I was born in Big Ten country and have watched a lot of college football in my time. Much of it was played very badly. I am pretty sure I saw 1995’s 5-0 Michigan-Purdue contest as it happened. I definitely watched the 2014 Michigan-Northwestern matchup that has gone down in infamy as the M00N game, so named for the way a Michigan 0–Northwestern 0 graphic kept appearing onscreen as both teams kept themselves scoreless for an extended period of incompetence. I watched all of the national championship game during which LSU didn’t cross midfield until the fourth quarter.
Which is to say: While many people are suggesting that Sunday night’s 13-3 New England Patriots victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII was “the worst Super Bowl ever,” “the worst football game I’ve ever watched,” and “the football equivalent of the horror-movie ‘queso dip’ swamp nightmare that Fox News’ Dana Perino tweeted earlier Sunday night,” I’d like to suggest an alternate interpretation: It was a touching, moving, and inspiring tribute to college football, and indeed all football played by individuals whose enthusiasm for the sport and sense of the moment far outstrips their ability to complete basic football tasks like throwing passes, catching passes, getting first downs, and not getting penalized for stuff like failing to snap the ball correctly.
What makes college football special is that the players and fans really, really care about the outcomes of the games. What makes it occasionally excruciating is that the players are very young adults who are learning to play their sport while also being full-time students. With apologies to the Patriots defensive players and coaches whose performance and strategy were no doubt integral to throwing the Rams’ otherwise accomplished offense severely off its game today, the Rams (and, for much of the game, the Patriots offense) played on Sunday night like they, too, had other full-time jobs and had possibly been to one too many keggers down at Kappa Delta this week. To wit:
• The Rams punted nine times and scored zero touchdowns.
• They could have scored a touchdown in the third quarter, but quarterback Jared Goff failed to see a wide, wide open Brandin Cooks in the end zone for so long that by the time he thew the ball Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty had covered the 20 or so yards necessary to break up the pass.
• They were penalized nine times, including once in the fourth quarter when Goff started backing away from the offensive line before the center had snapped the ball.
• That play was immediately followed by one in which running back C.J. Anderson had a nice gain going on a swing pass until he fumbled the ball out of bounds.
• After the Patriots scored a late touchdown to take a 10-3 lead, the Rams put together their first solid drive of the night, moving to the Patriots’ 27-yard line with four minutes left, putting the possibility of an exciting finish into play. Then Goff threw a wobbly, lame pass more or less directly into the air with what seemed like no plan other than “it would be nice if someone on my team caught this.” The Patriots’ Stephon Gilmore caught it instead and the Patriots drove back down the other way to kick a field goal for a 10-point lead.
• And then the Rams drove down the field again with less than a minute left, reaching the Patriots’ 30-yard-line and putting the possibility of a score and a high-stakes onside kick—and, thus, a potentially incredible game-winning Hail Mary—into play. Then their kicker missed a 48-yard field goal and the Patriots kneeled out the clock.
A lot of NFL games are low-scoring or non-exciting. What really made this one special—and so obviously identifiable as an ironic but affectionate high-versimillitude recreation of, say, a 7-3 November matchup between 3-8 Illinois and 6-5 Michigan State—was the hopelessness. It wasn’t that the Rams were stymied by poorly timed turnovers, bad luck, or inclement weather: It’s that they approached each snap with what seemed like increasing certainty, through the course of the game, that they would never, ever be able to move the ball down the field—and every time they did, through pure statistical anomaly, the hope they created was immediately snuffed out by a self-inflicted disaster. In summary:
That Bill Belichick’s Patriots were able to turn what had previously been the NFL’s most thrilling and newfangled offense into that—with Belichick, 66, in the 20th year of his New England coaching tenure—might be one of the most impressive things he’s ever done. Even if it was dog puke to watch.