The Game columnist Andy Murray is an NFL rookie and didn’t know what to expect watching the league’s 56th championship game from his sofa in south west London. The beginning of something special, as it turned out…
It was useless trying to fight it any longer. The clock ticked 1.30am as Sunday night bled into the early hours of Monday morning and I had to empty my bladder. My fiancée and I had worked our way through some (surprisingly palatable) frozen corndogs, popcorn and a six-pack of Samuel Adams – other, inferior, American beers are available – but with the second half of the Cincinnati Bengals against the LA Rams in Super Bowl LVI about to start, I went for a comfort break, safe in the knowledge that no one scores straight from kick-off, right?
No more than 90 seconds later, I returned to my partner. “Bengals scored!” she screamed from the sofa. “Straight from kick-off!” Because, obviously.
The Bengals had recovered from a slow start to now lead 17-13 in what felt like the 56th NFL championship game’s pivotal moment. Quarterback Joe Burrow had just thrown a 75-yard touchdown for Tee Higgins and the team that had gone from worst in the NFL to the Super Bowl in just two seasons were now favourites.
The Rams were struggling to put together any meaningful plays. With five minutes of the final quarter to go, they reverted to what they know best. Again and again quarterback Matthew Stafford looked for, and found, his go-to wide receiver Cooper Kupp – the NFL’s 2021 offensive MVP in clocking up 1,947 receiving yards, the second most in a single season history – as the Rams drove 79 yards in 15 straight plays to score. Burrow had 90 seconds to respond, but Rams defensive genius Aaron Donald pulled up the drawbridge. Rams won a fascinating game 23-20.
We’d only started watching NFL while struggling with jet lag in Florida over Christmas, yet here we were at gone 3am, feeling utterly numb. The Bengals’ felt like an organic victory, built on the shoulders of the 25-year-old Burrow. In the salary cap era, only hall of famers Eli and Payton Manning have been first overall draft pick and taken that team to a Super Bowl, averaging seven seasons to do so. Not only did Burrow do it in two, he spent half his first season recovering from ACL knee surgery.
This felt like a pivotal Super Bowl, even for the uninitiated like me. Tom Brady – seven-time winner and holder of nearly every quarterback record in history – recently called time on a career that puts him in the GOAT conversation not just within the NFL but across any sport and era. A sixth-round pick for the New England Patriots in the 2000 NFL Draft – 198 players, and six quarterbacks were selected ahead of him – Brady wasn’t supposed to be that good, but such was his unrelenting quest for self-improvement and will to win, his magnetism became impossible to ignore. When it was suggested his success was down to Patriots head coach Bill Bellichick, Brady upped sticks for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 and won, his seventh Super Bowl. Brady has been so good, Aaron Rodgers – a four-time NFL MVP, and one of only five players to repeat as the league’s most valuable player – has only one Super Bowl to his name and is considering either retirement or a move from Green Bay Packers.
Burrow is at the head of the new, likeable breed seeking to emulate Brady and Rodgers. The Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills’ epic duel in this season’s play-offs was like Batman and Super Man duking it out for who rules the superhero roost, only for Iron Man Burrow to swoop and catch them off guard. Justin Herbert of the LA Chargers and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens are no less exciting. All are in their mid-20s and if they take the Brady path, could conceivably have another two decades at the top.
Despite the bright future, and viewing figures up 10% from 2020, there remain problems. On the day Brady confirmed his retirement, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores brought a lawsuit against the NFL, alleging league-wide racism on the part of franchise owners. Flores – sacked in January despite posting consecutive winning seasons for the Dolphins for the first time since 2003 – claims the league “is racially segregated and is managed much like a plantation” because rich, white men exploit and profit from the bodies of black men. When Flores filed his lawsuit, there was just one minority head coach in the NFL, while 70% of its playing staff is black.
Maybe, then, the most vital part of Sunday night’s extravaganza wasn’t the Bengals’ touchdown straight from kick off or Stafford and Kupp’s telepathy, but the half-time show. Possibly the most hyped in NFL history, boy did it deliver. Gone were all-American pop princesses, marching bands and ‘unintended’ wardrobe malfunctions. In its place was rap royalty Dr Dre’s supergroup of 90s hip-hop and R&B legends, comprising Snoop Dogg, Mary J Blige, 50 Cent, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.
The set – a brilliant-white interpretation of a Compton street, complete with 50 Cent hanging upside down from the ceiling to recreate his 2003 hit In Da Club – had a hydraulic DJ deck which rivalled the Starship Enterprise. Mary J Blige sang from the roof and fell back in excitement. All the while, Snoop swapped flogging takeaways for a regal blue-and-gold tracksuit and The Next Episode and California Love. Rumours that 2Pac would appear from the grave as a hologram proved unfounded, but in playing the piano riff to I Ain’t Mad At Cha before closing with Still Dre, the producer delivered the perfect closer, celebrating west-coast iconography and winning back credibility among black fans.
Lamar’s performance of Alright, the soundtrack to countless Black Lives Matter protests, was at the heart of the show and came five years after the NFL effectively banned its players from the right to protest against racism in the wake of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee. When Eminem paid tribute to the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s stand moments later, dropping to his knee after spitting the lyric “this opportunity comes once in a lifetime” from Lose Yourself, it felt pointed and symbolic. Rumours abound the NFL rejected Eminem’s request to take the knee, but he did so anyway.
The NFL must harness the half-time show’s platform in shaping a better, more inclusive narrative. Sure, I missed what could have been the Super Bowl-winning play because I was glued to Dre, Snoop, Mary, Kendrick and Slim taking the knee, but I wouldn’t have changed my bathroom break. You only get one shot, do not miss you chance to blow because the NFL’s next episode could be its most important, yet. Don’t ever forget about Dre. This Super Bowl rookie certainly won’t.