It went wrong right away, and that is what will live forever. Hindsight being what it is, the miscommunication between Peyton Manning and centre Manny Ramirez on the opening snap of Super Bowl XLVIII will stand as the perfect harbinger of the thrashing that was to come.
The look on Manning’s face after Knowshon Moreno raced past him to recover the football in the Broncos’ end zone, saving a touchdown by conceding a safety, was desperately stoic; he was trying way too hard to convey what he must have imagined was the placid calm of a soon-to-champion. It didn’t look like placid calm. It looked like the face of a driver who is trying to tell himself that it was just a lone pothole even though he’s terrified his suspension might be shot.
It wasn’t the 2–0 deficit that did it. Or the sudden loss of the opening possession. It was how it happened. A line-of-scrimmage mistake, the ball snapped before Manning’s necessary meticulous adjustments could be made, is the absolute last facet of a football game you can imagine Peyton Manning screwing up. And of course it was just beginning.
In any team sport, it’s a coach’s favourite refrain: The team that can take its opponent out of their comfort zone is the team with the clear advantage. We just have to play our game, they say—make them play our game and, by extension, avoid playing theirs.
Nobody, not even Manning, was playing a Denver Broncos’ football game on Sunday night, and that’s how this Super Bowl will ultimately be remembered. For all the discussion of Manning’s legacy, and for all the pundits who proclaimed that his performance in this one game shouldn’t—couldn’t—alter it…this will severely test their claim. It’s not a matter that can be settled the morning after. Legacies aren’t like that. It’s another ingredient in a stew that will simmer until Manning walks away, waits a few years and then makes a speech in Canton and dons a golden jacket. Only then will we see how it all tastes.
Sunday, though, was a lesson in how to rattle a legend (How to Shatter a Gameplan 101), taught by the Seattle Seahawks defence. And they did it by refusing to react to the Broncos on almost every level, playing the same Cover 3 defence they’d played against Colin Kaepernick’s 49ers and Drew Brees’s Saints.
“We didn’t change anything we do,” Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said after the game. And by not doing so, the Seahawks eventually forced Denver to change nearly everything that’s made them successful.
Fifteen businesses in Omaha, Neb., announced leading up to this game that they had combined to pledge $1,500 to charity for every time Manning uttered their city’s name—and his favourite snap-count code word—during the Super Bowl. It was a nice piece of publicity and, given that Manning’s 31 “Omaha”s during the AFC Championship would have sent $46,500 to worthy causes, had the potential to do more than a little good in the bargain.
Manning said it twice. They raised $3,000.
It wasn’t until the third quarter that Manning was able to deceive a Seattle defender into jumping the line for a cheap five-yard penalty and a Broncos’ first down—another staple of his team’s success.
That neutral-zone infraction was the only one by the Seahawks in the game.
The Broncos made a living in their previous 18 games with short, accurate throws and the tremendous ability of their receivers to run after the catch. The Seahawks allowed the short completions and then, as they’d done all year, hit the crap out of the receivers as the football arrived.
After a number of jarring hits on passes completed a few feet beyond the line of scrimmage, the Broncos got the idea. Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker kept catching short passes, but began to try to elude tacklers before they even met them, moving east-west after the catch instead of north-south. Denver had averaged 6.2 yards after the catch all season. According to Pro Football Focus, they averaged just 3.7 yards per catch on Sunday, and nine times were held to no yards at all.
Eventually, as it became clear that the yards would not be there after short receptions, and as the Seahawks’ lead kept increasing, Manning had to look downfield—which, as he’s admitted himself, is not his strongest suit. He aimed passes 20 or more yards downfield five times, completing none of them.
Seattle didn’t really crush Manning with sacks, but kept him moving out of the pocket frequently with constant pressure, and forced him to throw on the run. All of a sudden those accurate ducks he was so proud of during Super Bowl week were wobbling off course.
The other old coaching maxim—almost as old as playing your game and not theirs—is that you want to act, not react. To that end, the Seahawks defence played their hand perfectly. The Broncos overreacted to their first mistake of the game, shying away from complex pre-snap adjustments after it became clear the Seahawks defenders wouldn’t respond to shifting formations, and they never recovered.
The closest we came to seeing the Broncos offence running in its true form were the 15 seconds before the first offensive snap sailed past Manning’s ear. That’s the image we’ll remember from this Super Bowl—but it remains to be seen, as much as it may feel like it now, if it’s the image we’ll remember from Peyton Manning.