The NFL has come out of the last two exhausting years somehow even more popular and dominant than it was before.
The league benefited from a little luck early on: COVID hit American shores just after the 2020 Super Bowl, sparing the NFL any disruption for eight months and letting baseball, basketball, and hockey figure out pandemic best practices. And the social-justice movement that exploded after the murder of George Floyd allowed the league to turn the page on its Kaepernick problem, trotting out commissioner Roger Goodell to apologize — though not to Kaepernick — and actually utter the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” This didn’t actually solve any problems, naturally, but it was a successful PR maneuver.
The product on the field has also been stellar of late. After one wobbly pandemic season, 2021 was smooth sailing, capped off with a series of postseason games so consistently terrific that the idea of Peyton Manning missing them in favor of Emily in Paris inspired a whole segment on Saturday Night Live. Sure, Aaron Rodgers’s heel turn was a little distracting, but even that story line worked to the league’s advantage: Villains always scale bigger than game-show hosts anyway.
You can tell the NFL is back at full throttle because it has returned to treating all potential roadblocks not as systemic issues that must be confronted, but as public-relations fires to be quickly extinguished. When former Dolphins coach Brian Flores sued the league and three of its teams for racism in its hiring practices, the league circled the wagons — calling the lawsuit “without merit” — and then immediately commenced doing damage control, with commissioner Roger Goodell putting out a statement calling the lack of Black head coaches “unacceptable” (conveniently giving him a statement to point to before he’s pummeled at his annual State of the League press conference on Wednesday). Two teams have hired Black head coaches within five days of the lawsuit being filed. The pivot from “without merit” to “let’s make this go away” is a very NFL tactic: Deflect, deflect, accept no responsibility, nod at the idea of accountability and then just try to get to the end of the week where there’s a really big game. This has been the strategy for every PR fiasco to hit the league over the last decade, from concussions to kneeling players to Trump to domestic violence to the pandemic. (Expect the same playbook if Flores’s other allegation — that he was offered money by the Dolphins’ owner to lose games — picks up steam.)
And it works. Most of us will gather around our televisions on Sunday for this collective American ritual like we always do. We’ll be watching a league at the zenith of its powers.
This is true even though the matchup is not exactly a blockbuster.
As is often the case with the Super Bowl, the game is something of an afterthought for the casual, unaffiliated viewer. That may be especially true this year, since neither the Cincinnati Bengals nor the L.A. Rams are close to one of the league’s premier franchises. The game also lacks any of the stars we’ve gotten used to seeing over the last decade: no Brady, no Mahomes, no Mannings hanging around. These factors have kept game chatter in the background even for football fans — the spectacle is really what’s being sold this time. But if you’re looking for a rooting (or God forbid, betting) interest, I’ve got you covered.
The Rams: They’re the second team in two years to host a Super Bowl, something that had never happened before Brady and the Buccaneers won in Tampa last February. If that doesn’t strike you as the most feel-good story, this one is considerably worse: The Rams are in Los Angeles in the first place because their owner, Stan Kroenke, extorted the city of St. Louis in a cynical real-estate ploy before pulling up stakes in 2016. Los Angeles was doing just fine without an NFL franchise and doesn’t seem particularly jazzed to have two again — neither the Rams nor the Chargers, who moved from San Diego in 2017, are locally beloved. At the NFC Championship Game, there were more fans cheering for the 49ers than the home team.
The Rams are incredibly talented, and defensive lineman Aaron Donald is one of the best football players you’ll ever see. But they’re also a nomadic team that’s yet to develop a fan base worthy of Major League Soccer, much less the NFL. If the Rams win the Super Bowl, it will be about as inspiring as an agent cashing a commission check.
The Bengals: In general, you should always root for a franchise that has never won a Super Bowl. There are 12 of them, and few have suffered more than the Bengals. They’ve lost both Super Bowls they’ve reached, they hadn’t won a playoff game in more than 30 years before last month, they went from 1991 to 2004 without a winning record, and, until this year, they hadn’t had a winning season since 2015. It has been rough out there.
But then Joe Burrow arrived. The Heisman Trophy winner showed up two years after winning a national championship at LSU, marched them to a Super Bowl, and might have marked himself as the next in a long line of the Next Tom Bradys. He also dresses like the bad guy in a Michael Mann movie.
Unlike Los Angeles, Cincinnati is understandably losing its mind over this game — the city has already canceled school on Monday, preparing for whatever happens, good or bad. Rooting-interest-wise, I’d probably go with the Bengals. A title will mean far more to their fans, and now’s the time to cheer for Burrow, since you might get sick of him winning Super Bowls down the line. Just as it was with Brady back in 2002 … against the Rams.
No matter what happens, you can bet on one thing: The NFL will come out on top. Yes, the league still faces looming threats, from CTE, from its fumbling of racial-justice issues, to simply being the billion-dollar target it has been for 30 years. But it has withstood every challenge so far. And it will continue to do what it does best: Hoovering up every dollar that isn’t tied down.