Call it the world's most overanalyzed sporting event. Argue that it's just an elaborate ploy to sell more tortilla chips. Note, if you will, that it's usually over by half time. But in 31 years, the Super Bowl has grown from a grudging concession to sportswriters into a spectacle that binds half the nation for three-plus hours. Someday, archaeologists will surely unearth the ruined stadiums that hosted it, much as their predecessors mine the pyramids.
As the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers prepare for Sunday's matchup, they're focused on smaller concerns: how to frustrate the opposing quarterback, how to tune out the media roar, and which lucky undershirt to wear on game day.
Yet even in the narrow context of the NFL, the forces of history are pressing in. The dynastic teams of the last two decades have wilted while newcomers thrive. Expensive stadiums and a flood of free agents have placed new demands on owners and coaches. Fans are less patient with losers, and fewer Americans are watching games on television.
Unless these two young teams can put on a legendary show, more fans will conclude that professional football is collapsing under the weight of its popularity. "Players are still players and coaching is still coaching," says Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren. "But the outside stuff - salary caps, the amount of money a player can make now, the rules teams have to deal with, the size of rosters, the size of stadiums, and the money involved - that's all changed."
Bill Parcells, New England's coach, puts it more bluntly: "I think the pressure to succeed in this business is greater than ever and the tolerance for not succeeding is less and less. There are millions of dollars invested in these teams now. There is constant turnover in players with free agency. Fans demand more because of that."
Indeed, Parcells himself is fast becoming a symbol of the game's changing climate. Arguably the league's best, he's already earned two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants. A win on Sunday would make him the first coach ever to win Super Bowl titles with two clubs. Yet the week preceding the game has been consumed by unconfirmed reports that Parcells plans to leave New England for a team where he'll have complete control over personnel decisions.
What's even more remarkable, though, is the sincerity in the voices of his players when they say that the news, true or not, has had little effect on morale. In the days of Hall of Fame coaches like Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, teams were largely defined by their front men. These days, however, coaches seem to dart in and out of franchise cities like journeymen.
Then again, so do players. Each year, like most NFL teams, Green Bay will welcome about 20 new faces, many of them free agents who've played in the league for years. Although this influx of new blood can energize a flailing club, it can also destroy team continuity and alienate fans who never get to know the men under their helmets.
"The term 'head coach' is not really applicable anymore," says former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. "Managing the [salary] cap and free agency requires another individual. Now all of a sudden you've got teams who not only have scouts for the colleges, but they've got somebody working on free agents as well."
The result, analysts say, is that moves made by a team's front office are as crucial as the game day play-calling. Witness the surprising success of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers: two second-year expansion teams that came within one victory of the Super Bowl this year. Although both clubs were given some advantages in draft choices and first crack at free agents, their success is widely attributed to good management, solid coaching, and deep pockets.
"I think [the new rules] force you to have good management skills," says Bob Kraft, owner of the Patriots. "Also, you have to work harder to create a sense of loyalty to keep the players you want."
By all accounts, it's the players who seem to benefit most from these new realities. According to New England running back Dave Meggett, today's NFL is more flexible and dynamic. "Free agency has made things a whole lot more balanced," he says. "It's done a lot for football in that you don't have a dominant team anymore, and guys are able to go where they want to. You have more AFC guys in the NFC, and [vice-versa], and that's made it more competitive."
It's an attitude shared by fans and players alike, particularly those in places like Green Bay, Wis., and Boston, who have watched their young teams break the lock that teams like the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers have held in the last decade.
Names like Steve Young and Troy Aikman are giving way to the likes of Green Bay's Brett Favre and New England's Drew Bledsoe. "I think this game represents a changing of the guard," Theismann says.
Indeed, the turbulence off the field will mean little once the first kickoff sails through the Superdome.
Although the Packers are favored by a pair of touchdowns, the New England defense has tightened considerably. Besides, few people on either side of scrimmage believe that a Parcells-coached team will fold easily. New England lineman William Roberts, who has played for Parcells for 10 seasons, says: "Every time I've been to a Super Bowl with Bill Parcells, I've won. I know what that guy can do with two weeks to prepare."
Yet Parcells' team - in addition to representing the AFC (which has not claimed a Super Bowl victory in 12 years) - faces a Green Bay team with the league's No. 1 scoring offense and defense. The team's West Coast Offense, borrowed from the 49ers, has provided a perfect stage for quarterback Brett Favre, whose rocket arm and impeccable timing helped him throw for an NFL-high 39 touchdowns this year.
In addition, the Packers' defensive front four is widely regarded to be the best in the NFL. If the Packers can hold New England running back Curtis Martin under 100 yards and keep steady pressure on Bledsoe, the game could verge on a blowout. "They have one of the best defenses in the league and they proved that this year," Martin says of Green Bay. "They've given up the least points. They're very aggressive. They all fly around to the ball."
For the Patriots, the keys to success could be containing kickoff and punt returner Desmond Howard, whose 15.1 yard average is tops in the league. In addition, they must hope that Favre, who's known for his skittish starts, is unable to settle down.
Both teams will contend with the pressure of being in a game watched by 800 million people, a game that comes after a week packed with distractions. "This game validates existence," says Theismann, who led the Redskins to two Super Bowls. "Some people would say that's an overstatement, but I can tell you they haven't been there."