It was a good question – so good that it stood out for me as the most compelling moment in all of Super Bowl Sunday.
That's saying a lot about a Sunday that featured an unexplained 30-minute blackout in New Orleans' Superdome, a visually arresting performance by Beyoncé and a terrific football game that literally went down to the final seconds.
Susan Spencer on “CBS Sunday Morning” was doing a phenomenally interesting report on winning and losing. And, for obvious reasons, one of her major interview subjects was Jim Kelly, who quarterbacked the Buffalo Bills to an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s and lost every one.
Spencer's question was this: If you had a choice between going to only one Super Bowl and winning it or four Super Bowls and losing all four, which would you choose?
She obviously expected him to answer one and winning. So did I.
Kelly's answer was that he'd rather have the four losses than one win. That didn't sound to me like the old Jim Kelly, but that was the point. This is a new, mature man, not a competitive athlete in his professional prime dedicated to the old Vince Lombardi credo “Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.”
This was a man not only capable of reflecting seriously on winning and losing, but of saying this about the four losses in four straight history-making appearances: “I'm at ease now. I'm at a peace of mind, peace in my heart now, knowing what we accomplished, even though we didn't win them. I feel all right with that.”
He looked the part, too – of a man who believed what he was saying, even though it occasioned no special joy within him to say it.
The most fascinating part of Spencer's report on the psychology of victory and loss was an interview with a psychologist who pointed out – with suitable illustrations – that if you look at a string of photos of Olympic champions accepting their medals on the podium, the gold and bronze winners almost invariably evince joy and triumph, but the silver medalists seem unable to shake an expression of loss, confusion or sorrow. They have the look of those convinced they didn't quite measure up.
It was a rather startling way for CBS News to kick off Super Bowl Sunday, but then strange things can indeed happen when you ask people who aren't indentured sports folk to think about our greatest sporting event – an event so popular in our culture that it is virtually a national holiday. (All that's required now would be the highly unlikely step of Congress declaring it one.)
The most subversive appearance of all on Super Bowl Sunday was critic Andrew O'Hehir's bracing piece in Salon on “Football's Death Spiral,” as brilliant, unorthodox and truly thought-provoking as anything I've ever read on Super Bowl Sunday. O'Hehir speculated on the effects of current news on the very foundations of pigskin culture in America – not just the revelations that rocked Penn State's program (and caused the removal of Joe Paterno, a man thought to be a secular saint in sports), but the research showing the high incidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among former players.
O'Hehir wasn't someone rubbing his hands with glee, but a self-described football fan wondering very seriously about the future of the sport he loves. He wrote that he, along with so many others, wouldn't let his kids participate in modern programs for the sport as currently constituted. The suicide of legendary San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau – in which he made a point of not shooting himself in his head, so that his brain would be pristine for posthumous research – seemed to O'Hehir the light of revelation in the tunnel that may well turn out to be an oncoming train.
But there we were, as always, at what is arguably the year's greatest television event, ready to drink and nosh and party and tweet every transient thought into ravenous cyberspace. And on Super Bowl Sunday, we were actually rewarded with a terrific game and a half-hour power outage that reminded us all that:
1. All the money and know-how America's Entertainment-Industrial Complex can possibly muster can't guarantee that everything on live television will go off without a hitch.
2. The Superdome was, not long ago, a home of last resort for a great American city that withstood a punishment named Katrina that was one of the great natural catastrophes in American history.
The TV ads that have become an integral part of Super Bowl Sunday were a massive disappointment, I thought (and was joined, it seems, by a social media majority). What continued this year was the total dominance of the Chrysler's understanding of the nature of Super Bowl Sunday. Where everyone else wants to show sexy jokes and street cleverness and TV screen reflections of all the carousing that Super Bowl watchers presumably wish they were doing, Chrysler has, for years now, taken it upon itself to give us cinematic poems to the state of America.
It began with Eminem and then Clint Eastwood giving us post-bailout Detroit as the ultimate symbol of a reborn Rust Belt city. Both came from Portland's ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. A Sunday Jeep spot called “Whole Again,” from Detroit's Global House, had Oprah Winfrey narrating a powerful little ad about soldiers returning to civilian life from overseas (an incredibly intuitive spot, considering the role of Jeeps in military operations since World War II).
Almost as sublimely retro – but even more unexpected and powerful – was the Richards Group's discovery of an old radio piece called “God Made the Farmer” by Paul Harvey, whose melodramatic radio corn is well-remembered by some of us, but to the majority demographic in America may well be redolent of an ancient civilization. And that was the beauty of what Chrysler did.
Whether they actually sold any Ram trucks with the ad is beside the point. They sold a powerful old radio pro's vision of bedrock America to a Super Bowl audience that is open – as much as at any other time of year – to feeling, not thinking about, what it means to be American.
So what Chrysler again did on Super Bowl Sunday was give the year's biggest TV audience the ability to look at itself in the most flattering spiritual mirror – one cleverly and carefully constructed. It was, in a poetic way, the equivalent of an ad saying, “You deserve a break today.” It made everything else look wan indeed: the terrible Volkswagen and Oreo ads; the oldsters partying down for Taco Bell; the tubby, red-cheeked nerd making out with the supermodel for Go Daddy.com; Audi's fantasy of a boy emboldened by driving Daddy's Audi to suddenly lay an unexpected kiss on the tall prom queen, even if it meant getting a black eye from her kingly date.
Few misunderstood the nature of the event as much as Calvin Klein, whose headless male underwear models couldn't have been less likely, at $4 million a minute, to appeal to a Super Bowl majority audience. It was, no doubt, intended as the beefcake answer for women and gays to all the rest of the day's cheesy cheesecake – some of which, to quote Stephen Colbert, seemed aimed at “14-year-old boys making $500,000 a year.” It ended up making the right point at the wrong time in the wrong way.
On a holiday when Americans are supposedly celebrating the way America plays, Chrysler was smart enough amid all the juvenile drivel (some, admittedly, quite funny) to pay for a couple of spots of inventive, well-edited praise of bedrock American self-imagery guaranteed to make the whole event seem bigger than it really is. Truth, of course, is something else altogether.
But there, from a couple of ads, was something way beyond winning and losing.