I have a lot of regrets. The Peyton Manning Face made a dramatic, improbable comeback in Miami on Sunday night. I could have been there. Could have seen it. Could have marveled at its return. And yet, I didn’t stay for the game. Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t be surrounded by happy Colts fans. Couldn’t deal with the reality of Kobe, A-Rod and Manning winning titles in succession. I fled Miami on Sunday morning. Quickly. Briskly. Hell, I didn’t even plan on writing a running diary of the Pierre Bowl. Why commemorate Manning’s coronation as … (gulp) … the greatest quarterback of his generation?
I forgot about three words: You never know. They are the best three words in sports.
Now it’s Monday and I still can’t figure out how the Colts — the best team in the NFL, a juggernaut that was controlling the game until Pierre Garcon’s deadly third-down drop midway through the second quarter, followed by a bizarre seven-minute Saints drive, a Colts goal-line stand, a three-and-out and a sneaky Saints field goal to close the half — ended up self-destructing in the second half. So let’s run it back. Retro diary. You and me. We’ll even time-stamp it like it’s happening live.
Colts 10, Saints 6. Third quarter, 15 minutes remaining. Saints kicking off. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms announcing.
8:20 p.m. ET: And … whoa!!!!!!!! Allow me a couple of notes on the best surprise onside kick ever (and the first successful one to come before the fourth quarter in a Super Bowl). First, any time you can involve a reality star’s husband in a momentum-turning moment (in this case, Hank Baskett), you have to do it. Second, that had to be the most exciting moment in the history of the XFL camera (those cameras that drop onto the field behind the players, which remains Vince McMahon’s most underrated contribution to society). Third, it’s funny that Sean Payton was praised effusively after the game for two decisions that were basically foiled — a fourth-and-goal run that got stuffed (but inadvertently prevented Peyton Manning from unleashing a two-minute drive and DID lead to a New Orleans field goal), and a surprise onside kick that didn’t surprise Baskett at all (only he reacted like one of the bomb detonation guys from “Hurt Locker”). And fourth, didn’t you suddenly think the Saints would win after they recovered that kick?
8:25: Four quick completions for New Orleans; Dwight Freeney getting his ankle taped on the sidelines; Peyton Manning sitting glumly on the bench. You can feel it.
8:27: Thomas breaks an unassuming screen pass 16 yards for a touchdown. Saints: Up three with their first Super Bowl lead ever. Brees: 5-for-5 on the drive. Colts: have run three plays in the past 62 minutes of real time. America: relatively startled.
(Although, to this point, it was only the second most startling moment of the night. The first? Letterman bringing in Leno for a CBS ad. What was Letterman thinking? Why make Leno seem likable for the first time in a year? And how could he sit on the same sofa with that big-chinned, opportunistic, double-talking, job-stealing barracuda after Leno made that nasty joke about his marriage a few weeks ago? The VP of Common Sense did not agree with this decision.)
8:28: Put it this way: If there was a Hollywood version of the Mitchell report, they’d have to spend a chapter investigating Jake Gyllenhaal as the “Prince of Persia.”
8:28: Mortal lock after every successful onside kick: The front wave of return guys, after getting chewed out by their special teams coach for five minutes, waiting until the ball is over their heads before they run back on the next one. I always enjoy that. By the way, Solomon Wilcots just reported that the White House is labeling The Who’s halftime performance as an act of terrorism on American soil.
8:34: Manning keeps a six-play, no-huddle drive going by dropping a gorgeous third-down pass between about 15 Saints to Dallas Clark for 20 yards (first down, Saints 20). At this point, I had swung back into, “I’m over the onside kick momentum, there’s no way Manning is losing this game” mode.
(Important note: Readers were congratulating me last night on my successful reverse jinx of Manning in Friday’s column. Trust me … that was no reverse jinx. I believed everything that I wrote. Although if it worked out that way, I’m delighted!)
8:38: On the heels of another third-down throw to Clark, Addai charges in for a 4-yard rushing touchdown (10 plays, 76 yards, 5:26 drive), followed by a shot of the Manning family’s luxury box and Archie sitting sadly before realizing, “Oh, crap, there are cameras on me, I can’t root for the Saints!” and belatedly applauding. That was fun. Did we ever figure out why Eli Manning always dresses like a 13-year-old rich kid attending his first wedding? I’m not wearing a tie! No! And I want to wear that light sports jacket with the green pants. I don’t care if it doesn’t match! That’s what I want to wear!
8:39: I gotta be honest … I wasn’t ready to see the Griswolds reunited for a homeaway.com commercial. Any time you’re destroying icons from my childhood, I need a warning or a heads up. Anything. Come on.
8:46: Brees to Devery Henderson for 12. Another first down. That reminds me, I had a chapter in my book about the 33 Greatest What Ifs in NBA history. After last night, isn’t “What if the 2006 Dolphins had pursued Brees instead of stupidly going after Daunte Culpepper?” undeniably the best football “What If?” of this decade? If Miami gets Brees, the Saints don’t win Super Bowl XLIV; Nick Saban doesn’t flee Miami as quickly as he did, or at the very least, doesn’t go to Alabama (now we’re swinging this year’s NCAA title as well); the AFC would have the four best QBs (Brees, Rivers, Brady and Manning); Miami’s future is obviously altered; and the Saints are almost definitely playing in San Antonio right now. Good golly.
8:49: Garrett Hartley crushes a 47-yarder. Good. Colts 17, Saints 16. You know it’s been a bad year for field goal kicking when it seemed legitimately surprising every time someone made a long one. He’s made three from 40-plus already and is reaching “OK, let’s see him pee in a cup” territory. FYI: Here’s the point of the game where I became excited that my “Colts 31, Saints 23” prediction had a legitimate chance. Just let me enjoy this for an extra second. (Pause.) Thank you.
8:50: Still disappointed that “Greg Oden’s penis” didn’t make the Google search ad.
8:52: Underrated moment: Chad Simpson fielding the Saints kickoff 4 yards deep in the end zone, then getting tackled at the 11. Indy’s special teams murdered the Colts this game.
8:56: The first noticeable sign that Manning might be rattled: He hits Austin Collie with a first-down pass at the Indy 29, then loses track of time and can’t get off another play before the end of the third quarter. I remember thinking, “Hmmmm …” at the time. Although I had no idea we were in Manning Face range. God, this is fun to rewatch. It almost makes up for having to spend the past three months watching Rasheed Wallace. Almost.
8:57: This can only be one place. The Masters. On CBS. Huge. Quickly.
8:59: Idea for a “SportsCenter” game show segment: Show contestants various pictures of Jim Caldwell during Super Bowl XLIV, then ask them to guess the quarter and the score. I think this would be riveting.
Contestant: “Um, I’m gonna say that’s his reaction in the first quarter, right after Garcon caught his touchdown pass.”
Host: “No! I’m sorry, that was his reaction after Manning threw his interception touchdown.”
9:00: Manning hits Garcon for a first down to the Colts’ 46. Remember that crappy kickoff return? They should be over midfield right now. Three plays later, Manning hits Wayne on a crucial fourth-and-2 pass from the Saints’ 46 — first down, 32-yard line. That’s a 57-yard drive and they aren’t even in field goal range yet. Special teams, special teams, special teams.
9:05: The crucial series of the game: Addai for 2 yards, Collie for minus-3 on a receiver screen, Manning misses Collie deep down the middle. Fourth-and-11 from the 34. (You might remember the 2007 Pats facing a similar predicament in Super Bowl XLII: An eight-minute drive to start the second half that ended when they foolishly went for it on fourth-and-13 from New York’s 31. Incomplete pass to Gaffney. Momentum shift. Sadly, I didn’t have to look this up.) Caldwell’s avatar calls for a 51-yard field goal. Hooks left. Saints ball on the 41. Momentum shift.
We saw two situations last night that drive me crazy when they are mismanaged. The first was New Orleans going for it on fourth-and-goal in the first half. I believe you go for it every time. By settling for three points, you’re giving up 20-30 yards of field position. If you score a touchdown, it’s a huge boost for your team. If you don’t get it, the other team is trapped down there and you’re probably getting the ball back at midfield, anyway. It perplexes me when teams kick in that spot. Same for screwing up those fourth-and-longs from the 30-35-yard range — if you don’t have a kicker who can definitely make it, pin them inside the 10 with a punt. The three points aren’t worth the possibility of NOT making it. Right?
9:08: Reggie Bush starts the Saints’ drive by barreling over midfield to the Indy 47, inching us a little closer to the incredible scenario of two Kardashian sisters shaking Obama’s hand in a six-month span. (How much more fun would that have been if Clinton was still president?) They’re already over midfield. Like you, I started calculating the “OK, so they’ll score a touchdown, miss the two-point conversion to only lead by five, then Manning will charge down the field and win it but not cover” sequence.
(Confession time: Before the game, I did a six-point teaser in which I teased the Colts to +1.5 and the under to 63.5. At halftime, concerned about the pro-Saints crowd — and knowing the under was a lock — I hedged by taking the Saints +0.5 in the second half. So basically, if the Colts won by four or less, I won both bets. So Colts 24, Saints 22 was my dream scenario at this specific point of the game. You know, if gambling were legal.)
9:12: Six straight completions for Brees. First down at the Indy 5. Combining his 2008 season (second-most passing yards ever) with this season (winning a Super Bowl, outplaying Warner, Favre and Manning in the playoffs) and his Super Bowl performance (32-of-39, 288 yards, no picks, no fumbles, complete control), as well as what he means to his team and his city, I guess the biggest shocker coming out of Super Bowl XLIV is that Drew Brees is clearly the best quarterback alive right now. By any calculation. I had a different answer for that question as recently as 24 hours ago. Gotta love sports.
9:13: Thomas runs to Indy’s 2, followed by a sideline shot of Manning sitting on the bench and looking like someone sitting on an airplane who is going to start peeing on himself if he doesn’t go in the next two minutes, only the flight attendant won’t let him get up yet.
(Good God, that’s the Manning Face’s music! I thought you were dead!)
9:14: Touchdown, Shockey. During my bachelor party in 2003, we rode an elevator to the Palms’ rooftop nightclub with him and his female, um, companion. My No. 1 troublemaking friend, Cousin Sal, was in there with us. The elevator started going up and we all waited for Sal to do something. Finally, he screamed out, “Shock-ehhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!” like a Giants fan would. Shockey laughed. A few seconds passed. Sal did it again. Now Shockey was half-dying for the elevator to get to the top, though he was definitely a little banged up and enjoying the comedy. Sal did it four or five more times. We were rolling. Then the doors opened and Shockey wobbled out with a smile on his face as Sal belted out one last time, “Shock-ehhhhhhhhhh!”
The point is this: If you had offered me a “What’s more likely, Shockey making a game-winning catch in a Super Bowl or joining the ‘Surreal Life’ some day?” wager, I would have gone heavy on the “Surreal Life.” I mean, HEAVY.
9:18: They’re showing replays of Lance Moore’s 2-point conversion. I’ve seen this rule called both ways and there’s no rhyme or reason to it — sometimes they give it to the receiver, sometimes they play the “no, he didn’t keep possession for long enough when he hit the ground” card. It really depends on the game and which team the NFL wants to win. You can’t tell me differently.
9:19: Saints 24, Colts 17. Not only is the Manning Face cooking with gas right now, but the Saints coaching staff just broke the Super Bowl record for “most swinging fist pumps.” It’s almost as though they took a class to perfect them.
9:21: Let’s be honest: The Denny’s free Grand Slam sounds fantastic until you’re actually eating it. It’s like getting a free Thai massage or a free DVD of “John From Cincinnati.”
9:23: First down from the 30 … false start, Colts. I should mention that, at this specific point, I didn’t even care about losing my bets. I wanted an epic Colts collapse for the same reason Colts fans (and really, everyone else) rooted for the epic Pats collapse two years ago. Throw in what that game meant to the city of New Orleans and some things just trump gambling.
9:24: After the 17-yard pass to Garcon for a first down, Manning nearly gets picked by Malcolm Jenkins on an awful throw to Wayne. Hmmmm. Meanwhile, Simms tells us that New Orleans went into the game with three defensive game plans — one for the first half, one for the third quarter, and one for the fourth — reminding us once again that we’re headed for a giant scandal some day when an NFL announcer with a gambling problem uses covert inside info from the coach’s meetings for his own benefits. It will happen in our lifetime.
9:25: Two straight first-down throws. Suddenly we’re on the Saints’ 36. I remember thinking, “Great, they’ll tie it, then whichever teams wins the coin toss will march down and score, and we’ll have to hear about how to fix overtime for the next nine months. Shoot me.”
(FYI: I know how to fix it. Win the toss and score a touchdown, game over. Make a field goal on the opening drive and the opponent gets one possession of its own. From there, sudden death rules. Find a hole in that idea. You can’t.)
9:25: Manning to Wayne (lined up on the left) on a quick slant for 5. Tackled by Tracy Porter. Hold this thought.
9:26: Manning misses Collie over the middle and gets popped. Third down and 5. Timeout for an injured Saint, 3:24 to go. Everything is about to change.
9:29: Nantz: “Picked off! Look out … and it’s Tracy Porter taking it all the way! Touchdown, New Orleans!”
You’re not going to believe this, but I have a couple of thoughts …
1. The Colts ran the exact same play from two plays before, only with Collie in motion behind Wayne so it looked slightly different. Porter sniffed it out like a basset hound.
2. Manning. Face.
3. A long interception touchdown in a big moment is the single most exciting play to see in person at a football game, narrowly edging a touchdown bomb, a punt return TD and any time JaMarcus Russell tries to complete a pass longer than 3 yards. You can see the guy break better in person, and if the crowd is leaning toward that team anyway, the fans (usually dead, with only two exceptions this past decade: Rams-Pats and Giants-Pats) make a noise that they just don’t make for any other play. At Super Bowl XXXVI, Ty Law’s pick of Kurt Warner in the second quarter played out the same way — brief glimpse of the future, can he get it … yes!, and then the guy flying the other way. Magnificent to watch. Anyone who cares about sports needs to be in the building for one of those just once.
4. The fact that Manning got blocked from behind while trying to make the tackle will always be the elephant in the room of Super Bowl XLIV. I’m sorry. The play was so freaking exciting that I didn’t even notice it the first 45 times I watched it. Same for the refs, probably. But a clip is a clip.
5. I thought Simms and Nantz were fine. I like them. But Manning’s pass was so horrendous at such a huge moment that NOT calling him out for it just seemed strange. He had a chance to be immortal if the Colts won that game; instead, troublemakers like me get to make Manning Face jokes and point out that Manning lost seven career playoff games that were up for grabs in the fourth quarter. In fact:
Montana, playoffs: 16-7
Brady, playoffs: 14-4
Elway, playoffs: 14-8
Favre, playoffs: 13-11
Warner, playoffs: 9-4
Manning, playoffs: 9-9
Roethlisberger, playoffs: 8-2
So it was a classic “Sliding Doors” moment: If Manning comes through and Indy prevails, his résumé becomes impenetrable. But that pass prevented it from happening, and also, it might be the worst pass ever thrown in a big modern moment by a great quarterback not named “Favre.” (Seriously, can you think of another one?) It’s the distant cousin of Brady two Februarys ago: If the Giants don’t score on the Tyree drive, Brady wins his fourth Super Bowl, clinches a 19-0 season and becomes immortal. Everything changed for him during that drive, and now, who knows? Same for Manning.
Anyway, you know what happened the rest of the way: The Colts drove down one more time and stalled inside the 5; we saw a few more Manning Faces; Sean Payton got doused with Gatorade and unleashed a few more swinging fist pumps; the game went under; Jim Caldwell blinked once; everyone who bet on Brees for Super Bowl MVP (3-to-1) over the Saints money line (+180) high-fived themselves; and best of all, something good happened for the city of New Orleans. I wish I could have been there to see it. Alas.
Some farewell thoughts from the readers that trickled into my mailbox over the past 24 hours:
Amazing. In the space of three minutes, Audi made all environmentalists look like fascists, Phil Simms encourages the Saints not to blitz while they blitz and pick Manning off, Manning subsequently makes a classic Manning face, and the Vegas casinos get torched on the line and all the defensive TD props. Only in America.
— Julian, San Francisco
Simmons, you ignored your own rule. Saints owner Tom Benson donated a ton of money to a Nashville convent last year and the nuns have been praying for the Saints all year. You cannot bet against God and puppies.
— Jason, Naples, Fla.
Watching the end of the third quarter, I knew the game was over right then. Manning had no idea the game clock was about to run out and he looked lost. Would the new Manning do this? No, but the pre-2007 Manning definitely would. He looked rattled.
— Brandon, Sandy Springs
I now await the Colts attempting to ban the onsides kick in the next competition committee meeting.
— Mike, Alexandria, Va.
So I was thinking that the people of New Orleans owe some amount of thanks to Ashton Kutcher for their Super Bowl victory. Prior to being punked, Frankie Muniz was a spoiled little rich kid. The world got to watch Malcolm cry when he believed that his car was stolen. But he went on to grow a pair of stones, take over the head coaching position for the Saints, and ultimately make one of the ballsiest calls in Super Bowl history.
— Matt, Irvine, Calif.
Do people realize that if Reche Caldwell could catch, Peyton Manning would still be without a Super Bowl ring?
— Pierre Palo, Ames, Iowa
I guess you could say the loss must be killing Caldwell, but he’s already dead. I am convinced that this loss was all about karma. Caldwell’s decision to mail it in against the Jets in the regular season was the equivalent of the F-U wins by the patriots. Football gods punish!
— Brett, Philadelphia
I’d sure like to know if somewhere there was a “Meaningful Game” record for a team that we could see. Including playoffs, games for home field, etc. I bet the Colts are about 6-30. Better yet, don’t find this out. Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison are like guys who are only funny around ugly girls, who then get introduced to the pretty girls and then have panic attacks. I’m sleeping outside tonight in a snow drift. Bury me in my Drew Brees Purdue jersey. Serve lots of beer at the wake.
— JDT, Indianapolis
I would argue that this Super Bowl is a honorary Level 1 loss. You have one of the greatest QBs of all time at the top of his game. Clutch all year with multiple comebacks. Thinking you are sitting on gold. And you lose. Not because the other team made an amazing play. Not because another Colt fumbled the game away. But because the face of your franchise, the guy you assume can carry your team through anything. One of the last true “field generals” just threw the game away at the most crucial point. It even has a catchy name: “The Interception” or “The INT” or “The Pick.”
— Daniel, Berrien Springs, Mich.
Peyton Manning and Bobby Cox are both considered great, especially during the regular season, but both of them are completely incapable of realizing the game isn’t going their way, adjusting the game plan, and executing. In my opinion, that is the mark of a champion and a great player. Minus Dave Justice and a city known for choking worse than the Braves, my city would still be without a championship, ever. Minus a mediocre Bears team, so would Peyton Manning.
— Kyle, Atlanta
Was it me, or did Betty White give more effort in that Snickers commercial then Peyton did on that interception return? Good golly, he got pushed down like Abe Vigoda! And I think it was the corpse of Bea Arthur that shoved him down! Meannnnnnwhile, he was pointing over to someone (ref, teammate, etc.) AND THE FACE RETURNED! HE NEVER REMOVED HIS HELMET AND THE FACE RETURNED! YES!
— Rick B., Chesapeake, Va.
To me the turning point in the game was Caldwell trotting out a geriatric kicker to try a 500-yard field goal. The miss gave the Saints great field position, which they used to march down the field (get it? Saints, marching
never mind) and score the winning TD. This same scenario was the turning point in the Colts’ win over the Jets in the AFC Championship Game a mere two weeks ago. How could Caldwell possibly forget that?
— Reid, Indianapolis
I thought I’d gotten over the whole Brees/Culpepper fiasco. But now Brees has a ring that he won on our home turf, Saban went undefeated after snaking us
give me a reason why I shouldn’t jump off the Biscayne bridge.
— Rick, Miami
I have been a Colts fan for a long time (since we sucked back in the early ’90s) and I must say I have never been this angry at team management in my life. At least we could have tried for 18-1 instead of going 16-3 and having the exact same prize (nothing) to show for it. If we go on an extended championship drought, I will always point back to this year and curse the name of Bill Polian for resting our starters.
— Howard, Dubuque, Iowa
I’m sitting in my bed having just returned from the French Quarter, where I watched the Saints win the Super Bowl. I can’t stop crying. And like, I know I’m a chick, but this is a different kind of tears altogether. Is this love?
— Stephanie, New Orleans
I love the Colts. I love The Who. I became an atheist after last night. Thanks for listening.
— Dominic Eiser, Wichita, Kan.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller, “The Book of Basketball.” For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.