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Super Bowl LIV and the NFL’s Season of Pushing for the Past

The Chiefs-49ers game marks the end of the league’s 100th season, and all that went with it. For the NFL, that’s presented one more chance to celebrate nostalgia over the greatness that’s happening now.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I have a theory that the Super Bowl became such a big deal because for a long time it wasn’t very good.

Recent versions of the game have been spectacular. In 2018 the Eagles and Patriots combined for 1,151 yards in a thrilling 41-33 upset that gave Philadelphia its first-ever title. In 2017 the Patriots rallied from a 28-3 deficit to topple the Falcons in overtime. In 2015 the Pats beat the Seahawks on a stunning goal-line interception. And the Giants overcame Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the fourth quarter twice.

But it wasn’t always this way. Just three of the first 15 Super Bowls were one-score games (there have been 12 in the 19 Super Bowls since 2000), and that wasn’t even the event’s least competitive stretch. From 1985 to 1997, the NFC won 13 consecutive Super Bowls, with just two one-score games and an average margin of victory of 21 points. By far the most famous moment of this era was the Wide Right game between the Bills and Giants. That’s right—there was a decade-plus period of Super Bowls in which the most exciting moment was the Bills missing a kick.

If all that mattered were results, the Super Bowl would have faded into oblivion. Instead it prospered, becoming the predominant cultural event in American life and the nation’s most-watched television program year after year. My theory is that the subpar quality of play actually entrenched the Super Bowl’s status. Everyone showed up to work on Monday after the big game, and because it was such a dud, people talked about the ads and the halftime show and the dips that they ate at parties. When the football game sucked but still felt like something the whole country needed to participate in, the Super Bowl officially won.

The Super Bowl is good now, but this year’s game will feature a long and rose-colored look back at when it was bad. The NFL plans to devote a large portion of its Sunday programming to its NFL 100 packaging, a celebration of the league’s 100th season. (Not the 100th anniversary, for some reason—this branding apparently couldn’t wait a year.) The current NFL bears almost no resemblance to the one whose foundation is being celebrated. In 1920, when the league was born, it was essentially a semi pro organization called the American Professional Football Association that held its games in mid-sized towns across the Midwest, primarily Ohio. Teams included the Akron Pros, the Rochester Jeffersons, and the Rock Island Independents. One team, the Muncie Flyers, played a single game, lost 45-0, and apparently decided that the AFPA wasn’t for them. Disbandment is not an option for modern-day NFL teams, although I’m sure the Browns have wished it was from time to time.

A hundred years later, the NFL is the no. 1 entertainment business in America. It dominates the sports landscape so thoroughly that it feels unfair to compare it to other sports, all of which are fighting to be no. 2. In 2019, 41 of the top 50 individual TV programs in the United States were NFL games. Every season, the league makes more money than all of the movies in the Star Wars franchise combined, adjusted for inflation.

The league’s increased popularity has gone hand-in-hand with progress. In the early days of the sport, football was brutish and ugly. The AFPA’s debut season included twelve 0-0 ties. Passing was considered a trick play, and there was little specialization, as the same players lined up on both offense and defense. The league also originally had an unofficial policy of banning black players that lasted into the 1940s, with some teams refusing to sign black players until the 1950s. Roughly a quarter of the 100 seasons the league is celebrating came before integration.

I view the history of the NFL as one of continual progress, and it makes sense that the NFL would want to honor that progress. What doesn’t make sense is how it’s achieving that. The league is choosing to honor its past at the expense of its best era—the one we’re watching right now.

I noticed something weird this week while walking around the Miami Beach Convention Center, where the “NFL Experience” and radio row are located for Super Bowl LIV. Upon entering, the first thing you see aren’t oversize posters of Patrick Mahomes or Jimmy Garoppolo. It’s a wall featuring the 100 players on the NFL 100 All-Time Team. Maybe this decision is partly logistical—the NFL 100 All-Time Team was determined during the 2019 offseason, when it was unclear who would play in Super Bowl LIV until two weeks ago. Still, it seems strange that there’s less signage for Mahomes, who has thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions during the past two postseasons, than there is for Dutch Clark, who threw 11 touchdowns and 26 interceptions for the Portsmouth Spartans and Detroit Lions between 1932 and 1938.

The NFL 100 list is a deeply strange document that almost completely relegates the league’s modern era behind its formative years. The list is meant to feature the league’s “greatest” players, although the NFL has made no attempt to explain what “greatness” is supposed to mean in this context. Proportionally, one would expect a list of 100 players from 100 seasons to feature 30 players from the last 30 years, 20 players from the last 20 years, and so on. And given the increased skill of the players and the increased stature of the modern NFL, it would make sense if the list had more players from recent seasons than from the league’s early days.

Yet the opposite is true. The NFL 100 list features as many players who entered the league during the 1930s—a decade in which many players had second jobs, in which the ball changed shape, and in which some teams (like the Muncie Flyers!) ceased operations in the middle of the season—as players who have entered the league since 2000. Using the NFL 100 list as a guide, the league’s apparent peak came in 1971—the year after the AFL and NFL merger, a season during which QBs threw 389 touchdown passes and 544 interceptions—when 28 of the NFL 100 players were concurrently active. There were at least 20 NFL 100 players in the league every season between 1962 and 1986. That wasn’t the case in any season this century.

Drew Brees, the league’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, is not on the NFL 100 list. J.J. Watt, one of just two players who has been named Defensive Player of the Year three times, is not on the list. Julio Jones, the all-time leader in receiving yards per game, was not even a finalist. A recent ranking of the top 125 players in NFL history by football historian Brad Oremland put running back LaDanian Tomlinson among the top 50; he wasn’t included on the NFL 100 list.

The players of today not only achieved more fame and greater statistics than the players of the 1930s and ’40s, but they are also, quite obviously, much better at football. If Derrick Henry, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound running back who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, were let loose on the field with players from the Decatur Staleys, the only survivors would be the defenders slow enough to miss him.

It’s clear why this progress has happened. Training methods have vastly improved. Equipment has improved. Players make millions of dollars now, and are willing to spend to keep themselves in millions-making shape. In the early days of the league, the stars were people who just so happened to be athletic and were willing to interrupt their regular lives to compete. Now, the stars are highly paid professionals.

We have seen similar progress in virtually all sports. The Olympics have had swimming events since 1896, and yet the oldest Olympic swimming record was set in Beijing in 2008. The same goes for weightlifting, as the oldest Olympic weightlifting record was set in 2000. The oldest Olympic cycling record is from 2004, and the oldest Olympic speed skating record is from 2002. Twenty of the 25 Olympic men’s track and field records have been set since 2000, and 24 of the 25 have been set since 1988.

It would take a truly skewed conception of greatness to argue that, say, Johnny Weissmuller was a greater swimmer than Michael Phelps, or that Jim Thorpe was a greater sprinter than Usain Bolt. But in team sports “greatness” is about more than mere physical attributes. Yes, Patrick Mahomes is better at throwing footballs than any quarterback we’ve ever seen, but sports talk radio hosts around the country would surely argue that title-winning quarterbacks of the past were greater.

The story of the NFL is one of constant growth. It has gotten bigger and bigger and all-consumingly bigger, and the Super Bowl has done the same. That growth is the result of decades of trailblazing coaches and spectacular players. But today’s league is inarguably better than the one of decades past: The quality of play is higher, the play-calling is smarter, and the games are far more entertaining. Super Bowls are actually good now.

We should celebrate the road that the NFL has taken to get to this point. The improved modern product was built on the backs of legends who are deserving of recognition. But instead of honoring each of its 100 seasons equally, the NFL 100 campaign seems primarily interested in yearning for what was instead of appreciating what is.