I love it that the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans are in the Super Bowl. I love it that there are new faces, new story lines, fresh subplots. I love it that people will be weaned from the Cowboys and 49ers and might just learn why the wondrous Jevon Kearse is called "The Freak" or how Dick Vermeil at the age of 63 transformed himself from Woody Hayes to Alan Alda. You know those people screaming that viewership will be down for this Super Bowl? They're the same ones who told you to buy months' worth of batteries and milk because Y2K was going to disrupt the world.
The Super Bowl, boys and girls, is recession-proof. It's beyond who plays whom. A survey by Hallmark Cards a few years ago concluded that the Super Bowl is the top at-home party event of the year, surpassing New Year's Eve. It's the second-largest day of food consumption in America, trailing only Thanksgiving. It wouldn't matter if Slippery Rock played Carson-Newman; if you trot two teams out there on the final Sunday in January and bring Cher in to sing the national anthem, 150 million people are going to watch. Of the top 15 programs in television history, eight are Super Bowls. And guess which Super Bowl had the biggest viewing audience (by percentage share) of them all? That would be XVI, San Francisco vs. Cincinnati on Jan. 24, 1982.
That was a game played between two teams hardly anybody knew when Super Bowl week began. Okay, folks knew Joe Montana from Notre Dame, and two weeks earlier he'd thrown "The Catch" to Dwight Clark. But don't let people like my dear friend Tony K. get revisionist on you as he tries to convince people the 49ers were a national institution in 1982. They weren't. They weren't much better known than these Titans or Rams. Reporters were walking around asking each other, "Who's this Walsh fellow and what's this West Coast offense he keeps talking about?"
What we don't know not only doesn't hurt us, it's often a necessary breath of fresh air. You want me to believe we'd be better served by another week of stories about The Genius Egomaniac Tuna Bill Parcells, or The Genius Tyrant Jimmy Johnson, or The Genius Obsessive-Compulsive Mike Shanahan? Can you imagine seven days of Parcells stumping for his flunky, Bill (Hey, Can I Reconsider) Belichick? Do we need another week of the Buffalo Bills? As much as I love John Elway, I'm not sure I could take an entire week of Is-Elway-Coming-Back-Next-Year stories. How much soup can Terrell Davis sell?
There's nothing wrong with St. Louis vs. Tennessee. In fact, there's plenty right with it. And to me, you'd have to start with Vermeil. Only 12 months ago, Vermeil and Mike Ditka were the Sunshine Boys, two past-their-prime used-to-be's who simply hadn't evolved with the game they once mastered. Now, Ditka's off to the side by himself. How instructive that Vermeil could shed his old skin and remake himself, and come here with a team that bears no resemblance to any other team he's ever coached.
How about Kurt Warner? To see the former Arena Leaguer start at quarterback for a Super Bowl team has to be an affirmation for every kid who ever didn't make it, for everybody who was pushed back to the JV. None other than Warren Moon, exiled to the Canadian Football League for the first six years of his career, said Tuesday of Warner, "I can really relate to what's happened to him, even though it took him one year [to reach the NFL] and it took me six. He took whatever path he could to create an opportunity for himself and it's a wonderful story."
Or how about Titans offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, who after 17 years, 12 trips to the Pro Bowl, and never having missed a game because of injury, gets a trip to the Super Bowl?
How about Steve McNair, who had the luxury of joining a team with a young coach (Jeff Fisher) who couldn't care less about what color a quarterback is, or what football's sometimes dubious tradition says he should be.
And how about Kearse, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound rookie who has a lineman's body and a running back's speed. As Vermeil said when asked to compare Kearse to the incomparable Lawrence Taylor, "You better play a few years before you get put in that category." But to watch Kearse now is to know you're getting in on the ground floor of something special.
Rams defensive end Kevin Carter, while focused on the details of preparing for a championship game, nonetheless managed to appreciate the larger picture. "It's been a classic story of a great cast of characters coming together," he said. "You've got a quarterback in Kurt Warner who was bagging groceries not long ago. You have a veteran running back like Marshall Faulk who has found new life with a second team. And you have a head coach who brought a team to the Super Bowl many, many years ago and then was in television for years. . . . It's a heart-warming story."
How great it is to see a team built, more or less, on the fly. The Rams demonstrated that in this age of free agency, it's still possible to build camaraderie and cohesion in quick order. Just a minute ago the Rams got Faulk, Trent Green, then Warner. That must be so much more difficult than the old days, when you got the core of your team for seven or eight years and fit the role players around them.
Too much of this has to do with St. Louis being the 21st largest market in America, and Nashville being 30th. I prefer the NFL's brand of socialism any day to baseball's World Series, where the game's economics probably wouldn't allow for this type of championship matchup.
So many times, matchups between teams well-known to the media and general public have produced dud games. St. Louis vs. Tennessee is a matchup of speed vs. power. There's no better all-around offensive player in football than Faulk. Why wouldn't we want to see him go up against Kearse, who already is on the brink of becoming the game's best all-around defensive player? Why wouldn't we want to see Warner's fling-it, 21st-century offense one series, then McNair's controlled ground attack the next? There's so much to watch, so much substance, so much style, so many diverse and new personalities ready to take the big stage, it could be a memorable Super Bowl week if we'll only let it.