SAN FRANCISCO — The NFL could not have picked a more appropriate location for its Golden Super Bowl than the Golden State, where the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers will become part of the narrative of the sport as well as the location.
Northern California is an area born from the quest for masses of gold. Its recent growth has been spurred by chips of silicon. And on Sunday night, it will see one team lay claim to the Lombardi Trophy. Not just the Lombardi Trophy, but the 50th one, to symbolize a championship and cap a half century of exponential expansion of the Super Bowl.
“I certainly think our players understand the significance of that,” said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who will be starting his fourth Super Bowl. “This is a unique and special opportunity.”
Like the area itself, the Super Bowl rose from humble, rugged beginnings to a high-tech extravaganza that will be played at the NFL’s crown jewel of gadgety gizmos — Levi Stadium in Santa Clara — and in front of millions of fans with high-def and surround-sound.
What would Vince Lombardi, who won the first two of these games — until today the only ones that did not have Roman numerals when they were played, although they were retroactively added — make of Sunday’s contest? Could he have envisioned a 6-5, 245-pound quarterback who can flick footballs down the field as easily as he can run around defenders? Would he have been amazed that a 39-year-old man who has been pieced back together with surgeries on both his neck and his foot is on the verge of becoming an immortal in the game? Just a month or so after he was a backup?
He probably would have loved that a linebacker who broke his arm two weeks ago will be starting.
Although this game will be a celebration of the past 49 incarnations, as this entire season has been with gold-painted 50 yard lines and shields on every field throughout the year, it also feels like a turning point.
Manning is one of the all-time greats and the holder of nearly every passing record imaginable, but most suspect he will retire at some point in the coming weeks, ending a career that has transformed the position and the game.
And the Panthers’ Cam Newton seems to be ushering in a new generation of player: The super-athlete. He is the kind of quarterback who can do it all, do it all well, and does not reminding opponents about both of those facts. Mobile passers have gotten here and even won in the past three years with Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson representing the NFC in those games. Newton, though, is so much more complete than those anomalies of the position. He could become the mold that teams try to find until Super Bowl 100.
The dichotomy in this game is too juicy to ignore from both a style perspective and a timing one. The Broncos, with the league’s best defense, seem to be a team whose championship window is closing while the Panthers and the league’s best offense appear to just be starting out on what could be a run of success.
Football has well-documented problems. It is dangerous and violent, the effects of which last a lifetime and sometimes shorten them. It glorifies men who can act in unseemly fashion and gives second and third chances for infractions that would lead to banishment from other professions. This is the second offfseason in a row the league will spend time and money investigating one of its most visible and successful stars for cheating — Manning’s alleged HGH use will be looked into as Tom Brady’s use of deflated footballs was a year ago — and it will be in court next month against Brady on the matter of his suspension which was vacated by a federal judge this past summer.
Yet the one thing football does best is football. The game. The players. The teams. The pageantry. The drama. And yes, even the commercials.
Each of the past 49 years has been punctuated by one winter Sunday when all of that shines through. When everything, for 60 minutes on the field, is Super.
Today that day turns 50. And while only one team will enjoy the confetti that falls when the game is over, for the rest of us, that seems to be something to celebrate.