Back when I was covering baseball at Sports Illustrated, I usually kept one eye on my work and one eye on Tom Verducci, my co-worker and one of the best to ever cover the Majors.
Tom had a trick, only it wasn’t really a trick, but journalistic intelligence. When a big game ended, and the swarm of reporters converged upon the guy who was collectively decided to be The Story, Tom would tiptoe left and right, talking to this guy, that guy. Bullpen catchers, middle reliever. He’d locate the people who made big contributions, but perhaps not the most obvious contributions. Then, inevitably, he’d put forth America’s best coverage. It happened time after time after time. Why? Because Tom Verducci abhorred the obvious and cliched.
Which leads me to tonight’s 50th Super Bowl, a game that put me and my family members to (near) sleep. As it became increasingly apparent the Broncos would win, CBS determined that Peyton Manning, Denver’s quarterback, was THE story. Did he play well? No, he was actually quite mediocre. Was this his first Super Bowl? No? First Super Bowl win? No. Is he retiring? We don’t know—but it seems like he might actually come back. So why Peyton? Well, because he’s the obvious choice. He’s pretty charismatic, he’s accessible and everyone knows him. There’s also the riding-off-into-the-sunset-with-a-championship narrative; one that, admittedly, might not be true.
And, of course, Peyton was the talk of the postgame. By those covering on social media. By the network. By ESPN and Fox Sports 1. It was all Peyton Manning.
But here’s the thing: It’s lazy bullshit. It truly is. Tonight, we witnessed a defensive destruction of the presumed-to-be-invincible Cam Newton. Hell, I picked Carolina to win 35-6, and I wasn’t alone in my lopsided thoughts. Newton was this nuclear superhero; the league MVP and a source of endless chatter. But, with seemingly effortless ease, the Broncos beat him to a pulp. In particular, there was linebacker Von Miller—who was an electromagnetic force from hell. Miller couldn’t be stopped by one blocker, by two blockers. He chased down halfbacks, shadowed Newton, even blanketed a receiver once or twice. He was, hands down, the most exceptional player on the field.
He was also, ahem, the best story. Let’s count the reasons:
• 1. Cam Newton was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 Draft. Miller was No. 2.
• 2. Miller was suspended a few seasons back for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. That’s interesting shit.
• 3. Miller seems to be the NFL’s new Ray Lewis, as far as terrifying linebackers go.
• 4. Despite his accomplishments, nobody knows much about him. He’s fresh, unique, interesting. Glowing smile and charisma out his ears.
Peyton, meanwhile, is Peyton. Corporate, staged. Seems like a nice enough guy but—again—he didn’t even play well.
Interestingly, this reminds me a fair amount of Super Bowl XXXII, when the Broncos upset the Packers in San Diego. Before the game began, everyone decided—should Denver win—the story was John Elway finally capturing a title. But then halfback Terrell Davis ripped up the Packer defense—while suffering through a debilitating migraine. At one point he was in the game, unable to see, serving as a decoy. Plus, the game was in his hometown. It got no better.
But … well, we are who we are. And, generally speaking, we in the media follow the carrot, follow the crowd, write and produce what others write and produce.