Thinking Out Loud: 3 Thoughts on Super Bowl 50

Writers spewed reactions immediately after Super Bowl 50, but I let things stew a bit. The outcome didn’t surprise me, so I didn’t have much to sort out. I also don’t care for sensationalized stories, so forgive me for taking time to jot down a few post-game thoughts.

  1. Peyton’s Place

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Peyton Manning played terribly. He reminded me of Joe Namath, the only time I saw Namath play. Namath went into a Monday Night game for the Rams, and looked like Great-Grandpa among boys. I had read all these stories \and thought, “THAT’S Joe Namath? The legendary Joe Namath?”

I texted a friend late in Super Bowl 50 and said, “Manning looks 100 years old.” My friend responded, “He looks like he’s aged 30 years since the first quarter.”

The Broncos won despite Manning’s limitations, and Peyton continued the long-standing tradition of a small group of quarterbacks hogging Super Bowl rings. Here’s the important insight: Manning was more important in that victory than most will recognize. Manning’s a great leader, and leadership doesn’t show up in the box score. Denver knew they could win with Peyton. You can’t overstate the importance of confidence in championship games.

The defense knew they could win with Peyton quarterbacking. That confidence erased questions during preparation (Do we have a chance? Do we have to play a mistake-free game?), and helped them overcome penalties and other mistakes during the game. When players don’t feel as though all the pressure is on them, players tend to play better and recover from mistakes quicker. We’ll get to the flip side of that coin in a second.

Neither quarterback played well. Manning, however, didn’t multiply his mistakes. The team believed in his leadership, even though he didn’t perform well. Like great major league pitchers, he learned to win without his best stuff.

 

 

2. Cam Now and Later

Cam

 

Many deem Cam Newton’s performance a failure. In truth, he couldn’t be expected to perform much better. His team completely relied on him and him alone to carry them to a Super Bowl win. Like I stated in the prediction, Ted Ginn Jr. wasn’t going to do it. Jonathan Stewart wasn’t going to do it.

Cam isn’t the leader Peyton is. When things went wrong, Cam let it go to his head. Mistakes multiplied. Desire and mental focus waned. His immaturity and lack of experience stood out like a farmer at a disco.

I don’t mean to criticize Cam Newton. Cam’s an amazing player. When I say he’s immature, I mean his composure isn’t more than what one could expect of a 26 year-old quarterback starting his first Super Bowl, his team’s chances solely riding on his abilities to make big plays. He cracked under the pressure.

You look, however, at how he’s committed himself in the past few years, the work and dedication he’s put in. I expect him to examine this Super Bowl, and let the pain drive him to improve his leadership and composure. That’s when you can truly judge his performance in SB 50.

The entire world, including Cam himself, knows he has the talent to win championships. Now, he needs to learn beyond making big plays in the playoffs, to winning those games even when he’s not playing well. He also needs to learn to overcome adversity in championship games.

Who else needed to learn leadership and how to win championships? LeBron James. LeBron really worked on those championship-level talents that go beyond athletic skills after the Heat lost in their first championship appearance. Cam needs better players around him to win at that level, but I expect him to follow James’ work ethic to improve. And if Cam improves his leadership, that will make everybody around him better, maybe taking some pressure off Cam to make all the plays. If this happens, Cam’s career arc could mimic LeBron’s.

3. CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME ROUTS

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I thought about the Panthers crushing the Cardinals. Then I remembered the 1990 Bills trouncing the Raiders and the 2000 Giants burying Minnesota. All three of those teams lost the Super Bowl.

The Panthers won by 34. I decided to look at teams that won conference championships by at least 28 points. Of the 6 NFC teams that won by at least 4 touchdowns, the 1991 Washington Redskins were the only one to win the Super Bowl. Two of four AFC teams won the Super Bowl after thrashing their conference championship opponent by at least 28 — the 1978 Steelers and 2014 Patriots. In the Steelers case, however, the Cowboys had won their game over the Rams 28-0 while the Steelers pounded the Oilers 34-5. So, if you take Super Bowl 13 out of the equation, the AFC is 1-2.

Overall, teams are 3-7 after winning a conference championship by at least 28. Remove 1978 from the picture, and we’re looking at 2-6. Next time the media fawns over a conference champion who wins 49-15, remind yourself that other than in 1978, when both teams won by 4 TDs, the only teams in history to win the Super Bowl after winning the conference championship by at least 28 points are the 2014 New England Patriots and the 1991 Washington Redskins.

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NOTE: NFC TEAMS ARE 5-9 IN THE SUPER BOWL AFTER WINNING NFC CHAMPIONSHIP BY AT LEAST 20; AFC TEAMS ARE 3-4. IN 1972 AND 1978, BOTH TEAMS WON BY AT LEAST 20. SUBTRACT THOSE AND NFC IS 5-7, AFC 1-4. THE ONLY AFC TEAM TO WIN THE SUPER BOWL AFTER WINNING THE CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP BY 20 WHEN BOTH TEAMS DIDN’T ACCOMPLISH THAT IS THE 2014 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS. THE 5 NFC TEAMS ARE THE 1984, 1988, AND 1989 SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS, THE 1985 CHICAGO BEARS, AND THE 1991 WASHINGTON REDSKINS.

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Thinking Out Loud: Super Bowl 50 Prediction

Super Bowl 50 presents a compelling matchup. Many people pick the Vegas-favored Carolina Panthers to win. Here are my two cents. Below are the factors I believe will most likely determine the outcome.

BRONCOS PASS RUSH VS CAM 

Denver’s pass rush did an outstanding job against Tom Brady. Will it be as effective against Cam Newton? Newton’s athleticism extends plays and provokes defensive nightmares. Will he be as effective against Denver?

When writing The Game before the Money, I asked Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood what he found effective against Roger Staubach. Jack said the key to limiting Roger was maintaining pass rush lane integrity.

The Broncos did that while rushing Brady, collapsing the pocket around him rather than forcing him to the outside. Von Miller or another linebacker would then be waiting around the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field, forcing Brady to hurry. A similar strategy could contain and frustrate Cam. If the Broncos do this, I think they’ll win.

For contrast, think of the Packers not staying in their rush lanes against San Francisco a couple of years ago in the Divisional Playoff. Colin Kaepernick ran all over the field. If Denver tries to over pressure Cam, forcing him outside of the pocket, I think Cam will have an outstanding day and make several big plays running.

Cam

THE BYE WEEK EFFECT

The Panthers offensive rolled like the Southern Railway through the NFC playoffs. What could slow them down? Perhaps a week off. That’s a week off featuring the heavy distractions Super Bowl week brings. Couple that with the Panthers post-bye week history under Ron Rivera, and that may spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E. Before this year, the Panthers were 0-5 coming off bye weeks under Rivera, and were outscored 125-46. That includes getting dumped by the 49ers in the 2013 playoffs.

Carolina seemed to vex that monkey by narrowly defeating Seattle both after their regular-season and post-season byes in 2015. The Panthers came from behind to win after a slow start in the regular season game, and almost came from ahead to lose after a dominating start in the playoffs.

If Carolina wins SB 50, I’ll be impressed enough to say the bye week doesn’t matter as much to them anymore. Until then, I find it a factor.

ONE MAN GANG

Football is the most team-driven sport of the major four, because you need all 11 people on the same page every play. Everybody needs to contribute. The Panthers are 90% Cam Newton on offense. He needs to play an exceptional game for them to win. Johnathon Stewart, Fozzy Whittiaker, and Ted Ginn Jr. are highly unlikely to carry the team on their shoulders should Cam be less than spectacular. In professional sports, rarely does a one-man gang win a championship. Indeed, I can’t think of a Super Bowl champion that fits that category. The only two championships that might fit that category would be the 1964 Browns with Jim Brown and back to the Sammy Baugh days in Washington. In the Browns case, Jim Brown didn’t have that great of a championship day, it was Frank Ryan‘s three touchdown passes to Gary Collins that did in the heavily-favored Colts.

Now, anything’s possible and there’s a first time for everything. Historically, Super Bowl 50 would be an exception to the one-man gang rule should the Panthers win. Really, it would be an exception in all major sports, as Kobe never did as well without Shaq, Lebron needed Wade and Bosh to win, and Oliver Kahn got Germany to the World Cup final, but couldn’t take home the hardware alone.

Worst case scenario leaves the Panthers similar to the John Elway 1980s Broncos. You might say Carolina has a much better defense, but remember those Broncos had Karl Mecklenburg, arguably the best linebacker not named Lawrence Taylor in the mid-80s, along with an exceptional pass rush. Best case scenario has Cam playing his best, Ginn catching the ball when open (instead of letting it fall to the ground), and the Panthers somehow get a solid running game together. Bottom line, more things need to go exactly right for the Panthers than they do for the Broncos. I don’t want to forget Greg Olsen, but the Panthers need gamebreakers.

SUMMARY AND PREDICTION

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As we’ve stated before, for whatever reason most Super Bowls are won by quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl wins. Peyton Manning would win his second Super Bowl, continuing the trend. Of course, Cam could win multiple championships in his career, but I think this aspect favors Denver.

Both teams have great defenses, but the Broncos have more experience in low scoring games like their playoff win against Pittsburgh. My hunch is this could be one of those type games. That also favors the Broncos.

Although Carolina has an explosive offense, they haven’t faced a defense like the Broncos. You might remember when Green Bay visited Denver this year. A blowout in the Broncos favor. I believe a similar game is possible. Not necessarily likely, but possible.

Therefore, I highly expect Denver to win. If Carolina manages to commit fewer than two turnovers, then I think they have a chance, especially if Denver gets loose with the ball. And we all know how Peyton Manning can turn the ball over in crucial situations in big games. If it’s close near the end, there’s a good chance Manning would throw a game-losing interception.

However, I expect Carolina to make at least two turnovers, and the Broncos won’t have to rely on Manning avoiding a terrible late-game decision. Most likely one of the teams will turn the ball over early, and I expect that to be Carolina.

Unless the Broncos give Carolina extra scoring chances with mistakes, I’m picking the Broncos.

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Lujack at Notre Dame

An Appreciation: Johnny Lujack

Johnny Lujack painting by Robert Hurst: www.ADamnFineArtist.com

 

SEVENTY YEARS AHEAD OF HIS TIME?

When people think of Johnny Lujack, they often think of Notre Dame, the Heisman Trophy, or his shoe-string tackle of Doc Blanchard in the original “Game of the Century” (watch below). The Irish lost only one game in the three years he started at quarterback, and Lujack led them to 3 national championships. Few football fans recognize his exceptional — albeit very short – pro career.


World War II interrupted Lujack’s college career after the 1943 season, causing him to miss the ’44 and ’45 seasons. George Halas’ Chicago Bears drafted Lujack in the first round of the 1946 NFL Draft, but Lujack elected to play out his eligibility at Notre Dame. “In those days you could be drafted on what the normal four years would have been,” Lujack told The Game before the Money. “I entered Notre Dame in ‘42, so my graduation year would have been in ‘46. The Chicago Bears drafted me in the first round of the 1946 nfl draft, following my junior year, but I didn’t even think about forgoing my senior year at Notre Dame.” Lujack’s choice paid off by winning the 1947 Heisman Trophy.

LUJACK’S PRO CAREER

Lujack starred at defensive back for the Bears in 1948. His 11 interceptions were third in the NFL that season, and he was named to the Chicago Herald-American’s All-NFL team. The Bears didn’t draft him to play defense, however. “That first year up, Bobby Layne was the quarterback,” Lujack recalls. “They got rid of Layne, thinking I was going to take over, which I did.” While Layne went on to have tremendous success and earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lujack’s accomplishments also stand out. Most football fans can tell you Norm Van Brocklin holds the single-game passing yardage record, but you might be hard pressed to find somebody that knows Lujack held the record previously. In fact, Lujack’s 468 passing yards against the Chicago Cardinals still stands as a Bears team record. In 1949 he bested Layne and the rest of the league in passing yardage (2,658) and passing touchdowns (23). Lujack wasn’t just a threat with his arm. The next year he set a league single-season record for rushing touchdowns with 11, and averaged over 6 yards per carry. His double-threat presence stands comparable to lauded talents like Cam Newton and Randall Cunningham, who Sports Illustrated called three decades ahead of his time. Using that logic, perhaps Lujack was 70 years ahead of his time.

 

 


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LEAVING ON HIS OWN TERMS

Pro football salaries were nothing like they are today, and past players’ values and attitudes contrast with those of many of today’s stars. Lujack retired after playing out the four years of his first contract, leaving what might have been a legendary career on the table. “I had the chance to become the quarterback coach at Notre Dame under [Head Coach Frank] Leahy’s last two years, 1952 and 1953. I felt that was a good way to repay Notre Dame and Leahy for giving me a scholarship,” Lujack states in the book.

SUMMARY

Where might Lujack fit in today’s NFL? Newton was the top pick of the 2011 NFL Draft after winning the Heisman Trophy and national championship, and led the Panthers to a division title last year. Althetic quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick represented the NFC in the last 2 Super Bowls, and recent QBs Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick consistently led their teams to the playoffs. It’s always difficult to compare players across different eras, but Lujack certainly could be considered a prototype to these modern stars.

Johnny  Lujack on the run.

Johnny Lujack on the run.