JERSEY CITY, N.J. — The stubborn, underlying issue around this Super Bowl is that the game will be played over here in New Jersey but most of the money and attention is across the river in New York.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
People back in Kansas City can relate to a good old fashioned tug-of-war between neighboring states.
The teams are sleeping and practicing in New Jersey. All of the player interviews are here. But the players’ union and league commissioner are conducting news conferences in New York. The big parties are in New York. More often than not, this has been referred to as the New York Super Bowl. The Star’s headline off the conference championship games made reference to New York, not New Jersey. The NFL’s official game program lists New York first, then New Jersey.
This kind of thing aggravates some people in Jersey. Tourism officials are out in full force this week, talking up their state’s beaches and commerce and hopeful resurgence. This is the New Jersey Super Bowl, they want you to know.
This is a state trying to reinvent itself, to adjust on the fly. Which makes it the perfect place to host these two particular teams playing in the country’s grandest sports event.
“We get paid to adjust,” Broncos coach John Fox says.
No team in football has been better with adjustments than Fox’s Broncos. Two years ago, they plodded and prayed and Tebowed. Now, they pass and they fly and they Manning.
The Broncos went all-in with Peyton Manning, John Elway famously saying there would be no Plan B.
They attempted 429 passes two years ago, Tebow’s last with the team. Nobody threw the ball less. This season, they threw the ball 675 times. Only the Browns threw it more, by just six attempts, and that’s only because the Broncos were always ahead and the Browns always behind.
The reinvention is all around Manning, in particular. With the help of pass-friendly rules and wildly talented pass-catchers, Manning will almost certainly win a record fifth MVP award after the best statistical season of his Hall of Fame career. He’s done it in different ways, too.
By NFL standards, Manning never had the strongest arm but always had more than enough strength to make all the throws. Now, at 37, he jokes about throwing “a lot of wobbly touchdowns.” This week, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman described some of Manning’s passes as “ducks,” and he sort of meant it as a compliment. Manning is still managing to effectively throw downfield but has emphasized his pre-snap reads and quick deliveries to make up for diminishing arm talent.
Because this is the NFL and Manning is a star, this has been said a million times, but it truly is remarkable: In two years, Manning has gone from not having feeling in his right arm to being the game’s best quarterback.
The reinvention is all around him, too. The Broncos shifted their offensive line to compensate for injuries and somehow remained one of the game’s better units. They turned Julius Thomas into a tight end. When their head coach needed heart surgery, they won three of four games with the interim guy, including two against the Chiefs.
They lost key defender Elvis Dumervil through a bizarre fax mishap, so they signed Shaun Phillips, who led the team with 10 sacks. Von Miller — their best defensive player — missed the first six games on suspension and suffered a season-ending injury in December, but they became one of the better red-zone defenses in recent NFL history. Overall, Denver’s defense is much better than most realize. The Broncos haven’t surrendered more than 260 yards in any of their last three games, including the playoffs.
Baseball is about surviving the grind, but football is about adjustments. This is a big part of how Bill Belichick has turned the Patriots into an omnipresent contender. The game happens so fast. It’s chaos.
No team in the NFL handled that chaos, large and small, better than the Broncos.
There aren’t many players who embody personal reinvention as well as Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
This is a second baseman who decided to be a quarterback. A professional baseball player long before his first football contract. He was supposed to be too short to play quarterback — that’s at least part of the reason Scott Pioli’s Chiefs chose Donald Stephenson in the third round immediately before Wilson went to the Seahawks — but he worked and persisted and showed enough to beat out an expensive veteran free agent as a rookie.
That required a major adjustment from his coach, too. Seattle’s Pete Carroll came of age as a coach with Bud Grant’s Vikings. When Carroll was interested in drafting Wilson, he called his old friend. Now, Grant won a lot of games with Fran Tarkenton, so Wilson’s height was never that big a deal to Grant. But when it came time to naming Wilson as the starter — as a 5-foot-10 rookie — Carroll had to ignore a saying from his mentor that for every rookie you start you’re going to lose a game.
“Bud and I didn’t agree on everything,” Carroll says.
Wilson has made the Pro Bowl in both of his NFL seasons, and no quarterback has ever won more games in his first two years. He’s so respected that the Rangers took him in baseball’s Rule 5 draft over the winter, essentially thinking of the $12,000 investment as a speaking fee if Wilson will come talk to their minor-leaguers this spring.
He’s not the only one with a reinvention on his side, either. You probably heard about Richard Sherman going from wide receiver to cornerback at Stanford, then from a fifth-round pick to star in Seattle. But the whole defense around Sherman has been reinvented, too, with seemingly little to gain and so much to lose.
This is about more than Carroll turning over virtually the entire roster since his arrival (not a single player remains from the Seattle team that lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL). This is about Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn taking one of the league’s best defenses — they allowed the fewest points and fourth-fewest yards in 2012 — and basically changing the entire thing.
They brought in Michael Bennett to collapse pockets at the point of attack, then changed the position or assignment for most of the rest of their starters. Red Bryant — one of the few pre-Carroll holdovers — moved to the weak side. Bruce Irvin moved to linebacker. The secondary tweaked roles. Players had to sacrifice personal success, and remember these were men who achieved personal success on one of the league’s best defenses.
Carroll changed the whole thing.
The result is one of the best defenses in recent NFL history. The Seahawks rank first in most traditional and advanced measurements. They scored four touchdowns in the regular season, and haven’t allowed even 20 points in a game since before Thanksgiving.
The Seahawks didn’t settle for good, in other words. They went for great.
The back-and-forth about this being a New York or New Jersey Super Bowl will continue around here. In the city, they tend to treat Jersey as a sort of expandable storage space for things that don’t fit in Manhattan. In Jersey, they tend to think of New York as a place for hipsters to eat artisanal cupcakes and rich snobs to eat $40 salads while their drivers wait outside.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie — who has other things to worry about — is talking about how, if nothing else, the broadcasters will tell millions of people worldwide that they are coming live from East Rutherford. New Yorkers hear that and mostly think it’s cute that New Jerseyans see their role in this whole thing as anything more than a nearby place with available land.
New Jersey is working hard to use this week as a chance to show the country and the world a different side. Shaking long-held stereotypes and revitalizing a state are very different challenges than winning football games, of course.
But even if it’s a coincidence of timing more than anything, their showcase event features two teams that mastered the process of evolution and reinvention.