Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning is the matchup that tops this Super Bowl’s marquee, without question. It is understandably the easy talking point. I mean, quarterbacks tend to own the SB stage, and this duel is far better than most: the Panthers’ brash Newton in his national coming-out party as a fully formed superstar vs. the aging Manning in what could be the future Hall of Famer’s farewell to football.
Adding to the intrigue: Newton still is only the fifth black starting quarterback in Super Bowl history, after Doug Williams (1987 season), Steve McNair (1999), Donovan McNabb (2004) and Russell Wilson (twice, 2013 and ’14). Also, there has never been a greater age disparity in Super QBs than Manning’s 39 to Newton’s 26. And, perhaps, biggest of all, this may indeed mark what Manning called his “last rodeo.”
All very fine and good, yes. But Newton vs. Manning as a starting point for what will steer Sunday’s result is a bit of a false narrative. Quarterbacks don’t face each other.
No, the duel that will most define who wins this golden Super Bowl and NFL championship likely will be Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula vs. Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Kid Shula must find a way to let Cam be Cam versus a Broncos defense that for me is the best in the NFL — and sure looked it in beating Pittsburgh and New England earlier the playoffs. In turn, Phillips, a coaching lifer in the league since 1976, must devise a way for his unit to limit a Panthers offense that has been all but unstoppable.
Denver’s best path to an upset isn’t relying on creaky old Manning to be a hero. It is for that defense to (reasonably) contain Newton.
For anyone who’s been around long enough to recall when the Miami Dolphins were good, Shula vs. Phillips has echoes of the past, when these men’s fathers also dueled.
You wouldn’t call Don Shula vs. Oail “Bum” Phillips a rivalry, exactly. They went face to face only six times when their head coaching careers intersected from 1975 to ‘85. And it certainly was not a bitter rivalry. Shula disliked Buddy Ryan, Rex’s son, but had no problem with Wade’s father Bum.
The elders didn’t meet a lot but are forever linked by Bum’s famous quote in praise of Don, words best recalled in Phillips’ slow and homespun Texas drawl beneath that white Stetson he always wore:
“He can take his’n and beat your’n,” he once said of Shula, “or he can take your’n and beat his’n.”
(I like another Bum quote even more: “There’s two kinds of coaches. Them that’s fired, and them that’s gonna be fired.”).
Now, a generation later, Son of Bum, 68, and Kid Shula, 50, continue what their daddies started. Don Shula, now 86, flew out to Santa Clara, Calif. to cheer for Mike’s Panthers on Sunday. Bum Phillips passed away in 2013 at age 90.
That their sons are now meeting in the ultimate game reminds us how precious and rare reaching a Super Bowl can be.
This marks Mike Shula’s first Super Bowl appearance in his 24th season as an NFL assistant coach.
It is only Wade Phillips’ second time in an SB in 38 years as a head coach or assistant. He was Denver’s defensive coordinator in the 1989-season SB when his troops got clobbered by San Francisco, 55-10.
Twenty-six years later, after five stops in between, he’s back in Denver with the same job title, but armed with far better players this time. The Broncos have great cornerbacks led by Aqib Talib and a great pass rush that starts with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
Manning will have to do his part Sunday, yes, and that starts with making the Super Bowl a fourth straight game with no interceptions. But it is when Manning is on the bench that the Broncos will forge this victory in an upset.
By the way, I mentioned that Don Shula and Bum Phillips met six times as head coaches, with that famous quote suggesting Shula had his way.
In fact, Bum was 5-1 against The Don including a 1978 playoff victory.
The betting odds strongly favor Don’s son on Sunday, but I have a strong hunch Bum’s kid will be keeping alive the family tradition.
Denver Broncos 23, Carolina Panthers 20.
Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at miamiherald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.