SAN JOSE — Strange night, the opening night of Super Bowl 50 week, at the home arena of the San Jose Sharks. It began with a cover band playing Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” (and not particularly well) greeting the early arrivals, and then the Broncos’ stars walking across a faux Golden Gate Bridge near the top of the arena, taking more selfies than at a jam-packed Junior Prom, before descending to speak to the 2,500-plus media in the house.
Media Day has turned into Media Night. There is, after all, TV money to be made and more exposure on a dead TV sports night to be had, as if the Super Bowl really needed to get bigger. But the same cast of weirdo characters was on hand, J.B. Smoove and “Extra’’ correspondents, alongside Jerry Rice and Marcus Allen, alongside minicams from Mexico and Australia and Sacramento.
“League’s come a long way,” said Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, surveying the wacky scene from one of the end zones. He first coached in the NFL 40 years ago. “It seems to get bigger and bigger very year.”
“Seems?” That’s an understatement. On the day the NFL sold eight Thursday night games to CBS (four) and NBC (four) for a 50 percent increase over the fee it got in 2015 ($450 million in 2016, $300 million in ’15), the NFL watched the new world of the variety/interview show debut in prime time. Not much chance it’ll be going back to daytime.
In a few days, these virtual strangers will play a historic Super Bowl. They don’t know much about each other. In the 21 seasons of Carolina’s life, the Panthers and Broncos have met only four times, and only once (in 2012) since Cam Newton and Peyton Manning have quarterbacked the Panthers and Broncos. Denver won that game, 36-14, at Charlotte.
But there’s a new character in this meeting. It’s Phillips, who hasn’t coached in a Super Bowl since being on Dan Reeves’ staff in 1989. And a few of the key pieces at his disposal are, similarly, new to Cam Newton prep—Aqib Talib, Demarcus Ware, T.J. Ward—because they arrived in 2013.
The Panthers, in truth, don’t know what they’re going to see from Phillips on Sunday. Denver showed New England 83 percent three- and four-man rushes in the AFC Championship Games, because when the Broncos scouted the Patriots in the divisional game against Kansas City, Tom Brady kept getting rid of the ball in no time. But that won’t be the case as much with Newton. The reason this chess game promises to be so much fun is that Newton can move in the pocket much better than Brady, can leave the pocket on designed runs (and not just designed runs around end, but inside the tackles), and can take his time because he’s such a tree trunk that lots of hits don’t bother him.
One wise man here Monday night, a veteran NFL player now working in the media, said what he’d do with Newton is what the Rams did against him in October 2013. The Rams kept hitting Newton in and out of the pocket, sometimes a split-second after the play was over, and it eventually led to a couple of on-field spats. Rams defensive end Chris Long got ejected for throwing a haymaker. Carolina won. But the Rams’ gameplan on defense clearly was to chip away physically at Newton and hope to frustrate him. It didn’t work. Carolina won 30-15, and Newton threw only two incompletions all day. That was a sign of things to come: You might try to rattle Newton, but not many teams have been able to get him totally off his game.
On Monday night, Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula said he knows what’s in Phillips arsenal. He can blitz. He can rush three or four and cover. He can chip away at Newton with his physical linebackers and rushers, tackling with some extra zest in the open field. Or he can spy with one or two, making sure Newton doesn’t surge into the open field and have openings for long runs.
“We’ll see,” said Shula, who has continued the tradition of a proud family name with a great season of play-design for Newton. “My gut feeling … We’ll have to be ready for all of it. The sign of a good defense is when they show you a lot of looks—and they’re good at all of them.”
You can tell Shula has great admiration for the Denver defense, and for Phillips. “They can adapt so well,’’ he said. “And they diagnose plays as well as anyone.”
“It makes for a tough film week, especially if you don’t play them very often,” said Carolina center Ryan Kalil.
Carolina has played them once in the past seven years. And that year, 2012, the defensive coordinator was Jack Del Rio, and Shaun Phillips was the leading pass-rusher with 10 sacks. So yes, times have changed, and that’s a very big reason why this game holds surprises for both sides.
You could tell in his media time Monday night that Phillips would have loved to talk strategy, in advance of one of the biggest games of a very long coaching career. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, to win one of these games,” he said. “There are 83 men in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who never won a Super Bowl. It’s a hard thing to do.”
I asked Phillips what advice his father, the legendary Bum Phillips, would have for him this week. What, I wondered, would Bum Phillips say about such a great player and multiple weapon as Newton after watching him on tape?
“He used to tell me not to play three-technique so much,” said Wade Phillips. “We used to argue about that. But what he might say is, ‘Don’t let Newton run so much with the football.’ Well, that’s a double-edged sword … Cam gives you so many options. It’s like he’s running the wishbone out there.”
That’s why this game is so interesting. Cam Newton is in it. Wade Phillips is in it. My gut feeling: Wade Phillips’ gameplan will be the key to Denver winning or losing this game.