TAMPA, Fla. – Within seconds everything kept changing.
This is how it is in today’s NFL. The greatness doesn’t come over long drives with plenty of grinding and banging by the lines.
Rather it came in the moment it took Kurt Warner to fire a pass over the middle to wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who sprinted half the length of Raymond James Stadium for a touchdown that seemed to deliver the Super Bowl to the Arizona Cardinals with the unimaginable thought of Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill holding the Super Bowl trophy in his hands.
But, in the length of time it took Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to fire two late-game passes to wide receiver Santonio Holmes – one to set up the winning touchdown, the other a miraculous catch in the back of the end zone to seal this 27-23 victory in Super Bowl XLIII – greatness went the other way.
There will be so many things people will remember about this, maybe the greatest Super Bowl yet. Picking one will be impossible.
Realize this may just be the way it is going to be from now on in professional football.
In two straight Super Bowls now we have seen the greatest play in the game’s history. Last year it was an unknown Giants wide receiver named David Tyree who caught a pass from Eli Manning with the ball somehow pressed against his helmet as he tumbled to the ground on a reception that still defies explanation.
And now James Harrison, a player no one had heard much of until two years ago, when he suddenly blossomed into a star linebacker for the Steelers, jumped in front of a Warner pass at the goal line and rumbled past lunging, stumbling Cardinals and into history as he plummeted breathlessly into the end zone 100 yards away in what must be the finest feat of endurance we have seen in a game like this.
Or maybe it was Holmes’s catch in the back of the end zone?
Who in the mayhem of Sunday night could really choose?
Several times Sunday, Warner stood a yard away from writing his legacy as a Hall of Fame quarterback. If his quick flick of the ball actually had landed in the hands of his wide receiver Anquan Boldin, standing just over the goal line right before halftime, Arizona would have taken a 14-10 lead in this Super Bowl, with the comfort of knowing it would have the ball to start the second half. Given the way Arizona was playing at the time, marching through the Steelers with such ease and rattling Roethlisberger, the halftime lead would have held. The Steelers would have been done.
Instead, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called for Harrison to play a trick, to pretend he was going to leap forward and charge at Warner in a blitz, then just before the ball was snapped, jump backward to the goal line in pass defense. Warner, who always notices when defenders blitz, had to have seen Harrison move and anticipated the rush even before the ball was in his hands because the moment he took the snap he fired for Boldin who was standing in the space Harrison vacated to rush Warner.
Only in the second it took for Warner to propel the ball from his hand, Harrison had dropped back in his previous space. Rather than land in Boldin’s waiting arms, the pass went straight into Harrison’s hands and by then it was only a matter of whether he could make it all the way to the south end zone in without being tackled and the half ran out.
“It was a great call by Dick LeBeau,” John Madden marveled on NBC.
But Warner came back. He came back with a fury, firing passes all over the fourth quarter, nailing Fitzgerald with the throw that looked like the winner. The Cardinals jumped in the air, the Steelers looked stunned. Warner had done the impossible, reviving not one but two franchises left for NFL dead, delivering them as Super Bowl winners. Surely this would land him in Canton.
Then Roethlisberger came back, flinging throws of his own. Seconds flew as the ball did too. And when Holmes jumped in the back of the north end zone, the ball sticking in his hands as he fell to the turf, his two feet still tucked up against the edge of the sideline for what must be one of the great Super Bowl catches ever, legacies had changed again.
How fast everything changes.