NEW TGS COVER STORY...NFL HYPOCRISY & SUPER BOWL LI REVIEW
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Almost thirty years ago, Sports Illustrated published an extensive and rather exhaustive editorial study devoted to the subject of sports gaming. We at TGS remember it well because an issue of our flagship publication was the centerpiece of the cover of that SI issue dated March 10, 1986.
The SI presentation was a comprehensive bit of work, as publisher Donald Barr and writers John Underwood and Robert H. Boyle, among others, all contributed to various pieces that appeared throughout the issue. A common theme throughout the stories was a no-holds-barred approach to the NFL, which apparently held no "sacred cow" status to those journalists. Specifically, Underwood's story ("The Biggest Game In Town") reminded readers about how many characters with unsavory backgrounds had been part of the NFL hierarchy for years.
"The NFL seems especially inclined to gloss over gambling associations and activities of team owners and other front-office personnel," wrote Underwood. "To fully appreciate the pervasiveness of the gambling influence on the NFL, you must remember that the league's nativity was attended by gambling men and that the game owes its existence partly to their kind.
"G.A. Richards, the original owner of the Detroit Lions, was a two-fisted gambler who bet on his own games. Mickey McBride, the original Browns owner, operated a racetrack wire that was believed to service bookies. Tim Mara, a legal bookie and promoter, is said to have used money he had won the day before betting on the horses at Belmont to purchase the New York Giants for $500 in 1925. Art Rooney, founder of the Steelers, is a legendary horseplayer who once won more than $200,000 at the track on a single weekend. Charley Bidwill, the former Cardinals owner whose son Bill now owns the team, made his fortune operating racetracks. (TGS note: Underwood could have mentioned that Bidwill Sr. also had acknowledged ties to the one and only Al Capone, and that the Rooney family ran Yonkers Raceway, which it still owns, since 1972. Plus various other connections in NFL ownership to the underworld).
"The late Carroll Rosenbloom, who owned the Colts and later the Rams, gambled heavily and once had an interest in a casino in Cuba. Leonard Tose, who sold the Eagles last year, was thought to have done so partly because of heavy gambling debts. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, he borrowed $400,000 in one night of gambling in Atlantic City. San Francisco 49ers owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. and his family have interests in three racetracks.
"Dave Meggyesy, the Western regional director of the NFL Players Association, says the one question he keeps asking himself whenever he hears about gambling connections with league owners is this: 'Where do they get these guys? There must be hundreds of qualified guys with plenty of money who'd love to own an NFL team. They had to know about Rosenbloom and Tose. It doesn't make sense.'"
What makes the SI/Underwood piece so intriguing (other than a reminder of the controversial Dave Meggyesy) is that in the three decades since it was published, we can probably count on our hands the number of serious editorials in national publications and/or websites that have addressed the sports gaming topic, and the various shady characters who have long been involved with the NFL, in a similar manner. It's not as if the subject matter has gone away.
(Underwood, by the way, was one SI writer who was ahead of his time; in 1978 he also authored a compelling story about the increasing brutality in football, almost three decades before the headshot/concussion debate would touch the national consciousness).
In recent years, gambling has returned to the forefront with the NFL and the ongoing attempts by New Jersey to legalize full-fledged, Las Vegas-style sports betting in the Garden State (as has been chronicled in-depth on the pages of TGS over the past four years), not to mention the acceleration of fantasy football, Draft Kings and FanDuel in particular (as also chronicled in 2015 by TGS).
More recently, however, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was addressing the subject, however indirectly, in comments in relation to the possible relocation of the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. A project which, until a couple of weeks ago, was to involve casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who presides over the vast Las Vegas Sands Corp. enterprise, as a partner in the construction of the proposed 65,000-seat domed stadium in Vegas. (Adelson, also rumored to be interested in a stake in the Raider franchise as part of the arrangement, had pulled out of the deal with Raider owner Mark Davis just prior to Goodell's following comments to the press.)
The gist of Goodell's commentary was that no NFL team owner can have any ownership stake in a casino. "That is not something that's consistent with our policies," said Goodell in his annual "State of the League" address prior to Super Bowl LI in Houston.
"Not likely a stadium (ownership role), either," added the commish. "We've always said that we are going to maintain the integrity of our game by making sure there is a separation between sports and gambling and the NFL.
"That is something we think is imperative. We want our fans to know that the game they're seeing unfold on the field does not have any undue influence."
Earlier, Goodell had been on the same train of thought in a January interview with Fox Sports' Colin Cowherd. "If we did in any way approve the Raiders' move, I don't see us compromising on any of the policies," said Goodell, who apparently also has no issue with the various louses who have owned NFL franchises over the years.
We'll further expose the staggering hypocrisy of Goodell and the stance of the NFL, back to the Pete Rozelle days, in a moment. By us at TGS, however, the optics of this debate have long been out of focus. For that, blame not the NFL or other sports leagues, but rather the modern-day sports media that pick and choose their fights with the pro sports leagues, the NFL in particular, and only then when they have effective cover from the mainstream media. Which partly explains why socially-touchy subjects like the Rooney Rule, the Washington Redskins name, or the Ray Rice fiasco from 2014, got such extensive coverage from the sports media; those are all relatively safe territory for a modern-day sports journalist to explore and provide an almost no-risk forum to "challenge" the NFL.
We have long maintained, as the Underwood story hinted almost thirty years ago, that the objections of the NFL (and all of the pro leagues) to sports wagering have always been mostly illusory. Underwood suggested that then-commissioner Rozelle knew full well of the mass appeal of sports gaming and that it was of great benefit to his NFL enterprise, and only when effectively pressed would resort to punitive measures internally for offending parties such as Alex Karras and Paul Hornung in 1963, and Art Schlichter two decades later.
But Rozelle certainly never led any crusades to stamp out sports gaming; after all, the NFL never expended any resources to repeal the law in Nevada, where the sort of sports gaming that the NFL so vehemently opposes is alive and well.
The NFL's public stance on gaming, like most of its modus operandi, was formulated by Rozelle more than a half-century ago. And at its base involves a sort of "faux morality" that effectively must distance the NFL from any taint that might arise from the downside of wagering. By publicly decrying gambling on the games, the NFL and other sports leagues, understandably so, build an effective p.r. wall between themselves and any potential related scandal.
We certainly aren't holding our breath for any NFL-influenced journalist to do any bidding for us and "tell it like it is" the way a Howard Cosell might have done decades ago. Indeed, as far as we could tell, no media sources other than ourselves at TGS have ever bothered to drill just a little bit deeper and uncover what might be some hard-to-explain associations for the Goodell NFL and its anti-gaming stance. Such as regarding Rupert Murdoch's all-powerful NewsCorporation, under whose umbrella are the Fox Networks (an NFL and MLB broadcaster in the states) and, overseas, BSkyB. Sky's subsidiaries also include SkyBet, a heavyweight sports wagering company based in England that accepts various wagers on American sports, including the NFL. (Perhaps it's because SkyBet does not accept wagers from the USA does Goodell look the other way.) Nothing wrong with NewsCorp's Sky holding an interest in SkyBet, although we would like to hear Goodell (or one of his media sycophants) argue with a straight face about the evils of sports gaming when it is a peripheral enterprise of one the league's broadcast partners.
When Goodell made his latest pronouncements at the State of the League address, someone in the media should have also bothered to follow up and ask Goodell how he could make those statements with the Rooney family owning Yonkers, and the new Empire State Casino having recently opened at the track? (We are still trying to find out definitively the Rooney's stake in Empire State; regardless, having the casino operating at a race track owned by an NFL family should be too close for comfort and have alerted some member of the media to point out Goodell's latest hypocrisy.)
That's not all on the gaming links between the NFL and its ownership. Nowadays, various NFL team owners also have ownership stakes in overseas professional soccer teams, including some very visible English Premier League entries that either have interests in, or advertising agreements with, any number of sports books that take wagers on NFL games overseas. Would someone in the media please ask Goodell why this, along with the Rooney family involvement with Yonkers Raceway, is not in conflict with NFL policy?
Whatever. We're not going to hold our breath for the modern-day mainstream American sports media to pick up the baton. Frankly, we're up to our eyeballs with today's sorts like Nancy Armour from USA Today and Michael Silver from the NFL Network, who feel obliged to mix political commentary as if a prerequisite to their occupations. The days of the likes of Cosell, and respected print journalists like Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Jim Murray belong to another era. Rare indeed is the modern sports journalist willing to dig a bit deeper on any story, or willing to put the NFL under the microscope without the mainstream media providing the go-ahead.
SUPER BOWL LI IN RETROSPECT
Well, we can't say we have never had an overtime Super Bowl any longer. Old LI took care of that last weekend, as the Patriots rallied in unbelievable fashion from a 28-3 deficit to steal a 34-28 win over the deflated Falcons, who looked on their way to an easy win well into the fourth quarter. Never had a Super Bowl winner rallied from more than 10 points down, much less 25.
In retrospect, this was the latest example of Bill Belichick's team keeping its composure and cool under fire. Much like the Super Bowl win two years ago vs. the Seahawks, New England avoided key mistakes and was ready to pounce on any opportunity. The Belichick/Tom Brady Patriots rarely beat themselves, something Seattle two years ago, and Atlanta this past week, will be painfully reminded of for a long time.
Of those two "Supes" in recent years, Falcon fans will be particularly galled by the result, though we had seen their team cough up (vs. San Diego) and nearly cough up (vs. New Orleans) similar leads earlier in the season, while also conspiring to blow another game (vs. Kansas City) in spectacular fashion. Still, there were several key points in Super Bowl LI when the Falcons might have been able to put the contest beyond reach. A key moment late in the second quarter was when Atlanta still led 21-0, and Brady was hit as he threw, the ball a wounded duck and about to be intercepted by the Falcons until Pat TE Martellus Bennett raced in to snatch the ball and keep alive a drive that would cut the Falcon lead to 21-3 at the half. A turnover at that point, with the Atlanta offense in a groove and having driven easily for a pair of TDs before Robert Alford's long interception TD return, could have put the score at 28-0, too much, it would seem, for even Brady to recover from.
The Patriots, however, might have even derived some benefit from the long Alford interception return, and subsequent drive to the Stephen Gostkowski field goal with 2 seconds left in the half, as the hot Atlanta offense was kept off of the field for the final 8+ minutes of the first half, and in real time, for 68 minutes through the halftime show and into the third quarter. The Falcons never seemed to regain that rhythm they had on their two second-quarter TD drives, though the Belichick defense had much to do with that in the second half.
Atlanta would also hurt itself with key penalties, several of those keeping alive New England drives, but none perhaps so important as the holding call on a Falcon drive on second and one just outside the Patriot 40 late in the 3rd Q. This after Atlanta had recovered the onside kick after the first Patriot TD had cut the score to 28-9. Momentum had yet to really swing back to New England at that point, and had the Falcons been able to post any sort of a score (even a field goal) on that drive, they would have maintained a healthier edge into the 4th Q. Instead, the holding call pushed the ball back to near midfield, and QB Matt Ryan could not sustain the drive, which ended on a key sack.
Still, into the middle of the 4th Q, it seemed like Atlanta's game, even as the Patriots cut the advantage to 28-12. New England was not making enough progress and still had to achieve quite a parlay (a pair of TDs and 2-point conversions) to level the score. A couple of first downs by Atlanta might have prevented a momentum swing. But on the 3rd and 1 call, o.c. Kyle Shanahan ordered a pass, and Ryan was stripped of the ball in the pocket by Dont'a Hightower, creating the big-play turnover that New England badly needed. Now working from the Falcon 35, Brady was able to engineer a quick TD drive, and a nifty 2-point conversion run by James White (and some deft faking by Brady) cut the deficit to 8.
The sequence that will forever haunt Atlanta, however, was on the next series, when the Falcs briefly regained momentum on the spectacular sideline catch by Julio Jones, putting the ball at the Patriot 22. That should have been the deciding play of the game, as it put Atlanta easily within FG range of PK Matt Bryant, almost automatic from inside 40 yards in his career. With no reason to do anything but set up Bryant for what would have likely been the clinching FG and a 31-20 lead, while forcing Belichick to use his remaining timeouts, Shanahan instead provided the Patriots an opening by ordering a deep drop-back on 2nd down. Ryan would have been well-served to simply throw the ball away instead of taking a big sack back to the 35-yard-line. By us, way too cute by Shanahan. (If Shanahan wanted to throw at that time, what was wrong with a bubble screen, or a short flair, anything other than dropping Ryan deep? Or how about the wildcat with Mohamed Sanu, which might have come in handy at that stage if wanting to be a bit bold, but not reckless?) Still on the edge on Bryant's range, Ryan would complete a pass inside of the Pat 30, giving Bryant a better chance. But a holding call negated the gain, and on the subsequent 3rd-and-33 from the 45, Ryan threw incomplete. Which gave Brady plenty of time to navigate the 90+ yards to the tying score and 2-point conversion.
The highlight play of the tying drive was obviously the spectacular tipped-pass grab by Pat WR Julian Edelman, with a couple of Falcons inadvertently bumping into one another and ruining their chance at a game-saving interception. Another key error by Atlanta HC Dan Quinn came on the subsequent challenge, which anyone who saw the replay knew could not be overturned. Atlanta thus wasted its last timeout, one it might have been able to use on a subsequent drive after Brady and the Patriots tied the game. Continuing the Falcon mistake-fest in the last few minutes, they would return the high kickoff from two yards deep in the end zone and get no farther than their 10, instead of the more-manageable 25-yard-line, where Aaron Rodgers had begun a game-winning drive with roughly the same amount of time remaining in the last minute of the NFC Divisional Round vs. Dallas three weeks earlier. Belichick's deft kickoff strategy, which we had seen in action early in the season (in the Arizona opener in particular), worked again like a charm.
As overtime beckoned, the only drama was in the coin flip. By that time, New England had so seized momentum that it was inevitable it would score if it won the flip. Which, calling heads, it did. The only scary moment for the Patriots in OT was Brady's first-down lob pass from the 2-yard line that Falcon LB Vic Beasley, Jr. might have had a chance to intercept, and perhaps gallop the other way toward the end zone 100 yards away, had he better coordinated his footwork. Instead, all he could do was break up the pass, and then Patriot ex-Wisconsin RB James White gamely fought his way to the goal line on second down. Game over!
In the end, it was a remarkable win for the Pats and their bettors, as well as for the "over" wagerers, as the game looked headed for an "under" until the last moments of the 4th Q. The only result that could have really hurt the Las Vegas sports books would have been if the game landed on 3, where the spread stayed almost the entirety of the two weeks. Spared that disaster, the books would report a healthy profit for the Supe.
Now, where do we rate LI in our much-discussed all-time Super Bowl rankings? That it was the greatest comeback in Supe history is unquestioned. (There have been a couple of near-comebacks almost as big, including the 49ers against the Ravens four years ago.) But after letting the result settle for a few days, we're going to slot LI at the No. 5 spot all-time.
Why? By our calculation this was quite a game, mostly because of that hard-to-believe Patriot rally, but it wasn't the greatest Super Bowl, any more than Buffalo's rally from 32 points down vs. Houston in 1992 is the greatest playoff game of all-time, or Virginia Tech's rally from 24-0 down against Arkansas to win the Belk Bowl made it the best bowl of the just-completed college season. By Atlanta making so many tactical errors in the late going, the contest never had the sort of back-and-forth that really marks the greatest games like the few "Supes" we still have rated above LI. Though New England had much to do with Atlanta eventually collapsing, the Falcons did so many things wrong in the late going, when the proceedings became one-sided, that LI lacked the one key element (multiples of back-and-forth) which in our estimation makes for a best-ever argument.
Best Super Bowl comeback? For sure. Best Super Bowl ever? Close, but not quite. Below is our new updated SB ranking list, from No. 6 to No. 1...with the Patriots' previous Super Bowl in Houston, vs. Carolina thirteen years ago still at the top.
6-XXXIV, St. Louis 23 - Tennessee 16 (at Atlanta)...Last plays don't get much more dramatic than what we saw in XXXIV! And Ram LB Mike Jones hauling down Titan WR Kevin Dyson just short of the goal qualifies as at least the most-electrifying last-play in SB history. Much of this game didn't suggest such a dramatic finish, however, as the Rams moved methodically to a 16-0 lead late in the 3rd Q before the Titans started to stir. But this game came alive in the 4th Q, as Tennessee rallied to tie before Kurt Warner's 73-yard TD bomb to Isaac Bruce with just 1:52 to play proved the winning points and a prelude to some last-second thrills.
5-LI, New England 34 - Atlanta 28 (OT at Houston)...What looked like an evolving lopsided win for the Falcons instead ended up as the biggest comeback in SB history, with Tom Brady and the Patriots rallying from a 28-3 deficit to score the last 31 points to win the first-ever "Supe" overtime game, giving the Brady-Bill Belichick combo their fifth title. Atlanta still appeared in control until midway in the 4th Q when a series of big plays began to go New England's way, triggered by Dont'a Hightower's strip sack of Falcon QB Matt Ryan that gave Brady a shorter field to navigate for the first of two TDs and 2-point conversions needed to force OT. Though the thought persists that the Falcons blew the game with some dubious later-game strategy, the Patriots capitalized, and Brady was irresistible down the stretch, with the New England rally highlighted by a sensational grab on a tipped pass by Julian Edelman during the game-tying drive.
4-XLII, N.Y. Giants 17 - New England 14 (at Glendale, AZ)...For three quarters, the undefeated 18-0 Patriots, on the doorstep of pro football immortality, simply could not shake the scrappy 12-point underdog Giants, who used their stubborn defense to create an extremely tense affair reminiscent of a nervy pitching duel in baseball. Then, not unlike a 10,000-meter race at the Olympics, both broke into a late sprint for the finish line, with three lead changes in the final quarter. In the end, however, it was the surprising G-Men on top, with Eli Manning answering Tom Brady's late TD drive with one of his own that was capped by a 13-yard TD pass to Plaxico Burress to win it with 35 seconds to play. A circus catch by WR David Tyree on New York's final drive (after a Houdini-like escape in the pocket by Eli) rates alongside Lynn Swann's acrobatics a generation earlier among the best receptions in Super Bowl annals.
3-XLIII, Pittsburgh 27 - Arizona 23 (at Tampa)...Although one of the chippiest SBs, big plays and a wild fourth quarter made XLIII one to remember. The Steelers looked on the verge of a KO several times, first after dominating early action, then after LB James Harrison's 100-yard TD interception on the last play of the first half staked Pittsburgh to a 17-7 lead. The Cards grimly kept the Steelers within earshot until the Kurt Warner-led offense finally awakened in the 4th Q, and for a moment it appeared as if Larry Fitzgerald's 64-yard TD catch with 2:37 to play would give the Big Red their first title in 61 years. But Ben Roethlisberger, mostly muted since the 1st Q, calmly drove Pittsburgh for the winning TD pass in heavy traffic to Santonio Holmes with just :35 to play.
2-XXXVII, Baltimore 34 - San Francisco 31 (at New Orleans)...Into the third quarter, this one seemed more likely to rank low on the list alongside some of the blowout SB results of the '80s and early '90s before a turn of events with a surreal twist (a 34-minute delay caused by a partial blackout inside of the Superdome early in the 2nd half) presaged one of the most electrifying second halves in SB history. Baltimore had been cruising until the delay, up 28-6 and aided by an NFL postseason record 108-yard KR TD by Jacoby Jones, before the 49ers caught fire after the blackout and scored 17 unanswered points in just over 4 minutes to narrow the gap to 28-23. San Francisco continued to pile on the pressure in the 4th Q, pulling to within a missed 2-point conversion of tying the game, then threatening to steal the contest when a dramatic late drive reached the Ravens' 7 in the final minutes. Baltimore would repel the threat, take a safety, then hold its breath as SF's Ted Ginn, Jr. came close to breaking a punt return on the game's final play, leaving a nation limp.
1-XXXVIII, New England 32 - Carolina 29 (at Houston)...A rare Super Bowl slugfest with a dramatic finish. Though it took a while for this one to warm up (no scoring until late in 1st half), it turned into a real corker, especially a wild 4th-Q (perhaps the best 15 minutes in SB history) that featured three lead changes and 37 points. Carolina, which had rallied to take a 22-21 lead on an 85-yard TD pass from Jake Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad with 6:53 to play, fell behind 29-22 on a Tom Brady-Mike Vrabel TD pass and Kevin Faulk 2-point PAT, only to level matters on a Delhomme-Ricky Proehl pass with 1:08 remaining. Brady then led a textbook game-winning drive, ending in Adam Vinatieri's 41-yard FG at the gun. Both defenses were spent by the end, when the last team with the ball looked like it was going to win. Indeed, XXXVIII deserves to be remembered for the great game it was, rather than Janet Jackson's malfunctioning wardrobe at halftime!
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