One of the most memorable moments of Super Bowl XLVIII occurred very near the kickoff. Perhaps you can picture it as Peyton Manning, the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, turns to watch something passing overhead; and the television closeup of his eyes hints at how completely unexpected the moment was. I watched it and thought, “Wow, I hope that didn’t rattle him,” and then “What else isn’t he prepared for?…”
There’s only one problem. You and I are almost certainly thinking about two different moments. If you watched the game from the outset, you undoubtedly think I am describing the well-documented first play from scrimmage (above), in which the Denver center, Manny Ramirez, snapped the ball prematurely, not realizing that Manning was stepping back up to the line for one of his oft-of-late “Omaha moments.” The ball flew past his head, which the cameras captured, and for the briefest instant his eyes registered… what? Surprise, disbelief, terror? But that was Manning’s second flyover, to which I’ll return below.
His first flyover, which was the subject of my opening paragraph above, had occurred a few minutes earlier. Renée Fleming’s singing of the national anthem was followed climactically by fireworks and the abrupt, noisy, very low-altitude appearance above MetLife Stadium of three clusters of helicopters from the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division. There is no denying the thrilling impact of this display on the crowd, to judge from amateur videos taken inside the stadium by fans and from inside one of the helicopters by a crew member. But the impact on Manning? Not so thrilling. Chilling might be more like it.
Here is an animated GIF created by Next Impulse Sports from the Fox Sports feed:
Pete Blackburn of Next Impulse Sports offered only this fun-poking afterthought about the animated GIF: “…Peyton Manning was catching a glimpse of the first helicopter he had ever seen in his life.”
Maybe there is no disbelief or terror, but there is surprise for sure (as the quote above implies), plus a furrowed-brow hint of annoyance, of something not quite going according to plan. And, if we know one thing about Peyton Manning, it is that he plans and prepares thoroughly, perhaps like no other quarterback ever. Nonetheless, watching it happen live, I felt certain that he didn’t know this flyover was coming. Broncos Coach John Fox ran practices with loud crowd noise, but apparently not with helicopters overhead. While I’m not suggesting that this first flyover was premonitory for the second one, like radon leaks or snakes crawling out of the ground before an earthquake, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a psychological (not psychic!) connection when that errant snap from center went sailing past his head a few minutes later. Something like, “OK, maybe he is a bit distracted.”
After that, it was all downhill. The Seattle Seahawks were simply overwhelming, and the Denver Broncos never recovered. Nor did Peyton Manning, perhaps from either flyover.
As for an explanation of the second flyover, after the game Manning told reporters, “We were using the snap count on the play and due to the noise no one could hear me. I was walking up to the line of scrimmage to sort of make a change and get us on the same page and then the ball was snapped.” Manny Ramirez (Broncos center) concurred: “It was real loud and we’re trying to go on a cadence and I thought I heard him [emphasis added]. I didn’t, you know. He was already walking up to me because he had already said the cadence and I snapped it.”
Or maybe he did hear “Peyton.” The only thing that has gone more unnoticed than Manning’s reaction to the helicopters is a brief interview on KIRO-TV (Ch. 7, the CBS affiliate in Seattle; direct link here) with Seahawks fan Mark DeRawls[?], who was seated in row 15 behind the end zone where the safety was scored. According to the interview, DeRawls, a self-proclaimed Manning-sound-alike, shouted “Omaha!” as the Broncos were lined up, and he is sure that his shout “got through [to Ramirez], and he hiked the ball.”
Interestingly, there is an independent observation and analysis that is compatible with this version of events. In a February 4 article, the CBSBoston duo of Feiger and Massarotti reported this comment from former Patriots tight end Jermaine Wiggins:
I put [the fault] squarely on Peyton Manning’s shoulders. I looked back at it over and over from different angles, and it’s one thing when the center snaps the ball and he thinks it’s on a different cadence and he’s the only one that moves. But when you got the whole offensive line moving in concert, everyone from left tackle to right tackle, everybody is moving – so that’s on the quarterback.
Put those two things together, and perhaps the Broncos line moved on the snap because they heard a Peyton, rather than the Peyton. This is potentially testable, by seeing if DeRawl’s 12th Man shout of “Omaha!” can actually be identified as a component in the soundtrack of the game, at precisely the right moment to have triggered the snap. Profound, if true. [Aside to John Brenkus: How good is your waveform analysis equipment?]
All of which leaves one final question: What does “Omaha!” actually mean? What is so important about shouting this word that a false hearing of it might have started the Broncos down the slippery slope of losing the Super Bowl? John Breech of CBS Sports gave us Peyton Manning’s answer as of mid-January:
I know a lot of people ask what Omaha means…. Omaha is a run play, but it could be a pass play or a play-action pass, depending on a couple things: which way we’re going, the quarter, and the jerseys that we’re wearing. It varies, really, from play to play. So, there’s your answer to that one.
Yeah, and it also depends on whether the day of the week ends in “y.” Thanks for nothing, Peyton. But your words no longer matter. Your actions give us the real answer. Regardless of the cause of the second flyover, the answer was obvious from the first one. Omaha is not a real or fake audible, but an acronym, OMAHA: “Oh My, A Helicopter Above!”