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IF IT’S HOPE (BURROW) VS. EXCESS (L.A.), AMERICA IS TAKING HOPE
The Superteam Rams are supposed to win Super Bowl LVI in their $6 billion spaceship, but who wants a bloated Hollywood title? A sassy sensation and the small-town Bengals are the cool rooting interest
If the Super Bowl is an annual peek into the looking glass, a how-are-we-doing prism into American life, then Sunday’s story lines certainly are relatable to all. For the dreamers and overachievers, here come the (Who Dey?) Bengals from working-town Cincinnati, with only 301,000 residents and at least that many chili dens, led by a kid-faced sensation whose swagger and $85 viral fashion choices make him an Appalachian Joe Namath.
Who doesn’t love Joe Burrow?
“I’m chasing Aaron Rodgers to try to be the best. He’s been doing it for a long time,’’ he said Friday, dropping jaws and instantly sparking a “Why not Tom Brady?’’ furor — didn’t he do it for a long time, too? OK, wearing blue shades in the southern California sunshine, Burrow also mentioned Brady and Patrick Mahomes.
America is just getting to know this whirlwind. We don’t dare turn away. He didn’t guarantee a victory over the favored, talent-bloated, sleeping-in-their-own-beds Los Angeles Rams, but he came close. “I’m tired of the underdog narrative,’’ said the man of many nicknames, with Joe Brrrr still the best. “We’re a really, really good team with really good players and coaches. We’re here to make noise — and we’re coming for it all.’’
The Vince Lombardi Trophy, Burrow means. He brings a modicum of hope, which always will serve as sustenance in this country, but it’s his casual-cool sass that would produce one of the brassier upsets in NFL history. When we thought we’d seen it all in sports, pro football’s biggest sensation hails from Athens County, Ohio, where the poverty rate is 30.2 percent and the hills seem from another time and place, even to those of us who attended nearby Ohio University. This explained why his Heisman Trophy speech during LSU’s national title season instantly made him a hero for the masses. “I’m up here for all those kids that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school,” he said.
Since then, Burrow’s profile only has skyrocketed, beyond Ohio and Louisiana to the edge of 25-year-old legendhood, in a land that just saw Brady retire (we think) and is weary of Rodgers and his God complex. How big will Joe Brrrr be if the Bengals win the game? With his wink-wink indifference toward superstardom and his mocking of its trappings — “Just call me Joe. Whatever anybody wants to call me is OK with me,’’ he said of the nickname game — he’d be precisely the refreshing, Gen Z answer to the holier-than-thou, look-at-me, trade-me prima donnas that populate 21st-century sports. All you need to know about Burrow, even after his collegiate glory and an AFC Championship a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery, is that he’s still upset about his last playoff defeat: in the 2014 Division III state championship game, when Athens High lost a shootout to Toledo Central Catholic.
“Oh man, I think about that game all the time,” Burrow said the other day. “We were so close, a group of friends playing our entire childhood up to that point. It was kind of a culmination of a lot of hard work and time that we put in together, and we just didn’t get the job done. … That state championship in high school is going to be the one that eluded me.”
Imagine, only a few hours and one victory from becoming the new king of sports, Burrow was mourning a loss from high school. As he spoke, he was speaking to an international media corps in L.A., awaiting a game to be watched by 100 million or so in a $6 billion stadium complex that would swallow Cincinnati whole. Not long ago, Burrow would pass roads named Steam Furnace and Burnt Cabin on the way home. Now, he was a deep spiral from Sunset Boulevard, the talk of Hollywood, hearing actor Rob Lowe call him “the next Tom Brady’’ and Rob Gronkowski say he wants to play with him. And he remained unaffected by the moment, more interested in his chess obsession and if his father has ordered the now-famous cigars — Jimmy Burrow gave Joe his first stogie at 7 — than the Superteam Rams who await on their home field.
He also found time to tape an advice video for kids … at the Super Bowl. “Focus on getting better,’’ he said. “Don’t have a workout and post it on Instagram the next day and then go sit on your butt the next day and everyone thinks you’re working hard but you’re not. Work in silence. Don’t show anyone what you’re doing. Let your performance on Friday nights and Saturday nights and Sunday nights show all the hard work you put in. Don’t worry about all that social media stuff.”
You’ll see the sum of all leadership parts Sunday. “I try to portray calmness in certain situations,” Burrow said. “I think as a quarterback there’s certain times when you need to be a fiery leader, and there’s certain times when you have to be a calming presence within the locker room. I think it’s a quarterback’s job to understand different situations that require different things. … You try to be as genuine and trustworthy as you can be. In the locker room, you’re just yourself. I think the guys appreciate me.’’
This assignment demands Joe Brrrr, Joe Shiesty and Jackpot Joey. Because what we have here is Hope vs. Excess (the antithetical narrative, the 1-percent narrative). Just as the Bengals represent middle America, the Rams are the bloated result of: (1) the NFL’s need to have a robust presence in L.A.; (2) owner Stan Kroenke leaving behind another devastated, angry city, St. Louis, as the league continues to play musical-chairs in franchise relocation; and (3) the construction of the world’s most extravagant and expensive stadium, a drop-dead marvel that would scare away aliens if they tried to land.
Who doesn’t want to see L.A. lose?
The lavish commitment by Kroenke led to a team loaded with so many marquee names, his general manager has spent recent days downplaying the staggering presence of — ready? — Aaron Donald, Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, Cooper Kupp, Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr., among others. Several stars were acquired on the fly while mortgaging the future, making the Rams a fantasy team. The GM, Les Snead, called it a “shallow story’’ to ignore the entirety of his roster. “I get it,’’ he said. “We’re in the entertainment business, and so I understand why that’s interesting.’’
Added Ramsey, the three-time All-Pro cornerback who calls himself “the best in the business’’ and will have to be against gamebreaker Ja’Marr Chase: “Everybody talks about our ‘starpower’ here, the big names, the guys who have made Pro Bowls and All-Pros and been successful throughout their NFL career. But we have guys who don’t get as much recognition, but they do their job. They excel in their roles week in and week out … Whoever you want to call a ‘star’ on this team, we can’t carry this team by ourselves.”
No amount of spin will change the narrative. The Bengals are owned by football lifer Mike Brown, who doesn’t believe in spending more than he must, which explains his league-low staff of only eight scouts. The Rams, whose resources are limitless, have 26 on their personnel staff. By almost every measure, Rams vs. Bengals is Haves vs. Have Nots.
Except the Bengals have Burrow, only because they had the league’s worst record in 2019 and fell into the No. 1 draft slot. Some think Burrow isn’t long for Cincinnati, including a long-ago predecessor as Bengals quarterback, Carson Palmer, who thinks the Bengals will lose and give Burrow pause. “I think Joe’s gonna sit back after this game, win or lose and be like ‘man, am I gonna re-sign with this team?’ Are they willing to do what it takes to continuously build to get back to the next Super Bowl?’’ said Palmer, referring to Burrow’s eventual first shot at free agency. “Next year and the year after that and the year after that? How are they willing to structure salary cap wise to be able to afford me, but to also be able to afford Ja’Marr Chase when he comes up or Tee Higgins or maybe even re-do this offensive line?’’
Hope vs. Excess.
And a whole lot of gambling debauchery poured on top, which also defines America in 2022. The legalized gambling craze has soared to its highest levels — or plummeted to its lowest dregs — and is set up for humongous numbers Sunday: An estimated 31.4 million American adults will bet a potential $7.61 billion, says the American Gaming Association. The NFL has sold its soul to the grubby money grab, with amnesia falling over commissioner Roger Goodell regarding his anti-gambling comment in 2012: “(It) inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust, and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing.”
All of which hasn’t gone away. It also has led to an alarming rise in gambling addiction, particularly among young males between 15 and 35. The NFL doesn’t seem to care, embracing lucrative sponsorship deals with sportsbooks even after recent accusations that two franchise owners, Miami’s Stephen Ross and Cleveland’s Jimmy Haslam, were financially incentivizing tanking. Nor do the league’s TV partners care, with their head-first dives into the same sportsbook riches and accompanying broadcast coverage.
One popular prop bet — and, oh, I hate to contribute to the sordid game within a game — has an over-under of 2.5 rushing attempts for Stafford, the Rams’ pocket passer. He may or may not scramble a couple of times, but this prop would be over the top if he kneels down once or twice at game’s end. Those count as rushing attempts.
And it would mean Excess will have beaten Hope, which is not what America wants, according to Twitter, which tracks 33 states as having more Bengals-specific hashtags. Also, orders for championship-licensed products are far larger than those for the Rams.
Nothing has changed, thankfully. We still love a underdog in America, especially one who upbraids us for using the word. Just call him Joe, like Namath and Montana, who, incidentally, are the only quarterbacks to win a college national title and a Super Bowl. For now. “I’m just trying to be the best Joe Burrow I can be,’’ he said. ‘“Everyone likes to make these comparisons, but I’m not trying to compare myself to anyone else. … I try not think about that kind of stuff because I think if you go down that road, you start worrying about the wrong things.’’
With that, he was ready to study film Friday night. Or, maybe not. “I’m tired of watching film,’’ he said. “I’m ready to go play.’’
If it sounds like I’m rooting for the better story, I am.
Aren’t you, too?
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.