One thing that makes this week unusual, if not unique, is that the NFL’s championship game will be played only seven days after last Sunday’s conference finals.
Normally, the league arranges for a two-week break between the conference title games and the Super Bowl.
"(In the years) when I wasn’t in the (game), I didn’t like the two weeks,” Stephen Baker, a wide receiver for the New York Giants, said the other day. “Now, as a player, I wouldn’t mind having the second week. It would give us a week to enjoy it.”
One of Baker’s teammates, linebacker Carl Banks, lines up on the other side. “The extra seven days aren’t necessary,” said Banks, who got an unwanted two weeks in 1987 when the Giants were in Super Bowl XXI. “With only a week off, you don’t have that long to sit around and worry.”
A layoff of two or three days would be enough for Bruce Smith, the Buffalo Bills’ All-Pro defensive end. “I just want to get after people,” he said.
Those are three ways of looking at it--three of many. With 2,000 reporters here questioning 90 players and numerous other pro football people, there isn’t a consensus on what should be done next.
But in 1992, the NFL will probably return to a two-week layoff, predicted Wellington Mara, president of the Giants.
“From a logistics standpoint, two weeks are so much better,” Mara said. “It isn’t just the teams that have to get here. You have thousands of fans to think about. Thousands of plane rides to arrange. Thousands of tickets to distribute. Thousands of room reservations to work out.”
Last Sunday, it wasn’t until the last play in the last second of the last game before the Super Bowl that anybody knew the Giants would be in it.
“When it’s a short break, the logistics are tough,” Buffalo General Manager Bill Polian agreed.
It was precisely because of such problems that the league originated the two-week break.
Many NFL critics, however, think otherwise. They accuse the league of insisting on two weeks merely in order to get a long Super Bowl publicity buildup.
When sportswriter Barry Wilner was asked why the NFL wants an extra week, he was ready with a one-word answer: “Hype.”
Joe Browne, the NFL’s vice president of communications and development, concedes that a majority of U.S. sports editors, reporters and broadcasters seem to agree.
But within the league, there is another strongly held view. “Some (club officials) argue that the two-week period results in a loss of momentum,” Browne said. “They believe we lose pace in a two-week (layoff).”
In other words, they say there’s a loss of interest nationally in pro football despite the 14-day publicity campaign.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, aware that there are several points of view, hasn’t committed himself to a recommendation for 1992 planning. “We’ll decide in the next few weeks,” he said. “First, we want to evaluate how it’s gone (in Tampa).”
THE BUFFALO EDGE
When there are two weeks to fill before the Super Bowl--and 2,000 reporters to fill it--one certain casualty is intelligent questioning.
At last year’s game in New Orleans, several sportswriters decided to vote on the silliest questions of the first 24 winters.
They came up with these three, in the following order:
--To Jim Plunkett, a Super Bowl winner as a Raider quarterback: “Let’s get this straight, Jim. Your mother is blind and your father deaf? Or is it the other way around?”
--To John Elway, a three-time participant in this game as the Denver Broncos’ quarterback: “If you were a tree, what tree would you be?”
--To Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins, a Super Bowl winner in his only appearance: “How long have you been a black quarterback?”
The opportunity for such nonsense is a built-in Super Bowl component because all players are required to sit at large round tables for 45 minutes or so, three times a week, and communicate with any accredited reporter who wishes to join in.
Three times a week, that is, when there is a two-week break.
When there is only a week, as there is this year, there are only two such interview periods.
The short break is a break for most players, for all but the dedicated hams.
And twice before, the layoff has been compressed into seven days:
--In January of 1970, at New Orleans, when the AFL-NFL merger dictated a one-week break, the Kansas City Chiefs upset a 13-point favorite, the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7.
--In January of 1983, at the Rose Bowl, when a players’ strike led to a one-week break, the Washington Redskins upset a three-point favorite, the Miami Dolphins, 27-17.
In January of 1991, with another one-week break prompted by the expanded 17-week regular season, the Bills are favored over the Giants. Will there be another upset?
Many observers say that the NFC’s Giants have been honed in a tougher conference.
But most football fans, remembering Buffalo’s 51-3 victory over the Raiders, are sticking with the Bills.
Some are making these comparisons between the 1970 Chiefs, the 1983 Redskins and the 1991 Bills:
--In 1970, the Vikings got only a week to practice for a tricky opponent, the Hank Stram-coached Kansas City team that had “the offense of the 1970s.” And the Vikings failed.
--In 1983, the Dolphins got only a week to prepare for Coach Joe Gibbs’ new, radical, one-back, multiple-motion team--and also failed.
--This week, the Giants are also getting only a few days to plan a defense for the shotgun-passing, no-huddle Bills, whose offense is the most ingenious of all, one of the trickiest in Super Bowl history.
John Beake, the Bronco general manager who was a Kansas City assistant in 1970, explains the problem: “It was tougher for (the Vikings) to prepare for us. Minnesota ran from only a couple of sets, and we were a multiple-formation team. I think the one week helps the (wide-open team).”
This year, that’s Buffalo.
THE NATURE OF HYPE
Sighing with relief, a St. Petersburg columnist, Hubert Mizell, said this week: “America will be asked, prior to Sunday’s tee time, to spend just six days at the NFL hype pump, instead of the customary two weeks.”
Should there be one or two weeks of publicity? Who is responsible for it, anyway?
Veteran observers say that the reaction or overreaction of the nation’s newspapers and television outlets to what goes on here in the days before the Super Bowl is a natural result of the nature of championship football. They note that football is normally played once a week, whereas baseball and basketball games are normally played several times a week.
Thus if there is a big seventh game in the World Series, for example, or the NBA finals, it shortly follows the sixth game. In the college basketball tournament, the big final game is played soon after the semifinals.
Football players, by contrast, invariably get at least a week off, and if there is a two-week Super Bowl break, most of the publicity is compressed into the last week--not because it is necessarily planned that way, but because that is the nature of football coverage.
It follows that if 2,000 or 3,000 media representatives are here, they have to write and say something .
Most football people maintain that because theirs is a 45-man, sport, there are more personalities, more great players, on a Super Bowl team than any publication or network can profile during the fall season.
The public, however, retains an interest in these people--in Giant quarterback Jeff Hostetler, for instance, or Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith or Giant linebacker Lawrence Taylor or even Buffalo Coach Marv Levy. And obviously, this is the right week to acknowledge the public’s interest.
It was no coincidence, for example, that hundreds of U.S. newspapers focused on Levy after reporters finally caught up with him Wednesday.
Levy, in defiance of NFL rules, had refused to attend a news conference Tuesday.
“I’m truly sorry about that,” he said later. “But we just had to put in the game plan (on Tuesday). There was no other time because of the one-week break this year.”
Ah, yes. The one-week break. It causes a lot of trouble. Almost as much as the two-week break.