Top 10 Super Bowl storylines
From Lewis to Kaepernick to Harbaughs and beyond: The best of Super Sunday
updated 2:49 a.m. ET Feb. 1, 2013
Alas, if it were only that simple. As longtime members of the Super Bowl intelligentsia will attest, there usually are several significant storylines of which to keep track. They are layered in like cheddar cheese in nachos. They are mixed in like cashews in chicken curry. They sometimes appear by surprise like feta inside a turkey burger.
(Hey, you know you’re thinking more about Sunday’s feast than football anyway; I’m just trying to express this in terms you can understand.)
Here is a look at the 10 or so top storylines for this edition of the Super Bowl, created specifically for those who may not have as much experience with the game as they do with the refrigerator:
THE RAY LEWIS CHRONICLES: The fancy bed with four posts and an ornate cover upon which Cleopatra was carried by her minions is known as a litter. Now imagine Ray Lewis being carried into the Superdome on a litter, and you’ll have an idea of how much this Super Bowl belongs to the Baltimore Ravens’ veteran middle linebacker, for better or worse. In fact, someday he might become the first mummified member of the Hall of Fame. During this Super Bowl, you will hear every single Ray Lewis factoid ever unearthed, from his Atlanta troubles in 2000 to his alleged jones for deer-antler spray. His name will become a drinking game. His face will be on camera more often than the football itself. If he makes a significant contribution to the outcome, commissioner Roger Goodell will kiss him on the lips, and the city of Baltimore will re-name itself “Rayland.” If he has a so-so game and/or the Ravens lose, you’ll still see him do interviews with a laurel wreath on his head. Whatever the result, Ray Lewis will be the “Gangnam Style” of this Super Bowl.
THE HANDSHAKE: Really, this entire Super Bowl is just a lead-up to the post-game Harbaugh handshake. The handshake in general between opposing coaches has become somewhat of a defining moment in a football game. Through body language and demeanor, you can tell if the handshake is a genuine expression of sportsmanship between two accomplished professionals, or an opportunity for the winner to perform a touchdown dance with his eyes while the loser transforms into raging green-eyed monster. Now add a couple of Harbaugh-specific touches to this upcoming flesh press: Jim and John grew up competitive enough to wrestle each other over the salt shaker, and Jim is notorious for once insulting Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz during the handshake with a pompous dismissiveness not seen since the days of Genghis Khan. This moment will garner so much attention that it’ll be an upset if CBS doesn’t offer to sell advertisers a 30-second spot in the middle of it.
THE KAEPERNICK PISTOL: It is neither a Civil War souvenir your grandpa kept in a glass case in his study, nor something Congress is pondering a ban on, although it does cause grave concern in many cities. The 49ers’ offense contains elements of “The Pistol,” a variation of the shotgun formation that was created by former Nevada head coach Chris Ault for Colin Kaepernick, who starred at quarterback for the Wolf Pack and is now the Niners’ signal-caller. In this Pistol arrangement, Kaepernick takes the snap from center from about four yards back, then proceeds to move forward like a shopper on Black Friday. Since Kaepernick and his Pistol took over for mild-mannered Alex Smith in the middle of a Nov. 11 game against the Rams after Smith suffered a concussion, opposing defenses have gone into DEFCON 1 (nuclear war is imminent), and Sunday will see the final outcome. Kaepernick is a lean, muscular, fast professional athlete, not a North Korean with his finger on the button. Yet there is a common thread: No one has any idea what each will do next or how to stop him.
MOSS GROWING ON MOSS: Niners veteran receiver Randy Moss has the unique distinction of being one of the best in history at his position while sleepwalking through half his career. Critics agree: He always gives 100 percent effort sometimes. This season, he was the 49ers’ fourth-best receiver with 28 catches. If he were smart, he could have flown under the radar for this Super Bowl. Then, if he made any contribution whatsoever, he would have been hailed as a wise elder statesman who still has something left in the tank. But he popped off this week and claimed he’s the greatest wide receiver of all time. Cue intense focus on egomaniac in decline. Now he’s got some pressure. Now he has Jerry Rice Nation on him. Now he has to play like the greatest wide receiver of all time, even at the age of 35. It’s possible. It’s also possible he could pursue a career after football as a motivational speaker, but I wouldn’t count on that, either.
E PLURIBUS FLACCO: Translated, it means “Out of many, Flacco.” Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco’s job is to take the many Ravens, unify them and make them his team. He’s the leader. Ray Lewis is the loquacious frontman, but in terms of determining the game’s outcome, Lewis is just a flamboyant supporting actor. The Ravens’ fortunes in this Super Bowl will depend on Flacco’s performance. So far, so good. After all, just getting this far is a monumental achievement. Of course, Tony Eason got this far. So did Chris Chandler and Neil O’Donnell. And who talks about them? Considering the assaults on his character that Flacco has absorbed over the course of his career, his name really should be spelled Flak-O. A piñata at a reform school takes less abuse. Flacco needs to have an outstanding, mistake-free game, or else, instead of getting the new contract at $20 million per year that he reportedly seeks, the Ravens may just say, “Nevermore.”
MR. SMITH GOES TO NEW ORLEANS BUT DOESN’T PLAY: Granted, it’s conceivable Alex Smith, who got Colin-oscopied out of the starting quarterback job for San Francisco, could get into the game Sunday. Kaepernick could get hurt. In a burst of inspiration, Jim Harbaugh could decide a Two Pistol formation is twice as good as one. Smith could get some tattoos, don a No. 7 jersey, and run onto the field posing as Kaepernick while the real Kaepernick sits bound and gagged inside a beignet delivery truck. But it’s highly doubtful Smith will get in the game. Therefore, he’ll be shown on camera a lot, looking wistful. You might even see CBS fade to commercial on Smith’s face, then show a spot in which a little kid is cheered up by his mother with some cereal, then come back to Smith’s face again. But I bet that if the camera is on his face at the moment when one of the announcers mentions that he’s still making $5 million this season whether he plays or not, he cracks a smile.
BACK TROUBLE: Either San Francisco will have trouble with a Baltimore back, or vice versa. Frank Gore is the leading rusher for the 49ers. Ray Rice is his counterpart for the Ravens. If this game goes according to the script, Kaepernick will have a dazzling game in a Niners win and be the named MVP. But it might not. There’s a good chance one of these two running backs will carry himself into the record books with a monstrous display of two-legged havoc. Neither would ever be mistaken for a lady gazelle. Each is the football equivalent of a cement mixer traveling downhill with no brakes. While both can also catch the football out of the backfield, Rice is more prolific at it (61 catches this season to 28 for Gore). If either back is named MVP, that lucky guy will have to treat his offensive line to dinner. It would not only be a nice gesture to reward some unsung heroes for their tireless efforts, it would also serve as a huge boost to the New Orleans economy.
CULLIVER UNRAVELS: In the “Bad Timing Department,” add Niners cornerback Chris Culliver’s name as a new board member. Former 49ers offensive lineman Kwame Harris recently made headlines when he was charged with felony domestic violence and assault charges from an August beating of a former boyfriend. That opened the door to a discussion of whether a gay player would be welcome in the NFL. And Culliver not only walked through that door, he tagged it with anti-gay graffiti. He told a radio host: "We ain't got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up out here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. ... Nah, can't be ... in the locker room man." Later, he opined that gays should wait 10 years after retiring from the NFL to come out. So now Culliver, who ordinarily might not be a story in this game unless he got torched by an opposing wide receiver, is alone on an island in more ways than one, especially considering the size of the gay and lesbian community in the city in which he plays. While media from around the world gathers at the Super Bowl, he might want to take this opportunity to come out as somebody who can play and keep his piehole shut.
HEED REED: The topic of concussions is a painful one. So it’s tough to root for Ravens veteran safety Ed Reed to knock opponents senseless. He’s in a quandary, and so are his fans. Pulverizing opponents is part of what makes him great. But it might also be causing him some memory loss, to which he alluded this week. Reed is more low key than Lewis, but no less important to the success of the Ravens’ defense. He’s one of those guys who shows up everywhere and makes opposing quarterbacks believe they’re hallucinating. This will be a major test for Reed when you consider the men he’ll spend the game chasing down: Kaepernick, Gore and pass-catchers like Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. And when he tackles them, he’ll have to do so in a way that probably seems foreign to him. The 49ers are probably a little more comfortable knowing that Ed Reed’s hits won’t be as brutal as they once were. But they’ll still be nervous knowing that the sound of Ed Reed’s footsteps is as terrifying as ever.
ROGER GOODELL, NEW ORLEANS, CANDLELIGHT, SOFT MUSIC: New Orleans can’t stand the NFL commissioner, but it can’t give him up, either. New Orleans can’t quit Roger. It’s because Roger hurt the city when he brought the hammer down on the Saints in the Bountygate case. The city got upset. It stopped taking Roger’s calls and ignored his texts. But there was that whole Katrina thing. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was the leader of an effort to keep the Saints in New Orleans, to rebuild the Superdome, and to secure future Super Bowls after Hurricane Katrina unleashed its wrath on the city in 2005. But Goodell was his right-hand man at the time and performed much of the administrative grunt work. It’s safe to say that Goodell was as much of a friend to New Orleans as Tagliabue was after that devastating event. Relationships are complicated. Right now, New Orleans is looking at old photos of Roger on its iPad while eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and saying things like, “He’s not welcome in my bars and restaurants,” and “I hope he grows a second head.” But who really knows how New Orleans will react when it sees Roger at the game, and especially after the game, when he presents the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the winning team? Here’s hoping New Orleans keeps it classy and says to Roger, “You look great.” And Roger returns the favor by saying, “You too. What are you doing later?”