January 15th, 1967
On a balmy day in Los Angeles, monsters roamed the coliseum grounds. Vince Lombardi barked orders like a drill sergeant ordering troops around the barracks. Grown men with names like Starr, Taylor, Hornung, and Nitschke, donning green and gold, pour sweat and shed blood by bashing their heads against the men across the field. The Packers of Green Bay battled with the Chiefs from Kansas City. Those men across the field were outcasts, “black sheep,” and pretenders. There is a game being played here.
Not just any game, this game is the first Super Bowl. It includes the champion of two different professional leagues. The titans of the sport, the NFL; along with the upstart American Football League (AFL) which agreed to a merger in June of the previous year. Their union was consummated with an “NFL-AFL Championship Game,” although the two leagues would play separate schedules for the next four seasons. The Chiefs stuck with the NFL Champion Packers in the first and second quarters, down 14-10 at the break, one score down.
The Packers had that lead thanks to an unlikely hero. Backup wideout Max McGee caught the first touchdown in Super Bowl history with a one-handed grab on a pass behind him. McGee had played sparingly all year and had partied well into the LA night before the game at hand. He was so confident he would not see in-game action that he left his helmet in the locker room. Upon being thrust into action, McGee grabbed the closest helmet he found and charged into the field of play. It doesn’t even happen like that in the movies.
KC’s gunslinger Len Dawson had his picture snapped while enjoying an ice-cold Fresca while he gleefully puffed a cigarette at halftime of the game, a feat typically reserved for after-game celebrations. Just like his cigarette, the Chiefs’ hopes for an unbelievable win were up in smoke. The man for whom we named the trophy, after taking his Packers down the field time and time again, willed his team to win with a balanced offensive attack. The wonder boys of Wisconsin would prevail 35-10, scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half.
Prior to kickoff, pregame coverage buzzed with storylines. Vince Lombardi had not spoken to the team’s leading rusher, fullback Jim Taylor, since prior to the season. The coach was upset with Taylor’s disloyalty, as he was set to sign with New Orleans at the conclusion of the year. Lombardi’s tough attitude was shaped through determination in his successes, a trait that resonated with his players and was exemplified on the field. Moreover, star free safety Willie Wood joined the Packers at the beginning of the decade, he was undrafted out of college as a quarterback and through his own grit, able to convert to defense. He would go on to make nine All-Pro teams. Lombardi faced the pressure of holding the weight that came with representing the NFL, an entity that did not want to be beaten by its “little brother” league. CBS reporter Frank Gifford said the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach was so nervous he was “shaking like a leaf.”
On the opposite side of the field, there was a palpable tension to be felt as well. Kansas City was there on behalf of the newer, modernized, and groundbreaking AFL.
The leagues were fundamentally different from the way their teams played to the actual footballs they used in the game. The classic shaped football from the NFL by Wilson, “The Duke,” was used by the Packers on their offensive possessions, while the Chiefs used the JV5, a long, white ball made by Spalding.
The entertainment aspect of the game on that Sunday was one of limited means but not excitement. The halftime show featured college marching bands, 300 pigeons, Dixieland Jazz trumpeter Al Hirt, 10,000 balloons, and a gravity-defying performance by two men on literal rocket packs. Seriously, NFL Films has all the footage. Certainly a well-set precedent for the pageantry that has followed every big game since. As always, many of the heroic events from this game are captured like “Kodak Moments” and the storylines live on the lore of our beautiful game for generations.
Sundays are typically reserved for rest and relaxation in our society today, as well as football during the season, and at the end of every season on one midwinter Sunday early in the year the country stands still as over 100 million gather to watch this spectacle of athletic prowess and drama. Stories and memories of clutch moments from previous matchups set the tone for the stage, like the ghosts of games past. Watching them back is as exhilarating now as it might have been to witness it in real-time. All the stories:
The promise Namath fulfilled with that iconic shot, Hank Stram calling “65 toss power trap”, Garo Yepremian’s fantastic effort on a special teams folly that put the 1972 Dolphin’s perfect season in jeopardy, Lynn Swann defying gravity, Jack Youngblood’s broken leg, the Fridge scores for the 85’ Bears, cool Joe Montana spotting John Candy, Thurman Thomas’ missing helmet, Wide right, Elway claws the monkey off his back, Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal as time expired that gave birth to a dynasty, Tyree’s helmet catch to cap off Eli’s great escape, Roethlisberger dropping dimes to Holmes in the corner, the lights go out after halftime, Tom Brady’s comeback, and more that have impacted the game for years to come. The Rolodex of monumental moments is endless, but it is time to add another game to the record book.
This Sunday, the 56th edition of the Super Bowl takes place. The narratives in this game seem to be endless as well. Stories of redemption, revenge, glory, and destiny are in no short supply. Los Angeles’ SoFi stadium is the host stadium of this year’s big game; the home of the Los Angeles Rams who made the move back to Southern California in 2016. The Rams return to the game for the second time under head coach Sean McVay. They lost Super Bowl LIII to the Patriots in a 13-3 slugfest during the 2018 season. So far this year Los Angeles has put up 6,000-plus total offensive yards and 52 touchdowns, their defensive unit has been amongst the most dangerous and dominant in all of football. They are looking for a return to the mountaintop for the first time since the end of the last millennium.
The Rams are set to face off against the Cincinnati Bengals, who returned to the AFC Championship game for the first time since their last time in the Super Bowl back in 1989. Led by the second-year man from LSU, Joe Burrow, the Bengals torched this year on the ground and through the air. The offensive attack was greatly aided by Burrow’s college teammate, Rookie Ja’Marr Chase, who broke records this year and is a top candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Cincy is coached by Zac Taylor, in his third year at the helm.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines in this year’s game!
The Rams’ Dynamic Defenders
Los Angeles has a lot of playmakers on their roster, but none are quite as game-wrecking as what their opposing offenses line up against. Anchored by one of the best of his era, and arguably of all-time, Aaron Donald, the Rams defense has been stifling teams and their best players all year. Donald is an eight-time All-Pro and has won the NFL AP Defensive Player of the Year on three separate occasions. He registered 12.5 sacks this year while forcing four fumbles. His game is complimented by another All-Pro defender Von Miller, who was acquired via trade from Denver in early November. Miller notched 50 tackles and 9.5 sacks in 15 games with the Broncos and Rams this year.
No great defense is complete without a standout secondary player; enter Jalen Ramsey. The Rams traded draft picks for Ramsey in 2019 and Ramsey has shown out on the brightest fields out in Hollywood since he arrived. He recorded four interceptions this year and 77 tackles, a career-high. Furthermore, Ramsey has not missed a Pro-Bowl selection since he entered the league in 2017.
A Hidden Gem & A Shooting Star
The Football Championship Subdivision (NCAA FCS) has produced many athletes worthy of a team’s draft choice. The practice of drafting a player from an FCS school has dwindled more and more over the years. With the NFL Draft reduced from twelve to seven rounds in 1978, the crop of players from smaller schools grew slimmer by the year. The 2021 NFL Draft only produced six picks from FCS schools. 2018’s third round of the draft featured a WR from Eastern Washington, Cooper Kupp. The former Eagle did not receive a Division 1 scholarship offer out of high school, yet he caught well over 400 passes in college with 70-plus touchdowns and 6,000 yards. His talent was undeniable and it shined through this year where he racked up over 2,000 yards receiving and 170 receptions (including three playoff games).
Kupp had a much different path to stardom than his Cincinnati counterpart, rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. The LSU product was heavily recruited as a prep player before settling in Baton Rouge. While playing for the Tigers, he and Joe Burrow dominated their competition in 2019 with an undefeated national title run. Chase was chosen fifth overall this last April and hauled in 14 scoring grabs on 101 catches for over 1,700 yards. Both receivers have shown prowess as route runners and bursts of elite speed. You cannot coach playmaking and these two will be guarded by the other team’s best defender. Kupp and Chase lead their teams in targets.
An Obvious Advantage
Until last February, no team had played in the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Bruce Arians’ Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Chiefs and the Bucs celebrated on their home turf at Raymond James.
This weekend, the Rams become the second team. Los Angeles will also keep their same locker room. This home-field advantage was not so obvious last week as many 49er faithful in SoCal flocked to SoFi Stadium to watch the NFC Championship Game nearly a fortnight ago. Realistically, San Francisco is much closer to SoFi stadium than the majority of Bengals fans out in Ohio. Seats cost a fortune as per usual to keep up with the costs it takes to pay for an advertisement. Look for the crowd to be “Ram-heavy” and the boys in blue to use the momentum from their home fans.
Second, Third, and Last Chances
Games like this give reasons to hope and reasons to dream. Odell Beckham Jr. saw his wildest dreams come true with one pass, that he caught with maybe three fingers and his world has been a slippery slope ever since. Riddled with injuries and rumors of attitude issues with coaches, “OBJ” has apparently found a comfortable landing spot on the third attempt.
Since the acquisition, Beckham has settled into his role and compliments the offense efficiently. The Rams signed Beckham in November and in 11 games with the team he has nabbed nearly 40 balls for over 500 yards and six touchdowns, including a big game during the Super Wild Card round where he caught a touchdown and threw a 40-yard bomb to Cam Akers.
Akers, in turn, suffered a torn achilles in July and was not expected to return for the season. He tested off injured reserve on Christmas Day, well ahead of schedule and he has put up over 200 all-purpose yards thus far during the playoffs.
The Rams made waves in November after losing leading tackler Jordan Fuller for the year. Los Angeles signed Eric Weddle, a six-time Pro-Bowler and 13-year veteran who had retired in February of 2020. The Rams lured Weddle out of retirement and are granting him the gift of his first Super Bowl appearance at age 37.
The Price Ranges of Picking First
Super Bowl 50 featured the first duel of number one overall selections with Peyton Manning and Cam Newton sharing the field together in “The Sheriff’s” last stand. On Sunday two other top picks hope to throw their teams onto the podium covered in color-coded confetti. Bengals signal-caller Joe Burrow was the first selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, after a storied championship run in college the previous season. Burrow has trademarked his own style of confidence and swagger that he carries with him and it translates to his game. He also carries a chip on his shoulder after being overlooked at his first collegiate pit stop in Columbus for Ohio State University. Burrow was redshirted his first season and then sat two more years behind J.T. Barret, after transferring to LSU in 2018 he lead his Tigers to a top ten ranking at the end of his first year, and a perfect season to cap it off, breaking records for touchdowns in a campaign and passer rating. He also earned the Heisman Trophy to place on his mantle during his magical campaign.
His rookie year went as expected with a rebuilding franchise and in Week Eleven Burrow tore his knee to shreds, ending his first year. In 2021, Burrow has been hot since his first throw, racking up 4,600 yards and 34 scoring tosses with a league-leading 70 percent completion rate.
Also, Burrow is not shy and is hailed as a savior amongst Cincy die-hards. The first overall pick is the first player to hold that moniker as a quarterback and lead his team to the championship in his first two seasons. His immediate taste of success in this league is vastly different from the other quarterback in the big game.
Matthew Stafford was the first pick in 2008, selected by the Detroit Lions. To some, this life of luxury is immediately relegated to a death sentence for being signed by an inept franchise that has only made one conference championship game since Super Bowl I, and Stafford certainly took his lumps in Detroit. “Number 9” has seldom had a taste of playoff football in 13 seasons, making two Wild Card round appearances in 2011 and 2014, losing in dramatic fashion due to errant throws each time. Stafford has been praised for his toughness after sealing a game-winning quarterback sneak on the goal line after having his shoulder separated the moment before. All of which was wired for sound.
Having thrown for over 50,000 yards and 300 touchdowns, Stafford’s stats are unquestionably great. With only one true receiving threat over twelve seasons in Detroit, the former Georgia Bulldog threw for at least 4,000 yards in 8 different seasons. For over a decade, he has produced at an extremely competitive level and has earned heaps of well-earned respect across the league.
Cooper Kupp’s prominence this season helped Stafford lead his team to the Super Bowl, with the two having undeniable chemistry that resulted in Kupp being targeted almost 200 times in the air this season. Stafford is also the quarterback responsible for the two greatest receiving seasons in terms of yardage in league history, as he threw passes to Calvin Johnson during his career year in 2012. Calvin Johnson and current New York Giant Kenny Golladay were the only two skill players to be selected for the Pro Bowl, other than himself, during his entire tenure in Detroit. Now surrounded with talent, Stafford has proved that he was doomed to fail from the beginning but has never lacked the tools to win it be in big games.
Two quarterbacks with undeniable talent. The future of the league in Burrow, and the guy who could not win the big game when he earned his infrequent chances. Both players will be instrumental in their teams’ efforts on Sunday and are the unquestioned leaders of their teams.
A Master and His Apprentice
Sean McVay has taken his team to the Super Bowl once before. It was the first time the Rams had made it back to the Super Bowl since the 2001 season. They lost that game to the New England Patriots and the colonial dynasty was born. Fittingly, after years of middling around in league standings, the team moved from St. Louis back to its original home in sunny SoCal. After just one season in LA, the Rams fired their head coach and turned to the youthful Sean McVay. At the age of thirty, McVay was the youngest head coach in league history, and he led the Rams to the Super Bowl in his second campaign.
Coincidentally, McVay would be facing the last team his Rams faced in this game, the Patriots. That silver, blue and red freight train imposed their will on the Rams in the final quarters, chugging out a gritty 13-3 victory, the lowest-scoring game in Super Bowl history. McVay has kept his Rams in respectable contention going 55-26 in his first five seasons, with double-digit wins in all but one. McVay has shown his prowess for offensive wisdom and play schemes since he arrived in the league as a wide receivers coach with Tampa Bay in 2008. He worked up the ladder to offensive coordinator in Washington with the Jay Gruden Administration before finally landing the head job in Los Angeles. McVay made great hires during his first few years, including Zac Taylor.
Taylor made his return back to the Midwest after he was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals who had been struggling in a tough division for decades. The 38-year old struggled through his first two seasons with inadequate play from a shoddy roster. Yet, through draft picks and trades, as well as the addition of a healthy Joe Burrow, the Bengals surged to 10-7 and made one of the most remarkable franchise turnarounds of all time. In 2018 and 2019, Cincinnati finished with a combined record of 6-26-1, now they find themselves in a place they have not been in for more than 30 years.
Taylor had done time with the Miami Dolphins and helped develop a promising Ryan Tannehill into a considerable talent. After his success with the QB’s for the Phins became a topic in football circles, Taylor made a jump to the college game to coordinate the offense for the University of Cincinnati. However, this would not be the last time Taylor would be blowing his whistle in southwest Ohio. The 2006 Big 12 Offensive Player of the year for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Taylor knew about efficient quarterback play. Following his hire by the Rams and a one-year role as assistant wide receivers coach, he was promoted to quarterback coach in 2018 and helped Jared Goff lead the Rams to the promised land.
Taylor is actually three years older than his LA counterpart, but it is fair to say McVay gave him an excellent opportunity as a coach, that helped him stake his claim in the league’s history. A Bengals coach facing a mentor and patron of his coaching tree is not an unfamiliar narrative in its own right. The Bengals reached two Super Bowls in the 1980s during the ’84 and ’88 seasons. Coached by Sam Wyche both times, Cincinnati failed to win. The coach he would match wits with in the first matchup was none other than the last head coach he served under, the colorful but tortured Bill Walsh and his San Francisco 49ers who were looking to win their second of the decade. Wyche was the passing game coordinator during the Niners’ first Super Bowl-winning season in 1981. San Francisco and Walsh beat out Wyche in the pair of Cincy Super Bowl appearances and the Bengals have only won a singular game in the playoffs through eight attempts prior to this season.
Taylor and his talented players have turned the Bengals franchise around and an opportunity to go toe-to-toe with a coach he served under. McVay is younger, but he has a more accomplished resume. These two coaches are both highly praised around the league for their offensive minds, game management, and ball control. One who served as interim for a 4-9 team and then ended droughts of winning seasons, playoff appearances, and division titles. Coach Taylor struggled through two full seasons with just six wins, and finally put enough together with the prolific assistance of rookie kicker Evan McPherson. With a confident and talented team, he is looking to earn the Bengals organization their first league title, a feat long-awaited near the banks of the Ohio River.
Only time will tell how all of these stories might play out on Sunday, but there are a few things that will be certain. There will be a triumphant breakthrough and a dramatic blunder, the commercials will confuse you and make you laugh, food and fellowship will be shared the whole world round. From Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram to Sean McVay and Zac Taylor, the game is evolving with the blow of every whistle and the snap of every ball. Make no mistake, monsters will be roaming in Rams territory at SoFi stadium this weekend.
After the whole stadium sings the national anthem, the fighter jets fly over, and the glimmer of cameras capture that first moment of impact on the opening kickoff, those men with names like Kupp, Stafford, Chase, and Burrow will strive to climb their way to the mountaintop of football glory.
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