The NFL is not the NBA. Children understand the NBA. It’s a bunch of tall guys running bouncing a ball. Simple. The NFL requires a bit more grappling because games are not contested solely by the pituitary cases panting on the field; an IMDB’s page worth of coaches, play-callers, and assistant coaches mutter instructions from the sideline in a lingua franca borrowed from militants and marketers. It’s no wonder so many of us grew up experiencing the Super Bowl as a disappointment. We understood that something exciting was supposed to happen but not what that exciting thing was or whether it had transpired. We heard about dimebacks and went searching for loose change.
Thankfully for American families light on branded beanies, Super Bowl LIV is shaping up to be the first Super Bowl in years that a kid might actually enjoy without having to root for the Patriots or the Eagles.
Before we get into the reasons why this is likely to be a good year for tots, it’s worth acknowledging that the game may be a tough sell after last year’s 13-3 snoozefest. New England turned that game against the Los Angeles Rams into a war of attrition, playing the odds and grinding it out. New England coach Bill Belichick intended to render that game unwatchable and succeeded in precisely the way he hadn’t the year before.
But Chiefs coach Andy Reid isn’t Bill Belichick and neither is 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. (This is not a compliment, but should be a relief to many.)
Reid is the Elon Musk of offensive football. He’s less interested in the why than the why not. And his team reflects that mentality. The Chiefs, led by wunderkind QB Patrick “Where’s Lamar Jackson Now?” Mahomes, are so incredibly athletic they sometimes look like a bunch of adults playing pick-up against middle schoolers. Or they would if they weren’t so short. They come into any given game looking to put up massive yardage and when Mahomes gets flushed out of the pocket, he doesn’t get more conservative. He flings the ball or, as he did in the NFC Championship, himself.
Tyreek Hill also helps. The diminutive wide receiver and child-punching shithead runs roughly five routes per play and gashes defenses by taking unprecedented paths up the field. It’s very watchable stuff if you don’t consider the moral implication of rooting for the guy. Kids don’t.
And if Reid is the Musk of offensive football, Shanahan is the Jeff Bezos. He’s a systems guy, but the systems are incredibly complicated. His playbook, lightly adapted from his father’s early work, is thicker than War and Peace and his personnel packages are as unpredictably as cabinet meetings in the Trump White House. In the AFC Championship, a guy that had been cut by basically every team in the league ran for 200-plus yards and four touchdowns behind the 49ers line. NFL people were excited about this, but not exactly surprised. Shanahan is so unpredictable that he’s made the never-seen-that-before sequence into a personal brand. At QB, Jimmy Garappolo hasn’t been as dominant as Mahomes — he’s not a generational talent — but he’s flexible and dynamic enough to let Shanahan do his thing. He knows where George Kittle is.
He also knows what George Kittle is. Shrek. Super likable. Basically unstoppable.
Most Super Bowls are like Chess matches. By this point in the season, coaches have seen enough of each others’ teams that they fundamentally understand what to expect. The biggest game of the year becomes a game of inches, which is a bummer for all those nacho cheese-smeared kids just trying to get excited about this thing dad likes. But Reid and Shanahan don’t reheat their wins. No one knows what they’re going to do (or, for that matter, what Richard Sherman is going to say in a press conference) so it’s more likely to be a wide-open contest. This isn’t Chess, it’s Battleship. And as much as it might hurt the talking heads to hear it, that’s great for the NFL, which lives in perpetual danger of losing its younger audience because 3-yard runs up the gut are simply not as entertaining as whatever is on TikTok.
There’s some insurance this year as well. Though there’s unlikely to be a blowout — both teams are excellent — even a lopsided game is bound to be interesting. If they wind up down, Garoppolo will go deep and Patrick Mahomes will lose his damn mind. These guys don’t play from their heels. That’s not in their nature or in the nature of these teams. Under Robert Salah, even the 49ers defense is an offense.
As a young kid, the Super Bowl didn’t impress me. Neil Diamond sang the anthem and the Giants beat the Broncos… slowly. Who cares? I didn’t and that’s kind of a tragedy. Football isn’t always fun, but it definitely can be. This year, the Super Bowl is likely to be so fun that kids can actually get in on the action. They’ll be able to follow the game and ask questions. Whether or not dad is ready to explain how the hell the 49ers offensive schemes work is another matter altogether.