Now more than ever, the NFL is all about the quarterbacks. The buildup to Super Bowl 50 proved no exception: In the two weeks prior to Sunday night’s game in Santa Clara, the national conversation largely centered on the signal-callers, whose styles of play and off-field personas were pored over in every manner imaginable by an army of reporters and analysts. The game’s two possible outcomes were pre-cast as career-defining triumphs for the passers. If the Denver Broncos won, it would be a rousing sendoff for the potentially retiring all-time great Peyton Manning. If the Carolina Panthers won, it would be a coronation for Cam Newton, this season’s Most Valuable Player.
The Broncos beat the Panthers, 24-10, but the game featured none of the displays of virtuosity fans of Manning or Newton might have hoped for. It was a plodding, mistake-riddled affair, all stuffed runs and stalled drives. Maybe the most miraculous thing about the game was that it ended at all; it seemed for a time that it might simply give out somewhere along the way, leaving the Denver and Carolina players to wander around Levi’s Stadium until the resumption of football next fall.
Of course, in football, one group doing its work poorly means another did its work well, and if the defenses didn’t produce the most aesthetically pleasing evening of television, they generally impressed. The Carolina defense, founded on a smothering group of linemen and linebackers, forced two Manning turnovers—an interception and a fumble—and a whopping eight punts. By the game’s end, those punts seemed almost like triumphs. They meant that nothing worse had happened, that the Broncos had held on to the ball long enough to boot it on down to the other end of the field.
The defensive star of the game, though, was the Denver pass-rusher Von Miller. Miller, the second pick in the draft that saw Newton selected first, played as if to avenge that slight. Midway through the first quarter, he darted across the line of scrimmage and wrested the ball from Newton’s hands, allowing his teammates to pounce on the rolling ball for a touchdown. For the rest of the evening, he tore through the Panthers’ offensive line to sack Newton or harangue him into launching the ball out of bounds. When some combination of blockers managed to delay him, it only opened up an opportunity for someone else; Newton was sacked seven times in all on the night, the last of these producing another fumble that he couldn’t even muster the will to pursue.
By evening’s end, the sole remaining matter of interest was how the NFL, famously oblivious to its own shortcomings, would commemorate a game that ran so counter to the expected narrative. It did so clumsily, reverting to its basest corporate instincts and tritest storylines. As Manning ran onto the field at the final whistle, he received the conspicuous congratulations of the pizza titan “Papa” John Schnatter, with whom he’s regularly appeared in commercials.
Moments after Miller was declared the Super Bowl MVP at the podium wheeled out for the celebration, the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the CBS commentator Jim Nantz resumed their effusive praise of Manning, thanking him for his years of play. Nantz (who only minutes earlier had praised Manning for declining to address his future in an interview with the sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson, noting that it might distract from his team’s accomplishment) asked Manning the same question and received the same canned response. Manning hadn’t thought that far ahead; he was looking forward to kissing his wife and kids and—this was said with a spokesman’s flourish—drinking plenty of Budweiser.
As America’s most entrenched sports presence, the NFL has two features in its favor. The first is the game itself, a spectacle that has proven largely addictive even as its dangers are more and more widely known. The second is the league’s nose for middlebrow appeal, its ability to paper over its various public relations disasters and to coat its game in the language of myth. That first attribute wasn’t much help Sunday night, but the second is always there.