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Shi: Turning the Super Bowl narrative on its head

Author’s note: This column was written immediately after the Super Bowl, and later, ESPN reported that Julian Edelman did indeed undergo a concussion test. However, as Ian Crouch points out, after taking a big hit and looking woozy, Edelman nonetheless stayed on the field until the end of the Patriots’ drive and ultimately played on 72 out of the Patriots’ 74 snaps on offense.

 

I was ready to write about the sheer underwhelmingness of this year’s Super Bowl.

The game was boring, the commercials weren’t that funny and while Katy Perry wasn’t bad during the halftime show, it definitely felt like the festivities started with Idina Menzel’s national anthem and never stopped going downhill.

Then the fourth quarter started.

***

If you’re reading this column, you probably know the score. The New England Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24. Seattle was leading going into the final stretch, New England pulled ahead with two late touchdowns, and just as Seattle was lined up at the New England 1-yard line and went in for the kill, a rookie out of Division II West Alabama stepped in, intercepted the Seattle throw and saved New England’s season.

If you’re a football fan, you probably know the narratives as well: Tom Brady’s and Bill Belichick’s fourth NFL championship, the inevitable flurry of talk show hosts howling “BEST PLAYER/COACH/TEAM EVER” and “NOT THE BEST PLAYER/COACH/TEAM EVER,” etc., etc., etc. Not to mention the typical paeans about grit and impressiveness and touching moments.

After all, it’s not like we’re unfamiliar with these stories. I don’t want to talk about the Deflategate/Ballghazi scandal, because we’ve been talking about it for weeks and weeks, and I have about as much patience for it as Bill Belichick does at this point. And schadenfreude at the Seahawks has been going on for a while now – for reasons both sane (they were the defending champs) and insane. (Apparently Richard Sherman is a “thug” or something. One imagines what people would think about noted trash talkers Michael Jordan or Larry Bird in this day and age.) Still, #seahawkswin was trending on Twitter, and at some point schadenfreude is warranted, isn’t it? Their fans won’t be allowed to forget that for a very long time.

But we would have had to recognize the triumph of the narrative, no matter the result. Nearly any football fan can readily imagine the narratives that would have emerged from a Seattle victory, a fact that is testament to how easily the same ideas can be reused and repurposed to fit different results. Seattle shouldn’t take it personally. Teams are fungible. The characters in our drama can and do change, but the story never ends.

***

Even the most important player of the game taps into these extended stories. The Patriots’ star receiver Julian Edelman took a massive hit from Kam Chancellor, seemingly didn’t get a concussion test and was later seen wobbling around on the field. We’ve been talking all the time about concussions and how they impact the NFL. Now a lot of people have to back up their words.

Put simply, the Patriots don’t win the title without Edelman’s heroics. And yet if Edelman was concussed and left the game, as concussed players should, then this Super Bowl finale never happens. A woozy Edelman clearly decided that he would trade the risk of permanent brain damage for a trophy. But for people who are tough on concussions – like me – it couldn’t have been worth it. I would have been hypocritical otherwise.

But I still wondered if I had any legitimacy, given that I played soccer and not football in high school. So I asked a New England native who always dreamed about being where Edelman stood (well, for various values of “stood”). He cared about football like few people I know have ever cared about anything. His varsity career ended because of concussions.

Yes, we are all anecdotal data points, and none of us – high school football player or not – could have possibly related to Edelman in his time of potential crisis. We’ve never competed at the absolute peak of the football world, and we’ve never had a Super Bowl victory within reach. But regardless of what a Super Bowl victory would mean to Edelman, I don’t think he should have been allowed to be the one making that decision.

“Guarantee he’s on autopilot,” my friend explained. “I mean, I wouldn’t come out of a meaningless high school game – doubt he’ll come out of this one.

“Not good, or right, but reality…MVP of the game is the doc who evaluated Edelman.”

***

I believe in the old historian’s rule: What history teaches us is that we are eternally doomed to repeat it. And when it comes to concussions, it’s hard for historians to not be cynical. Despite the NFL’s new public emphasis on concussions, as long as players are encouraged to play through nearly any sort of pain and teams are rewarded based not on player safety but results, there will still be Julian Edelmans.

But let’s end this on a happier note, because Edelman seems safe and sound, and so the threat of immediate danger has passed – even though the final outcome does not negate the absurd risk he ran. It’s cheap relief, but it’s relief nonetheless.

Focused on history, and armed with fond memories of Patriots’ last two Super Bowls, I called it all.

When the Patriots scored with ample time on the clock, allowing the Seahawks one more chance to score, I remembered 2008, when the Pats did the exact same thing – and I called a Seahawks win.

When Jermaine Kearse made his outrageous, twisting catch (which spent an eternity bouncing around in the air before falling right into Kearse’s hands), reminiscent of David Tyree’s legendary Helmet Catch in 2008 – I called it.

When one more bruising Marshawn Lynch run brought the Seahawks within a yard of the lead and (likely) the title, and the Pats had no choice but to let Lynch score to save time, as they did with Ahmad Bradshaw in 2012 – I called it.

But sometimes history doesn’t repeat itself. Seattle got cute and tried to throw the ball instead of giving it to the best running back alive. A rookie – I repeat, a rookie – jumped the inside slant and made his first career interception. Malcolm Butler became a hero, and Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson became the goat.

Wilson isn’t bad. In fact, he is very good. He deserves the insanely large contract that he’ll get soon enough. But it’s the Super Bowl and in the space of one play, when one set of narratives (the Pats can’t win post-Spygate, etc., etc., etc.) collapses, another will rise. And these narratives will likely be unfair.

So let’s not bash Wilson. Congratulations, Malcolm Butler, because rookie magic is cool. Congratulations, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and everybody else associated with the Patriots’ magical run. The New England Patriots have won championships 10 years apart, in a game in which seven years of success are considered surprising. That is sustained brilliance on a truly magical level. And regardless of whether you care about the NFL or not, you have to tip your cap.

Among other things, Winston Shi called the gastrointestinal distress he will have after ordering from the Cheesecake Factory. Contact Winston at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Winston Shi

Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.