Super Bowl Sunday couldn’t be more chaotic. From the smell of stale $15 beer, to the music blaring, to the fireworks exploding, the stream of sensory overload is constant. All the noise can make it tough to wade through the crowds of both people and narratives, but now that we’ve had some time to step back, here are a handful of takeaways from football’s biggest week.
1. Von Miller will be a wealthy man, even if he has to wait to cash in. As Wade Phillips noted after the game, Miller turned into a one-man wrecking crew in the playoffs. With four double-digit sack seasons and Pro Bowl trips, it’s not as if the 2016 postseason was Miller’s coming-out party, but he reached a new echelon this past month. And there’s something to be said for being able to ride the fresh memory of that into free agency this spring.
Most of 2011’s historic batch of defensive talent—the likes of J.J. Watt, Patrick Peterson, Marcell Dareus and Robert Quinn—have already inked massive long-term deals, but some unique circumstances led the Broncos to hold off on locking up Miller for the long haul. As USA Today’s Lindsay Jones noted on The MMQB Podcast last week, Miller was finally out of the NFL’s drug program this fall—a final step in a run of established reliability after a shaky start to the off-field side of his career.
With that realm of Miller’s life settled, the barriers to Denver—or eventually, another team—securing his rights for the future are all but gone. The Broncos’ flurry of free-agent spending two offseasons ago played a significant role in building a Super Bowl-winning defense, but now the financial reality of those moves starts to rear its head.
Denver will pay DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward more than $27 million combined this season, and the team currently has about $11 million in cap room. John Elway would get $19 million in relief if Peyton Manning decides to retire, but the prospect of handing Miller his long-term extension still involves some hurdles. He was already among the best defensive players in football, but what happened this postseason leaves no doubt that Miller’s value in the open market would match and exceed the nearly $60 million guaranteed that Ndamukong Suh got from the Dolphins.
The question then becomes whether Miller is ever going to get there. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Broncos franchise Miller as they get their fiscal ducks in a row. If they do, it would leave him with the decision of negotiating with Denver as his only long-term suitor or playing out the tag, hoping the Broncos can’t afford to use it a second time, and joining Suh as the only recent superstars to hit the open market. If Miller can maintain anything close to his production from the end of this season, that scenario ends with a team making him the richest defender in NFL history come the spring of 2017.
2. The burritos at El Farolito in The Mission will change your life. The Saturday before the Super Bowl is typically when us media folks get a chance to explore the city. My goal that afternoon—which at 65 degrees and without a cloud in the sky was nothing short of perfect—was to head to The Mission, get an egregiously sized burrito, and then take a long enough walk in a scenic spot to feel less guilty about eating that burrito.
Various online resources eventually sent me to El Farolito on Mission St., where I eschewed the standard options for something called “The Bosses Burrito.” With a name like that, there was really no going wrong, but this thing was on an entirely different level. Beans, cheese, sour cream, avocado, tomatillo salsa, al pastor and some expertly marinated shrimp. I don’t know what else to say. I’m pretty sure I saw God.
3. In the NFL, health is still king. Injuries are a boring and simple way to explain why teams win late in the season, but the Broncos’ defensive dominance was just another reminder that a clean bill of health is vital come playoff time.
Denver’s defense is a staggeringly great group, and for almost the entire season, it was a group that was mostly intact. DeMarcus Ware missed a couple games with a back injury and Chris Harris’s shoulder was bothering him late in the year, but all season, they enjoyed a remarkable run of health luck. By Sunday, Wade Phillips had his entire arsenal to send Cam Newton’s way.
With the Broncos’ game plan, that was crucial. Miller, Ware and the rest of that defensive front were unblockable for stretches, and even when Newton did have time, there was little to no separation by his receivers. The Broncos’ offense didn’t do much, but when they did find a reasonable gain in the passing game, it was usually with Emmanuel Sanders picking on Robert McClain, who was only forced into the lineup after Charles Tillman was lost for the season. One cornerback didn’t make the difference, but having a full roster meant Denver was able to be exactly who they wanted to be defensively.
4. Determining how much credit—or blame—a quarterback should receive gets murky quick. No one, including Peyton Manning, will argue that the Broncos’ defense carried them to a championship. Denver gained just 194 total yards. Manning finished 13 of 23 for 141 yards. The Broncos’ only offensive touchdown came on a four-yard drive that followed Von Miller’s second forced fumble.
Manning’s job during the actual game was simply to be a young Buster Bluth at the Milford Academy—to be neither seen nor heard. But if the argument is that his contributions were so diminished that this Super Bowl barely counts, then a problem arises about how to deal with the big games he didn’t win. There were plenty of moments throughout Manning’s career where defensive or special teams lapses stole games away. He routinely elevated rosters filled with holes, and inflating his role in losing key games with those teams makes no more sense than deflating his role in this one.
Five years from now, this probably won’t matter. John Elway’s line in his first Super Bowl win (12 of 22, 123 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) was almost identical to Manning’s in Super Bowl 50 (13 of 23, 141 yards, no touchdowns, one interception), but no one ever mentions that Elway was carried to a win. Elway has two Super Bowl victories, and now, Manning does too. I don’t have a ton of use for wins as a quarterback statistic, but they either matter or they don’t. We can’t have it both ways.
5. They had the ability to look like a 15-1 juggernaut, but there were holes in Carolina’s roster construction. And the Broncos exposed them all.
The Panthers have plenty of stars. Cam Newton is the league MVP. Luke Kuechly had a real case for Defensive Player of the Year. Thomas Davis isn’t human. And Trai Turner will eat the world of most defensive tackles in his path. Letting those players flourish is part of what made Ron Rivera and his coaching staff great, but another part is how well they masked their deficiencies.
All season, Carolina used extra bodies as a way to aid an offensive line that’s a much stronger unit in the run game than in pass protection. Against the Broncos’ front, not even that was enough. The Panthers’ line got cooked by Von Miller and friends, but that was far from the only problem area on the offense. Dropped passes and an inability to get open plagued Carolina, and the worries about a Kelvin Benjamin-less receiving corps that were so apparent before the season showed up in a big way.
Benjamin will be back, which undoubtedly helps, but an offseason priority for the Panthers should probably be diversifying their talent at receiver. Devin Funchess is another big body that can win at the catch point—just like he did Sunday—but a quicker receiver who operates well in space and could work with Greg Olsen in exploiting the middle of the field would go a long way in helping Carolina avoid some of the problems they had against Denver.
• VON MILLER REACHES THE TOP: He hit bottom two years ago, with a suspension and an injury. After a Super Bowl 50 MVP performance, he’s solidified his status as a franchise player. Next up: a massive payday.
Adding some youth to an aging secondary would be prudent, but overall, Carolina is well positioned on defense. Shaq Thompson is the natural succession plan for Thomas Davis, their defensive tackle pairing is excellent, and it looks like Kony Ealy has a chance to do some damage when given a full-time role.
Carolina’s main focus probably should be on the offense, where an upgrade at tackle, a shifty receiver, and even some depth behind the perpetually nicked up Jonathan Stewart would all make sense. Newton showed just how much he could do with the right scheme, but keeping him at this level will be a lot easier if he’s not forced to shoulder so much of the load.
5a. I’m glad they didn’t this year, but Metallica should play the halftime show. OK, I lied. I had six takeaways. On Saturday night, I got the chance to see Metallica put on a blistering set for two hours and change at AT&T Park. The tagline for the show was “Too Heavy For Halftime,” a nod to the NFL choosing Gwyneth Paltrow’s English ex-husband over a Bay Area band that’s sold 55 million records in the past quarter century. For Metallica fans, it was actually a blessing. I got a full set complete with an actual fireworks show, and I currently sound like I’ve eaten nothing but cigarettes and gravel for a week.
But here’s the thing—Metallica should play the halftime show. Between breaks in action during the second half, the Levi’s Stadium D.J. played not one but two Metallica songs. “Seek and Destroy” preceded the second half kickoff, and “For Whom The Bell Tolls” came the very next quarter. NFL stadiums aren’t playing “Clocks” during timeouts.
It goes beyond filling time, too. “Sad But True” soundtracked the Seahawks’ intro video before their Super Bowl win. Virginia Tech famously cranks “Enter Sandman” as they take the field. Metallica and football just fit. And for people worried about the broad appeal, I don’t know what to tell you. Your mom has never heard “Fix You,” and if you want to take a minute to look up the best-selling album of the SoundScan era, I’ll wait. Really, I will.
There you go. It’s not Taylor Swift. It’s not Adele. It’s the dudes who play “Master of Puppets.” Do the right thing, football.
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