Monday, February 04, 2013

The Morning After: Super Bowl 47

One always must be careful when they are hours from an event to not get carried away with superlatives and labels and proclamations that this was one of the best things someone has ever seen, only to re-read accounts a year or two later and realize that it missed the mark with its historical value.

However, in terms of getting a Super Bowl that seemed to contain just about everything, I would have to believe that Super Bowl 47 will stand the test of time.  This game was filled with everything.  Including a blow-out and a nail-biter in the very same game.  Hard to believe, but this particular Super Bowl continued a string of high drama Super Bowls that goes back now 6 big games.  If you start with the first Patriots-Giants games, continue with Steelers-Cardinals, on through Manning's Pick-6 against the Saints as the Colts were driving to tie with 3:24 to go, the Packer-Steelers, Giants-Patriots again, and now this?  Awesome, awesome stuff.

In the history of the NFL championship game re-labeled the Super Bowl, you have to go back a long, long way to find even 3 consecutive close games that were in doubt late in the 4th Quarter.  In fact, I searched all the way back to World War 2 - long before the 2-minute warning existed - and did not see a string of 3.  So, since we are at 6 and counting, this is a fantastic string of drama we are on.

But, who ever saw this game being full of drama late?  At 28-6, we had thoughts of all of the many blow-outs in Super Bowl history, including several in this very city and this very stadium.  This one had Cowboys-Broncos, Raiders-Eagles, Bears-Patriots, and 49ers-Broncos written all over it early in the 3rd Quarter.

And then the unforgettable story-line of the power outage hit right after Jacoby Jones had appeared to have locked up the Super Bowl MVP award given that he had his handprint on the two most exciting plays of the game to that point.  35 minutes we sat there and wondered what was going to happen next as the Superdome had lost huge grids of lights and power.  CBS scrambled to find anyone who could still use their equipment as it was clear Jim Nantz and Phil Simms could not.  Finally, after plenty of $4 million-a-piece commercials ran in a row, a disheveled Steve Tasker took to the microphone and tried to explain what was happening.

Given that it was only 98 seconds into the 2nd half, it was a very odd stoppage to an already elongated intermission for the Super Bowl and Beyonce.  The effects of the 2nd intermission and the almost 90 minutes the Ravens offense went between snaps will be long debated, but now, given that they survived the 49ers rally, it will be but a footnote in history.

It was 28-6 when the lights returned, only for the 49ers to then score on the first 3 possessions that started after play resumed.  Michael Crabtree broke tackles and scored, then Frank Gore barreled in on a beautiful sweep, and then the Niners stubbed their toe and settled for a FG that was first missed and then made after a penalty for running into the kicker, putting the score at 28-23, Ravens, with 3:04 left in the 3rd Quarter.

At this juncture of the game, we would find out plenty about the Ravens.  In particular, we would find out plenty about their coach, John Harbaugh and their QB, Joe Flacco.  They would not be required to play the final 18 minutes of the game against a rolling 49ers squad that has momentum and swagger, and arguably a better roster.

Harbaugh, one year older than his more famous younger brother, Jim, had a number of occasions this year where he had to make decisions.  And there are many where he decided to make the very aggressive choice.  The biggest one over the course of the season was to fire his offensive coordinator, the very respected Cam Cameron, on December 10th, when the team sat at 9-4 and had a 2 game lead in their division.

I can only imagine the controversy this might have caused locally, if the Cowboys would ever do something so bold and dare I say, reckless, when sitting so close to the playoffs with a divisional crown seemingly in the bag.  They then lost 2 of their final 3 games to finish 10-6 and entered the playoffs with the #4 seed and certainly could not be called one of the hottest teams entering the tournament, since they had lost 4 of 5 in December.

Harbaugh also called a game yesterday that seemed opposite of risk-aversion.  He was rolling the dice with a fake field goal that seemed ridiculous at the time, up 14-3.  He also called or at least authorized the call of the 3rd and 1 back-shoulder fade to Anquan Boldin, when it appeared to be a perfect time to ask Ray Rice to get you 1 yard after Jim Harbaugh properly challenged a spot the play before.  This call with 7 minutes to go is another case - like the fake FG - that if it doesn't work, it will be one of the plays that will get him barbecued.  It is a classic case of stepping away from conventional wisdom and taking a chance.  A chance that shows faith in a QB and a WR to make a play and then players who deliver.

Which brings us to his QB, Flacco, who seems to do a nice job of accomplishing plenty in this league without ever getting credit.  He plays a style that seems under-valued in a league that loves to proclaim QBs the be-all, end-all of every franchise.  And here he is, with 9 playoff victories under his belt just 5 seasons into his career, with a Super Bowl ring that he did plenty of the heavy lifting.

So, was he improperly ignored before this last month?  Yes and No.  Here is Flacco, with a 5-4 playoff record to this juncture, with a QB rating in the post-season of 70.  The league average is in the low-80s, so 70 is pretty bad.  During that time, he averaged about 170 yards per game and totaled 8 TDs and 8 INTs in the post-season.  To compare, Mark Sanchez has a playoff rating of 94, with 9 TDs and 3 INTs over a similar span and 192 yards per game.  And both were placed in a bin of QBs who were winning games in the post-season, but were they really winning them or were they simply the QB on a team that was winning them?

On to 2012, where Flacco became the only QB ever to have 4 playoff games in one post-season with a passer rating over 100.  He averaged 285 yards per game in this tournament and had 11 TDs without a single interception.  In fact, in beating Peyton Manning on the road, he threw 3 TDs.  In beating Tom Brady on the road, he threw 3 TDs.  And finally, last night, with the world watching, he threw 3 TDs in taking down the San Francisco 49ers.

After 5 seasons, he has equaled the win total of Tom Brady for most playoff victories (9) at that point of a career.  Think about that for a second.  And those 3rd Down plays he made in the 4th Quarter, including the check-off to the fade to Boldin helped them secure the game.

A game that was certainly in doubt on the final 49ers drive.  Colin Kaepernick had an excellent game, in my opinion, as well.  Even when they were down 28-6, it was extremely difficult to say he was the reason why.  Sure, he sailed an interception to Ed Reed on a throw down the middle, but overall, he was putting passes right on the money and was even betrayed a few times by receivers that were asked to make difficult catches and were unable to do so.  But for a rookie, we have seen that the 49ers appear to have a real stud with which to build their offense around for years to come.

Jim Harbaugh also followed his gut this season and had the resolve to make that change at QB that seemed to leave conventional thinking as well.  But, he was rewarded with it by now having a clear picture of what his young QB is capable of before he had to choose what to do with his veteran.  Now, as their season ends in disappointment, there is no question that Alex Smith will need to go elsewhere to ever start again.

But, they will be kicking themselves this entire off-season for that final sequence.  They took the ball from their own 20 with 4:19 to go, down 34-29.  A touchdown likely gives them the Super Bowl, provided they don't score too soon.  And they almost did after a long Crabtree reception and a strong run from Gore took the ball down to the Baltimore 7 with 2:39 left.

From there, a run moves them to the 5 at the 2 minute warning.  Now, they have 3 throws to Michael Crabtree on the final 3 offensive snaps of the game.  All 3 are incomplete and all 3 were not really even close.  In fact, in doing so, the 49ers also wasted a timeout that pretty much sealed their fate.  Had everything gone the same except for the wasted timeout, they likely would have still had another drive after another Ted Ginn return from mid-field.

Should the 49ers have run the ball again?  Or at least put a play on that allows Kaepernick to be at his best with a run/pass option?  Well, the Ravens made sure that if he did anything, it was going to be under enormous pressure because again, Baltimore is not afraid to roll the dice.  They blitzed hard on 3rd down and harder on 4th.  If anything, you would have liked to have found Vernon Davis, but he never even looked in that direction on the backside from his triple receivers.

But, with only 1 timeout left, the Ravens did not have to ever return the ball with enough time for even one more snap.

In the end, the Ravens had built up enough to hold on.  Barely.  The game went to its final seconds and both teams played a heck of a game.

The Ravens now have their 2nd Super Bowl trophy and the 49ers remain at 5.  New Orleans, power outage notwithstanding, had a fantastic week and is back in the Super Bowl mix after a long wait.

And here we sit, 213 days before the next meaningful NFL game is played.

Sorry to end this recap on such a downer.  Hurry back, NFL.

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