In the most famous of all TV ads ever to run during the Super Bowl, a young woman, a hammerthrower, enters a cavernous hall. There, a mesmerized throng is focused on a vast screen, where a disembodied head blathers mind-numbing propaganda.
Slowly and deliberately, the woman whirls twice, then with a fling of her hammer shatters the projected image of Big Brother. The commercial for Apple Computer, titled ”1984,“ aired only once.
In their own way on Sunday, however, John Elway and the Denver Broncos reprised that memorable spot. With their rousing 31-24 victory over the Green Bay Packersarguably the most exciting, big-play-packed Super Bowl extravaganza of allElway and his team defied the oddsmakers and the pressbox soothsayers. Even more, they emphatically reaffirmed intangible humanity on a landscape that has been sterilized, shrink-wrapped, and hermetically packaged, with the fun and emotion mostly sucked out.
The whole proceeding Sunday was like the denouement to all those old Star Trek episodes, when Dr. McCoy gratingly reminds Mr. Spock that the Enterprise has finagled yet another improbable escape, not through logic but through old-fashioned human gumption, instinct, and creativity.
In fact, the odds against the Broncos were almost as long as those faced by Capt. Kirk during some of his hairier moments against the universe’s ubiquitous aliens and their telekinetic powers.
The conventional wisdom, ordained and spouted by the high priesthood of Media Geniuses, held that the Broncos were lightweights in almost every respect, including the literal one. (In case you were in the bathroom all 18 times it was mentioned, Denver’s offensive line, averaging 289 pounds per man, is the NFL’s lightest.)
Beyond these supposed physical deficiencies, the Broncos were said to be intestinally weak too. This was a franchise, after all, that had lost badly in all four of its Super Sunday appearancesincluding a 55-10 wipeout that marked the most ignoble defeat in the game’s 32-year history.
Never mind that only three players on the current Denver squad remain from that 1990 team. The Broncos were still losers. In fact, they came from an entire conference of losers. The AFC, as the experts reminded everyone, hadn’t won in the Super Bowl since, hmm, that fateful year of 1984.
Elway, who quarterbacked three of Denver’s Super Bowl flops, was regarded as a tragic heroa great player who could never quite lift his team over that final obstacle.
Even Denver’s rabidly loyal fans eventually reached a glum fatalism. In 1990 some of them actually rooted against their beloved Broncos in the AFC championship game, reasoning that they preferred to watch some other team on Super Sunday rather than sit through another globally televised massacre.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the slaughterhouse. Just after Green Bay sliced through Denver’s defense to take an early lead, and just as partygoers began heading for the nine-layer dip, the Broncos answered with a strong-arm scoring drive of their own.
Then they scored again. And again.
What’s more, the Broncos were setting the tone for the game. Green Bay, a classy team with a collective iron will, executed big plays throughout the evening. But the Broncos seemed to play just a little more aggressively, hit just a little bit harder, extend themselves just a tad further, defy convention just a little more often, and demonstrate just a little more heart.
Amid all the others, two plays stood out as exemplary. In the third quarter, with the game tied and Denver driving for a score, Elway, in the players’ jargon, ”sold out.“ In layperson’s jargon, that means he didn’t sell out at all.
To capture a crucial first down, Elway lowered his shoulder, left his feet, and hurled himself headlong between two converging defenders. The resulting collision flipped the quarterback head over heels, hard. But he gained his first down, and the Broncos soon scored.
Then, on the game’s penultimate play, Denver ”sold out“ again. On fourth down, with time threatening to run out and the Pack threatening to tie, the Broncos might have followed the suggestions of some pressbox analysts and opted for a conservative defensive alignment. Instead, they blitzedand forced Green Bay’s Brett Favre to throw a hurried pass that was easily broken up.
In the game’s aftermath, with scrambling that would have drawn the envious gaze of either QB, the Media Geniuses began frantically revising the conventional wisdom to explain that Denver’s victory had looked like a pretty by-gosh realistic possibility all along. The result was something like Newsweek’s self-conscious, almost self-parodying CW feature:
Old CW: Broncos will grind to halt against Pack’s immovable 370-pound object, Gilbert Brown.
New CW: By fourth quarter, gasping, out-of-shape lardbutt is giant marshmallow in yellow pants.
Old CW: AFC teams aren’t physical enough to win.
New CW: Broncos’ Steve Atwater is so bad, he can take out three guys on one play, including his own bad self.
Old CW: Denver offensive line too small for Green Bay.
New CW: Denver o-line too quick for Green Bay. And maybe 289 pounds ain’t that small.
Old CW: It’s been a nice run, but Broncos’ Terrell Davis will go nowhere on Super Sunday.
New CW: Terrell says hi on his way to Disneyworld.
Old CW: Sentimental favorite/old geezer Elway has enjoyed a great career. Too bad he doesn’t stand a fiddler’s chance against younger, sharper Favre.
New CW: Nice going, John. We never doubted you.
Athletes themselves often explain losses with a cliché: ”They wanted it more than we did.“ In fact, the line is repeated so frequently in post-game autopsies that reporters often simply tune it out.
On Sunday, though, that hoary, hidebound line explained the outcome more simply and more completely than all the reams of expert analysis and commentary. For whatever reason, the Broncos just seemed to want it more.
All along, they said afterward, the Broncos believed they could win. As No. 2, they tried harderso much so that even several of the Packers conceded they had lost to a better team.
Sunday’s outcome offers both a lesson and a strategy. The lessonso far lost on our national Media Geniusesis that to cover an event in smothering, agonizingly minute, fill-every-second-with-talking-head-analyst detail is to cover it not at all.
For all the verbiage they expended on the Super Bowl, the experts never adequately explained why Denver won. (Similarly, this self-same punditocracy can’t figure out why Americans so far are yawning over their gossipy, overblown, O.J.-like coverage of Monica whats-her-namewhose hedging, unproven allegation, we’re told, represents a crisis for republican government.)
The strategy is to remain vigilantand when you see fresh eruptions and spewings from Punditland, mute ’em. Mute ’em with extreme prejudice. Follow the Broncos’ lead. Trust your own judgment. And don’t believe the hype.
After Sunday’s blabfest, I couldn’t help but think of another game, two decades ago, when Franco Harris somehow came up with the astounding shoetop catch remembered today as ”the immaculate reception.“ I remember the mixture of disbelief and exhilaration in the voice of the NBC announcer, Curt Gowdy, who betrayed the same genuine emotions as everyone watching with him.
There were no reverse-angle cameras, no sideline remotes, and no New York studio full of commentators to clue us in as to why it happened and how we should feel. Harris’ catchthe most amazing football moment I’ve ever seenspoke perfectly for itself.