Saturday, February 06, 2016

How to watch Super Bowl 50.

This piece ran originally in the New York Daily News in 2011, but I've updated it and added some color. (Alert readers will recognize the one or two lines unlikely to appear in their daily newspapers.)

As any gridiron aficionado will tell you, it's impossible to appreciate the Super Bowl without a keen understanding of the attitudinal factors that control every single game element, beginning with the coin toss. Ahh, the coin toss: to the uninitiated, a simple matter of physics and the laws of chance. Insiders, however, know that it's one of those improbable competitive subtleties where reality can be forced to yield to the power of the human spirit. This in turn explains why only the most seasoned team captains—men of profound mettle and valor—are dispatched to midfield to yell “heads” or “tails.” As Knute Rockne put it, and on the same day as his immortal Gipper speech, no less, “You don't want to risk having a raw novice go out there and fuck it up.” 

Following, then, is a primer in the rest of football's so-called mental game. If you're a casual fan, or you'll be watching with others who are, this will enable all of you to decode the insightful banter from the broadcast booth.

Recognize first that an athlete competing at the Super Bowl level is well versed in the potent psychodynamics of winning. He knows there's no “I” in team, yet can personally carry the team on his back when circumstances call for it. He stays within himself while also knowing how to stretch. This superb athlete walks the fine line between limitless confidence and overconfidence. He goes into competition with a clear head as well as intense concentration, and while he recognizes that winning is everything, not for one second does he ever worry about losing. He has mastered the art of pacing himself in an environment in which he's expected to give 110 percent at all times—and he still has another gear left if he needs it.

The Super Bowl being the Super Bowl, fans can rest assured that teams will be in the zone, not looking ahead to next week. Surely in this one game, players will leave it all on the field. (NOTE: The NFL has contracted with specially trained crews to come to Santa Clara's Levi's stadium Monday morning and pick it all up again. It is then mailed back to players during the off-season.) From the moment the athletes race onto the gridiron, they're out to make a statement—although some teams prefer to let the other team make its statement first, so they can answer with authority.

By newly enacted rule this season, every NFL game must feature at least one momentum shift. Befitting its name, this is an epochal development wherein the side that seemed to have matters well in hand suddenly turns the ball over at an inopportune moment, thereby allowing the other team back in. (The epidemiology of momentum—the precise mechanism whereby it spreads from player to player or team to team—remains controversial. Some believe it's genomically related to the zika virus.)

Momentum shifts are not, however, irreversible. They can be undone by a loss of focus or poise. As such mistakes are unforgivable at this point in the season, top NFL brass are mulling whether a loss of poise should be penalized with a loss of down in Super Bowl 50.

If the game is close and circumstances afford one team a final chance to seize its destiny, the stage is set for another time-honored competitive phenomenon: the gut check. This requires players to reach deep inside themselves in order to find out what they're made of (and, while they're in there, find that other gear). In keeping with a recent trend involving the commercial marketing of all discrete moments in a given contest (“This kickoff brought to you by...”), Super Bowl 50's gut check will be sponsored by HMB, a leading manufacturer colonoscopy equipment.

Favored teams that find themselves behind as the Super Bowl moves into its later stages may turn as a last recourse to a player who knows how to win. It has been posited by Stephen Hawking that these elite players emit energy waves capable of causing fumbles and broken plays; some can even summon gusts of wind that deflect field goals. Such a player will now be asked to communicate this proprietary know-how to the rest of the team. This ceremony usually takes place at a sideline meeting, where the elite player imbues his teammates with the will to win by screaming inspirational totems like “just win, baby!” or “now let's go out and kill the motherfuckers!" (Emerging science suggests that, Will Smith's latest film to the contrary, concussions actually result from collisions between opposing players who both know how to win. Such players soon may be required to wear prominent W's on their helmets, analogous to the green dots worn by the guys who are mic'd up; this, to help them avoid one-on-one contact.)

Important caveat: A player who knows how to win must never exercise that gift prematurely. He may not, for example, inspire his team to score four touchdowns in the first quarter, thereby putting the game safely out of reach. Rather, he must bide his time while awaiting the perfect moment to enable his team to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The delicacy of this balancing act is such that a player sometimes waits too long, rendering his team vulnerable to opponents who have no quit in them.

Thus illuminated, now sit back and enjoy the game.

(Helpful hint: Turn off the sound?)

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