The strangest coaching decision during Super Bowl week wasn't when Bill Belichick ordered his defense to act like matadors and wave Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw by for a touchdown from 6 yards out with less than a minute left in the game. That's just the one people will remember. The really odd one came four days earlier when the uber-prepared Patriots coach, anticipating a halftime show that would dictate a 30-minute intermission rather than the usual 12, ordered his players to take a break from practicing football and practice sitting in the locker room for a half-hour instead.
They missed Madonna! And that guy on the tightrope! Not to mention that moment when another of her sidekicks, the rapper M.I.A., saluted a worldwide TV audience using only one finger!
NBC didn't, of course, although the censor who was at the switch for such a moment turned out to be slow on the draw. The NFL didn't miss it, either, touching off a whole other kind of finger-pointing afterward over who was to blame.
"The NFL hired the talent and produced the halftime show," NBC said in a statement. "Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture and we apologize to our viewers."
"There was a failure in NBC's delay system," the league's statement said. "The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing, and we apologize to our fans."
The problem with stepping out on the edge is that every so often — just like Bradshaw toppling into the end zone despite his best intentions — you're going to come down on the wrong side of the line. That lesson was supposedly learned when Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at halftime of the 2004 Super Bowl sparked an overwrought national debate about moral decay and prompted the Federal Communications Commission to slap CBS with a record $550,000 fine. The fine was eventually voided, after five years of legal wrangling that reached all the way up to the Supreme Court and then back to a federal appeals court. The NFL vowed MTV would never produce another halftime show, but as this latest one proved, the suits in charge aren't as risk-averse as their buttoned-down image might suggest. Otherwise, they would have exhumed Lawrence Welk and put him out on the stage.
Hype was an important commodity back in the days when the Super Bowl was getting started. The late Lamar Hunt, who started as an AFL owner and wound up with the Kansas City Chiefs, came up with the title for the game after watching his kids bounce a "Super Ball" around the house, and he's generally credited with the idea of attaching Roman numerals to distinguish each one, hoping to make the whole event seem more, well, magisterial. From those humble beginnings — a high school drill team, two college bands and trumpeter Al Hirt headlined halftime in Super Bowl I — a juggernaut arose.
The game was still the major entertainment this year, but just barely. What takes place before and after the game has made the NFL a player in the entertainment business as well as the undisputed king of the American sports scene. Some 7,000 fans forked over $25 each just to watch reporters do their jobs on the field during media day, plus a few more bucks for a headset to listen to the interviews. Gisele Bundchen, the supermodel wife of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, made the front page of the New York Post three days before the game, after the paper got hold of an email she reportedly sent to friends and family that asked them to pray for her husband to win. Then she doubled down after the game, caught on a video responding to heckling from Giants fans by saying, "My husband cannot (expletive) throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time."
Celebrities have been drawn like flies to the event for some time now, but camera phones and a growing number of entertainment reporters and websites are ferreting out the sideshows that used to remain largely private affairs. Given the NFL's growing appetite for cross-marketing, it won't be long before the league borrows some ideas from the Oscars and rolls out the red carpet before the game, then televises both teams' after-parties. Judging by the some of the videos that are already out there — showing Rob Gronkowski and several New England teammates dancing in various stages of undress, a few alongside rapper LMFAO on a stage while the crowd yells "Shots!" — there's plenty of entertainment yet to be mined.
By comparison, the winning New York Giants' celebrations looked tame. Brandon Jacobs reportedly had a message for Mrs. Brady during New York's victory parade — "she just needs to continue to be cute and shut up" — but more characteristic of the team's approach was quarterback Eli Manning's appearance on "Late Show with David Letterman." He walked on with Queen's "We Are the Champions" blaring as his entrance music and got a standing ovation before he landed in the guest's chair. But his material was strictly PG-rated.
"When you win a championship, it's a team. It's a team coming together, and that's exactly what we did," Manning said. "I was happy for a lot of the guys. This is their first Super Bowl, so I think when you have one, that second one, you really do it for the other guys who've never had that experience."
Too bad nobody had a cellphone camera when Barry Switzer, the renegade college coach, won a Super Bowl a few years after leaving Oklahoma and taking over the Dallas Cowboys. He ran into one of players heading for the soiree scheduled to start in his hotel suite and basically disavowed any responsibility for what was to follow by yelling, "Let's win the party!"
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.