U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Dustin R. Williams

By Dustin R. Williams

Since the last time I sat down to write this annual blog that nobody reads, I:

  1. Got a dog 
  2. Changed jobs
  3. Got married 
  4. Survived the 2019 Cleveland Browns football season, which is a little bit like saying you “survived” cancer: sure, you might be cancer free at the moment, but death comes for us all. The Browns will presumably be back next year, just like the tumors in your Nana’s lungs. Cheers. 

But aside from the flesh-eating-virus that is the Cleveland Browns, 2019 was a good year, and the 2010s a strange whirlwind of a decade that took us from human beings to futuristic robots with smartphones glued to our palms at all times. As is the easy thing to do, I blame corporations like Amazon, Walmart, and Apple. One thing that did not change was the Browns futility, but more on that later.

So welcome in! Your 2020 Super Bowl Mailbag. I think it’s the seventh annual mailbag that I’ve written, but I’m not going to doublecheck that. It was more laborious than usual, mostly because you took to Instagram and asked me awful questions so I had to make some of them up. But I answered some reader questions, too. Enjoy the Super Bowl, and remember: if you drink too much? Drive it off. 

Why is it called the Super Bowl instead of the Super Cup? 

-Abby D., Burlington, NC

My bride, ladies and gentlemen! This year we got married and nearly every single Sunday that she wasn’t working (she’s a nurse that works her butt off on third shift) she sat down and interrogated me about why I loved football more than her. The confusing part for me was that I changed exactly zero behaviors from the time we were dating to the time we got married, and I think that’s also what confuses her.

All that is to say, my dearest bride fucking HATES football, and it’s been fascinating trying to defend my love for the sport. Have you ever been pushed to verbalize why you love the things you love? It’s difficult! It’s like explaining how to speak English, which none of us are very good at (both teaching it and speaking it, safe to say). I grew up watching football and it has grown on me like a fine wine. Through the underreported steroid use, the concussions/CTE stuff, all of the reported domestic violence cases: I just kept loving this stupid fucking sport, damn the consequences.

Anyway, the actual question being posed here—why is the Super Bowl called the Super Bowl—first made me roll my eyes. Then, it made me wonder if I even know the answer—I’ve always taken for granted that bowls are big football games, and maybe it’s because people used to win fancy glass bowls when they won big games? Maybe? But even typing that makes me think no possible way, so please pause while I google this. 

Okay! It’s literally just that the first bowl game was the Rose Bowl, which is named after the stadium it is played in, which is shaped like a bowl. Then, in 1968 the NFL title game got renamed the “Super Bowl” after some guy Lamar Hunt was watching his daughter play with a super ball. Which is 100 percent an apocryphal story, no CHANCE it happened, but I swear to god that’s what Wikipedia says. 

I don’t love the NFL, but I don’t hate the Super Bowl. Yeah, I’m one of those. What should I know heading into this experience, wherein I pretend to know a little bit about football and eat a shitload of food? 

-Charlotte, Durham, NC

So you’ve probably heard of Patrick Mahomes, and if you haven’t, stay home. But on the off chance that you aren’t familiar with his handiwork, and you still want to watch this game, he’s like Michael Jordan had a child with Pedro Martinez and that child grew up to be the quarterback of the Chiefs while they just so happened to have one of the greatest offensive football minds as head coach lurking the sidelines, and a US Olympic track team with great hands at all receiver positions. 

Simply put, the Chiefs have the most explosive passing attack in the history of football and are otherwise a completely pedestrian team. Their defense isn’t terribly good, and their run game is fine, but they obviously prefer to throw. 

On the other side of the ball, you’ve got the best defense in the league. I’m going to go off on a tangent here for a second about my friend Jesse, who was born and raised in San Francisco and can name all 53 players on the 49ers roster (I’ll let you decide if that makes him VERY COOL or a TOTAL LOSER). A season ago, when the promising 49ers lost their young, extremely good looking quarterback Jimmy Garappolo for the season to a knee injury, he said “we’re going to suck, then draft Nick Bosa, and then win the Super Bowl,” and I thought, okay, sure, whatever that means. Well, a year and a half later, Bosa is the runaway defensive rookie of the year, the Niners defense is ridiculous, often owed to the fact that Bosa occupies the efforts of at least two offensive linemen and still gets to the quarterback with staggering frequency, and the Niners just might win the Super Bowl. The first time I watched Bosa play in the NFL was when the Browns played on the road against the Niners early in the season. He lived in the Browns backfield and the only miracle was that the Browns scored 3 points. 

The addition of Richard Sherman has been written about often enough that I won’t recap it here, and truthfully, the entire 49er defense has been so good the matchup of them versus Mahomes and the gang will be fascinating. 

The reason I think the Niners have the edge in this game is that their rush offense, architected by Kyle Shanahan, is the best in the league. Yes, better than Lamar Jackson’s ridiculous Ravens team, and better than the bowling-ball-with-knives attack led by Derrick Henry. And the Chiefs rush D kinda sucks, even if it played better in the second half of the season.

Vegas has the Chiefs as 1.5 point favorites, and I don’t blame them. But I like the 49ers here, solely because I think their D can at least slow down the Chiefs, and I can’t say the same about the Chiefs D versus the 49ers offense. 

Will Jimmy G throw more than 10 times? 

-Max P., Burlington, VT

At first glance this number seems comically low (and it is, to be sure). But, it stems from the fact that Jimmy G threw EIGHT damn passes in the NFC Championship because the Packers rush D looked like… wait for it… swiss cheese. Simply put, Jimmy didn’t have to throw. Still, the number 10 is laughably low. Vegas has the line set at 29.5 pass attempts, and I gotta say… if this game is going the Niners way, that seems very high. Obviously, Vegas thinks this game will be fairly close, the Chiefs will score, and the Niners will be forced to throw. Still, I would go under 29.5. And way, way over 10.

Are there ways replay could be improved, across all sports? 

-Charlie, Burlington, NC

Yes, I cheated and asked myself this question. And yes, you’re going to inexplicably get a rant about college basketball refereeing before we go into the question about replay. 

Before I was ever a big NFL fan, I loved college basketball. Fuck, if I close my eyes I can legit smell the childhood mudroom I used to shoot hoops in during March Madness, when a commercial break would free me up to recreate buzzer beating shots I’d memorized the details of. It smelled like concrete and dust. But it wasn’t just March Madness that I watched. I consumed college hoops games in November, and read fledgling college basketball blogs (shoutout America Least) with our dial up internet. I used to take detailed notes of every team that played during Championship Week, foolishly thinking that would make my bracket better (or that “they go with man defense and like to play uptempo but don’t have a ton of size” separated some midmajors from others). 

I now live in the top college basketball area in the country and that means I still watch an unhealthy amount of it, especially ACC hoops, and other conferences of national relevance (and when I’m gambling, several conferences with absolutely no relevance whatsoever… Quinnipiac is a cover machine, what can I say?). Anyway, where I’m going with this is: College Basketball is the worst sports product on television. The refereeing is ruining the game. 

I was recently watching a Virginia-NC State game and an NC State player went dribbling toward the corner when, all of a sudden, a Virginia player jumped into his way and fell over backward. The fans booed as the ref actually got it right, calling a blocking foul on the Virginia player. Jay Bilas laughed, and said the quote of the year: “I get why these fans are booing, because college basketball fans are so used to that being a charge call. The truth is, most charge/block calls should be blocks, and yet, most college referees call them charges.” 

In one sentence, Bilas said what a lot of us have been thinking for a while. A charge call should be reserved for the rare occasions when a player is completely out of control and plows their way through another player using their shoulder, and that’s about it. This whole gimmick of running into the path of a player and planting your feet when they really don’t have anywhere else to go with the basketball is not only unfair, it’s not fun to watch. Nothing ruins an amazing poster dunk like a virgin-ass referee emphatically calling a charge on the dunking assailant. Fuck you dude, let them play. Anybody who gets fired up from players taking charges should join Duke’s coaching staff as an unpaid intern. I’m sure they have plenty of room for your boring ass. I’m no NBA fan, but it is a vastly superior product, and you know why? They don’t have this problem. There aren’t a lot of charge/block calls to begin with, because players know they can’t just run in the way of another player and fall over and get the call. So they actually compete in the air to try and block shots, and if they can’t do that, they stay the fuck out of the way. 

Oh…replay, right. That’s the only thing worse in college basketball than the charge/block call: replay review. The old joke that the last 1 minute of a college basketball game takes 20 minutes has never been more true, and this is endemic across all sports. There is no more frustrating feeling than seeing exactly ONE replay of a call in question and thinking, “oh, okay, so they got the call right/wrong” and then sitting there for 3 more minutes as they watch more replays for absolutely no reason. It’s fucking trash. 

Here’s how you fix it, it’s not complicated: go the baseball/hockey direction. The SEC conference has started to do this during basketball season, and it’s working: Have a central location with a staff of referees watching games. As soon as a close call happens in a game, they are watching the replays IMMEDIATELY. I mean, before we even see a replay as viewers, they are seeing all of the angles. If they notice a call might be up in the air, they buzz in to the refs and tell them to hang on for a second. Commercial break, 60 seconds. That’s it. The call must be made by the end. The truth is, nothing pivotal is happening after the first 60 seconds. You already know the call you’re going to make, you’re just making SURE you got it right. If this meant they got 1 percent more calls wrong, I think we would all make that trade in a heartbeat in exchange for our sanity. 

This year sucked for the Panthers. The awesome Super Bowl run way back in 2016 (has it been that long… really?!) felt like the start of something, but now it feels like a brief moment in time we’ll never get back. Will the Panthers ever win a Super Bowl? 

-Tom, Greensboro, NC

Fuck, man. I don’t envy the Panthers, and I say that as a Browns fan. I don’t understand this Matt Rhule hire whatsoever… the dude put together a couple of good seasons at Baylor, in a conference that was so bad this year it really shouldn’t have been allowed to send a team to the BCS Playoff. I know he had some success at Temple, has coached a bit in the NFL, and, most importantly in today’s NFL, is white, but I still don’t really understand the hire, and paying him that much money. I hope it works out, but it feels like the start of a rebuild. For two years you’re going to hear about Rhule “needing to get his guys in the building,” and at that point you’ll be what, 4 trillion dollars into his contract? 

Obviously, the most interesting decision to be made is whether or not Cam Newton comes back. I think everyone saw enough Will Grier and (especially) Kyle Allen to know that they *probably* aren’t the answer. By the way, isn’t it hilarious how quickly we decide a player is good, or isn’t? We were all buying the Kyle Allen thing for a week or two! And then we weren’t. And we all do it. I’m doing it RIGHT NOW as I suggest both of those guys are Bad At Football, maybe partially because it’s safer to err on the side of  “this guy will never be a great NFL quarterback” because of the millions of people who have taken snaps in America, what, 30 of them turned out to be truly great? Maybe the number is closer to 100, but it’s not that many more! 

And while Christian McCaffery is awesome, let’s be real. He’s an NFL running back, and they are using him at an alarming rate during seasons in which the team isn’t good. If the Panthers don’t turn it around in the next couple seasons, it’s possible CMC’s prime is wasted on this Rhule experiment. 

Dark days in Charlotte, man. I wish you the best.

The good news is… at least you’re not the….

So what went wrong for the Browns this season? Is it fixable? How do we feel about chances for a .500 record next year? 

-Sam B., Portland, ME

I learned the other day that the Browns were one of three Big 4 teams to not have a single winning record last decade. The other two teams were the Sacramento Kings and the Florida/Miami Marlins. The Browns last had a winning record when they went 10-6 in 2007 but missed the playoffs because our “rival,” the Steelers, also had a 10-6 record and had beaten us twice. The last time the Browns made the playoffs was in 2002, when they were 9-7 and held a three-score lead against the Steelers in the fourth quarter of a playoff game they would, of course, lose. Their playoff drought actually isn’t the longest among Big 4 teams—that dubious honor belongs to the Seattle Mariners, who last made the playoffs in 2001 when they won 114 fucking games and lost to, you guessed it, the Steelers—just kidding, the Yankees—in the ALCS. 

Despite the above history lesson, as we all know, there was a lot of excitement last year about the Browns during the offseason. And as we all remembered about 4 minutes into the season, trading for a splashy wide receiver and signing a splashy backup running back probably isn’t the way to build a winning formula in the NFL. Our offensive line was hot garbage for large swaths of the season, and it felt like Baker took a step back. How much the former has to do with the latter remains to be seen. And then, just as the Browns started playing better for a span of two weeks or so, of course, it all ended how it always was meant to: with our best player stripping the helmet off of our “rival’s” Klan-card-carrying quarterback, and smashing it across his forehead in a game we had ALREADY WON where there was ABSOLUTELY NO REASON to have our best player on the field. Fuck Freddie Kitchens with a rusty railroad spike. As I’ve said in this space before, the Browns suck and will never be good. Give us the entire Chiefs roster and coaching staff, put them in Browns uniforms and they would stumble to a 5-11 record. Let Kyle Shanahan be our offensive coordinator and we would literally…

(Checks notes) 

Start the season 7-4 and then lose 5 straight. (Yes, that literally happened). 

I have no hope, except for those moments when I do. Fuck, that’s the saddest part. The opening drive against the Titans, Week 1. Baker was out there slinging DARTS all over the place. We scored on what I feel like was a 7-play, 80-yard drive or something. For about 30 seconds I believed maybe it was true. Maybe we didn’t suck. Then, Austin Seibert missed the extra point, and the Browns lost 43-13. Good times. The Browns fan’s plight is so often misunderstood. It’s not that the team sucks in spectacular fashion. It’s that they show these odd signs of development right before the plane once again hits a mountain that somehow, nobody saw coming. How do we keep getting fooled? Why do I sometimes believe? When will the Browns mercifully move again, and hopefully, this time, never return? 

What are your thoughts on this Houston Astros debacle? 

-Sam B-F, New York 

Ah, baseball. What a pure, beautiful sport: played on the greenest grass, with the whitest balls, rife with cheating scandals that erupt once or twice per decade. 

Obviously, this was all very fascinating. If you live under a rock, here’s the short form: the Astros—a very good team that, last fall, came within a few bad breaks of winning their second title in three years—have long been rumored to have been stealing signs from other teams. A bombshell report from The Athletic in November disclosed exactly how they were doing it, and it was…

(checks notes)

Comically brute and brazen. They had people watching the opposing catcher’s signs on a monitor and somebody would then bang a trash can a given number of times to correspond with which pitch was coming. Look, every team is doing some form of this. And if they aren’t, they aren’t trying. But… beating a trash can?! Lol. The swift penalties levied against the Astros front office—but pivotally, not any of the players involved—almost seemed to be more in response to the shady shit the organization was doing from top to bottom, including blatant, companywide emails that indicated the GM didn’t really fucking care about anything so long as they were winning. Which, by the way, is true about most GMs in a results-driven business with millions of dollars on the line. 

So I’m kind of torn on the whole thing. Fuck the Astros, they deserve it, and I can’t wait to hold it against them forever. I think the players should have been punished, but maybe it’s punishment enough that they have to travel to different cities this year getting screamed at for being cheaters and liars. On the other hand, to reiterate, every single team is doing some form of this, and I’m sure all of these guys sleep very well at night in their million dollar mansions with a World Series ring on their nightstand. 

The Tigers were convinced my favorite team was stealing signs at home games, and I’m sure that they were. Whether they were using technology or not is a different question, but it wouldn’t shock me if they were. The Red Sox have been implicated, and Yankee fans have rejoiced. Which is funny, because certainly the Yankees are doing something too, right? Make no mistake: this is a pandora’s box Major League Baseball had NO interest in opening until the narrative started to get away from them. So they raced to levy seemingly harsh justice on one team and prayed nobody would dig too much deeper into all of this. But this is the tip of the iceberg, and whether or not we ever reach the bottom frankly depends on who talks and who doesn’t. 

Also, one more thing. A lot has been made of manager AJ Hinch being against the whole system, and Justin Verlander has been outspoken for years about sign stealing (he was, in fact, the main whistleblower against my Indians), and has suddenly gone quiet. I actually believe that you could be in the Astros clubhouse and have a big problem with what was going on but not feel comfortable saying something. It sounds like Hinch, did, by the way—reportedly twice smashing TV monitors that were being used to steal signs. And maybe it is a black eye that he couldn’t do more—he’s the manager, and if players and coaches aren’t listening to him, then who is? Same with JV—he’s a leader. He has a strong voice. Why didn’t he stop this? But, I don’t know, I think it’s easier said than done. We’ve all been in positions where we saw things we believed were wrong but didn’t feel comfortable standing up and saying so. All of it is very complex and I don’t envy anybody involved. But one more time—FUCK the Astros. Go Tribe. 

Any Kobe takes? 

-Anne, New York

This three-word question has made me think the most. I vacillated between answering it and not because I have many conflicted feelings about it and I think, as evidenced by much of the writing on the subject this week and the flurry of reaction to it, you really can’t write about Kobe and the other people that died in the horrific helicopter accident without pissing off someone, or maybe more accurately, everyone. 

I’ll say this: I recommend reading this, and this. They are two articles that have been circulated a bunch over the past few days and with good reason. One is a well written, if verbose, retrospective while the other is a stark reminder of the darker side of Kobe’s legacy. And I get that a lot of people want to do the “too soon” thing, but Kobe’s retirement and death both gave us an opportunity to reflect on his legacy, as a whole, after the #MeToo movement helped us collectively shine a lens much brighter on the 2003 sexual assault allegation that, if you read the above links, was nothing if not credible. Put another way: If you want to discuss Kobe’s legacy, let’s not leave anything out, and there’s no better time than now to confront the darkest parts of it. 

Most retrospective pieces this week have offered a token acknowledgement of the rape accusation and either then quickly dismissed it to expound further on his competitiveness, drive, and jumpshot, while others have somehow framed it as further evidence that he was an enigma (always couched with an adjective such as “complex”), which is a wild and dangerous take. If (probably) raping someone makes you an enigma, or makes you “complicated,” then let’s shut it all down. We don’t need the English language any more because apparently we’ve all collectively given up describing things in meaningful ways. 

That said, people can change—and though perhaps what I’m about to say makes me the victim of the type of PR campaign that hundreds of millions of dollars can buy you—I genuinely believe Kobe loved his family, and that he engaged in quiet philanthropy that probably made the world a better place, and I think whatever did happen in Eagle, Colorado—and again, I do believe it was nonconsensual sex and that we should believe women when they make rape accusations, perhaps especially against dangerous men capable of ruining their lives for a second time—did change him, and perhaps for the better. In a lot of ways, that’s all we can hope for, right? That horrific crimes help begin a process of rehabilitation. 

There are a lot of people out there who would read the above and say I’m doing exactly what every other writer has done this week, in giving him a pass. That might be true. I have been affected by the outpouring of support for him, his family, and the other people aboard the helicopter that crashed on Sunday. Like many others, I’m not sure I fully realized Kobe’s relevance to the general public until this week. Did any of us? Like Michael Jackson, he was a hyper talented person who did very weird, if not criminal shit, but much good also came from his fame and stardom. His death has united an entire city, no matter what good or bad actions may have precipitated that moment. 

And I’m not sure it’s possible to watch the videos circulating of Kobe and Gianna courtside and not feel sorrow. Not just for the two of them, and their family—though that, too—but for all of the people who died in that helicopter, and the overall human condition that we are all subject to. It’s coming for us all, helicopter or not. One day it will all go dark, and all we’ll have left is our legacy among the people we loved, and those who loved us. And if Kobe was one of those people you loved, so be it, but be open to hearing not that he was complicated, but that he (likely) committed the worst kind of crime and just so happened to have enough money to smooth it over. 

If I hate both cities and the color red, who should I root for? 

-Vince, Los Angeles 

Yeah, I’m torn on this. The truth is, in mid-December a uh… close friend, we’ll say… took out a $50 futures bet on the 49ers at +600. It seemed like good value, and boy was it. So my—sorry, “his”—wallet is cheering for the 49ers.

After hearing a Very Good breakdown of Andy Reid and his career on ESPN The Daily podcast, hosted by sports media superstar Mina Kimes (I detest most things associated with ESPN these days, but anything to do with Mina is worth your time, so I do recommend the pod), I was reminded how much I like Andy Reid, the ultimate every man. Most of us can relate to being out of shape as we get older, and maybe enjoying food a bit too much. Some of us can relate to having meltdowns in our professional line of work, or turtling in the biggest moments, as Reid has done so often. Sometimes it feels as though the narrative about his poor clock management is blown out of proportion, that is, until you see it happen again, and again, and again. And the Chiefs are just overall exciting as shit. It’s impossible to watch Pat Mahomes and think, “boooorrinnnnggggggg,” even if you’re from New England and find fake narratives to suggest that it’s an offensive gimmick that can’t be relied on in January (how’s that going?). 

On the other side of the ball, Kyle Shanahan has his own Super Bowl ghosts which probably are overblown, if no less real. Shanahan is younger, and has been groomed to be a coach his entire life, in the mold of his father who coached the Broncos to two Super Bowls. I say that only to note that there are probably a swell of casual football fans finding it easier to cheer for the Andy Reid underdog story than a coaching situation that reeks of nepotism (even if that’s unwarranted, and Shanahan has proven to be an incredible play caller and NFL coach). 

Then there’s the history of the two teams, which at first glance are quite different… but are they? Two once-great franchises that have had trouble winning a Super Bowl in the 21st century. You’d have to give the edge to the Chiefs when it comes to the relative “long suffering” meter, though the average 49er fan our age probably doesn’t remember much about the 1995 Super Bowl. 

I’ve written a few paragraphs about this now and we’re no closer to our answer, are we? Maybe you should just cheer for the 49ers and my (friend’s) futures bet. That’s what I’m doing. 

REVERSE JINX ALERT!

Prediction: 49ers 35, Chiefs 31