich Eisen he would never hire a coach away from Notre Dame, his alma mater. You can hear Chip Kelly in York's office next year: "Technically, boss, you and Trent Baalke each took that Marketing 101 course from University of Phoenix, so..."
Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff confesses to past personnel mistakes during candid press conference. Something about having four other people on the payroll highly qualified to replace you can turn a man into an over-sharer.
Eagles sign Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and Lane Johnson to contract extensions. Eh, we already navigated a minefield of potential racial humor in the intro. Let's move on.
Mike Martz thinks it's ridiculous that Terrell Owens is a Hall of Fame finalist over Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, he told Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Unfortunately, the Hall doesn't let you or me vote, Coach.
Browns talk to Carson Wentz at Senior Bowl, Patriots to Glenn Gronkowski. Betcha the Browns talked to Lil' Gronk and the Patriots to Wentz, too, because the whole point of the Super Bowl is meetings between prospects and teams. When I am crowned King of Sports Journalism, writers who ask, "Did you talk to this team?" questions at the Senior Bowl, knowing full well that everyone talks to everyone, will be forced to watch two hours of special teams drills (one Gus Bradley practice, in other words) as punishment.
Robert Griffin wants to play for the Cowboys, Yahoo's Charles Robinson reported. The Cowboys were also rumored to be interested in Johnny Manziel before his latest incident. And of course, Jason Garrett (who coached the Senior Bowl's North squad) spent the whole week talking to Carson Wentz. In summary, this is all a bunch of hooey.
Some final thoughts from a hotel in San Francisco before this week descends into utter madness:
- There's nothing funny about Johnny Manziel at this point. He's not a young man who "doesn't get it"—he's a young man who needs help. I hope he remains on an NFL roster next year, because while the NFL doesn't exactly earn A-plus grades as a support network, it's better than what he appears to have.
- Calvin Johnson has had a great career and has been a joy to watch and cover. Not every NFL player gets the chance to leave the game on his own terms, whatever those terms may be. May Johnson do what's best for Johnson, and may no player ever have to play a snap past the moment when he feels the pain and exhaustion are no longer worth it.
- The Pro Bowl does not need fixing. The Pro Bowl is frothy football-like entertainment programming. It's not for hardcore fans who read the fourth segment of a Super Bowl preview. It's for bored folks in taverns, channel flippers and fans like my nephew who truly dig the fact that Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are playing together and like the pop starlets performing the pregame show. And hey: The multiple fake punts and offensive players (like Beckham) playing defense kept things lively. The Pro Bowl is mildly fun, and nothing the NFL does to entice bigger stars or increase the competition level will make it more than mildly fun. Let it be.
- Carson Wentz had a fine Senior Bowl week, and I think he will be a first-round pick with the potential to be a fine quarterback. That said, the hype has gone off the rails already in some cities. "If the Browns take Carson Wentz at No. 2 they'd be set for 15 years,'' an anonymous personnel expert told Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. That's the kind of bold statement personnel types make when talking about someone else's team. The biggest problem with statements like these is that they are unfair to prospects like Wentz. No one should have to cope with the pressure of going from the FCS level to "savior of a franchise" status because some general manager wants to play mind games with his counterparts.
- This is the fourth Super Bowl I will cover live in five years. Each experience has been exhilarating, disorienting, exhausting and utterly amazing. Doing this for a living is a privilege, something I never imagined would happen 10 years ago when I was teaching math and writing quirky stat articles for Football Outsiders on the side. Just getting that out of the way in case you see me complaining about long bus rides to events on Twitter.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.