A certain Hall of Fame quarterback in what will likely be his final game. A superstar in waiting on the big stage for the first time.

The NFL couldn't have scripted this Super Bowl much better. Peyton Manning and Cam Newton are the stars, but there will be no shortage of storylines to chew on as the Super Bowl returns to the Bay Area for the first time in 31 years.

Even the possibility of El Nino interfering with the festivities seems like a minor annoyance unless, of course, the fat cats have to sit in the rain to watch the game.

Too bad it took so much ugly football along the way to get this far.

No, it's not reflected in the TV ratings, which for the most part were stronger than ever. Fans still packed stadiums, and cities continued to battle over the right to give taxpayer money to billionaire owners.

But the football we watched this season - despite many exciting finishes - seemed at times almost unwatchable. That was true even deep into the playoffs, where bad fundamentals, poor officiating and scratch-your-head coaching decisions made you wonder at times just why professional football is the nation's favorite sport.

No one seems to know how to tackle anymore, as evidenced by the missed tackles that helped Carolina blow open its game against Arizona to get to the Super Bowl. The worry when the NFL cracked down on blows to the head and neck was that the game would become less violent, but what it's really become is less skilled.

Meanwhile, headhunters still roam from sideline to sideline, undeterred by the NFL's half-hearted efforts to clean up the game.

Sure, Cincinnati's Vontaze Burfict will be suspended for three games next season for a series of questionable hits culminating in one final blow to the head of Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown. But that's little consolation to Steeler fans, who saw their team barely miss getting by Denver while missing their star receiver because of the concussion Burfict gave him.

If anyone needs a reminder about what can happen to players getting hit repeatedly in the head, we got one last week with the grim story of former Giants safety Tyler Sash. An examination of his head after his death last September from an accidental overdose of pain killers showed the 27-year-old had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease most likely caused by hits to the head.

Those hits remain the most pressing issue facing the league, which had at least 12 players put on the season ending injured reserve list this season because of concussions. Yes, football is a brutal sport, but the price some players are paying goes far beyond what they signed up for.

But the product the league puts on the field has other issues, too. Offensive line play is sloppy, receivers who can sometimes make spectacular one-handed catches all too often drop easy two-handed ones, and going deep means a 20-yard pass at most.

Meanwhile, all the decision to move back the extra point attempt did was introduce another element of false randomness into the game. The idea that New England may have lost out on a chance at the Super Bowl because of it will haunt Patriot fans far longer than Deflategate.

The games themselves meander in fits and stops that make it difficult to achieve any real flow. Many times games are stopped for timeouts after touchdowns, resume for a kickoff, then go immediately back to commercials before play begins again.

And then there are officials who can't keep up with the speed of the game and way too often have to caucus and then turn to replays to try and get it straight.

In some cases, including the NFL's convoluted definition of a catch, they defy common sense. In others, they resemble the funny TV commercial where the referees gather together and acknowledge they didn't see what happened.

Some of the stuff you can't even make up, like the overtime coin flip that wasn't in Green Bay's playoff loss to Arizona. With the seasons of both teams on the line, that was the best they could do?

Parity, meanwhile, continues to take a toll. Everyone has become so equal that many games are decided by a lucky bounce or a short missed kick. It's gotten so bad that even the bookies in Vegas find it hard to figure out who might win.

This Super Bowl may rise above that. It has the right recipe to be memorable.

But for the NFL to continue to flourish it has to pay as much attention to what it puts on the field as it does to how much money owners can put in their pockets.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg