Monday, January 20, 2014

The Morning After: NFC Championship Game Edition

With the hype and buildup before games like this, we seldom have a delivery of what we all desire.  The idea that two teams - in this case, both division rivals that are built in largely similar fashions - would slug it out at the expense of each other's well-being for 3 hours of nationally televised entertainment is often too much to expect on the big stages.  The hype outweighs the reality.

However, quite clearly to me, on this occasion, both Seattle and San Francisco left it completely on the field in a classic game that won't be forgotten by its witnesses anytime soon.  I know that the human body could not sustain the punishment of my proposal, but if they wanted to switch these to a Best of 7 series between the two teams, I would be all for it.

In the end, Seattle survived.  Barely.  It was the ability to turn the ball over 3 times in the final 15 minutes that helped the #1 seed and home team to advance to Super Bowl 48 in 2 weeks.  The +2 turnover margin is hard enough to overcome, but to place all 3 of your giveaways in the final quarter with the Super Bowl on the line was a bridge too far for the road team to overcome.

But, this game was not just about turnovers.  It was about physical play that made viewers cringe.  It was about flying around the ball and almost nobody protecting themselves to make a play.  It was about brutal hits and guys being helped off the field.  I don't know that it made anyone more comfortable with the long-term effects of seeing these guys treat their bodies with such disregard, but the spectacle of it all is impossible to resist if you love this game.  The pack mentality of both teams playing with a unified spirit of how they believe the game should be played could have had no other outcome.  When these two teams, who most Sundays are the clear bullies to their opponents, square off against each other, you knew that there would be a square-off that could not be missed.

As a viewer who was unaffiliated with the teams involved, it makes you consider a number of things with a far more league-wide application.  Such as, do we think that the local team can ever assemble enough bullies to stand up to this sort of treatment, or like the Saints last week or the Packers the week before, do you attempt to survive it for 60 minutes by trying to adapt your style to theirs?  It would be more sustainable to simply understand that although Hal Mumme, Art Briles, Mike Leach, and Chip Kelly have all aided the evolution of football to something that isn't just a trench fight, it still is the best plan to build a roster that cannot be pushed around from top to bottom and from little to big.  Those two rosters, as I wrote about last week, have built their entire organizations around the plan of never being the weaker side in a fight.  Now, the skills on each player vary as they always do, but they are looking for a certain type of player and that is the type of guy who is not going to back down when challenged.

Yes, they still want speed and skills, but they are clearly placing a premium on disposition and guys who aren't allergic to the occasional personal foul or barking match.  I know this leads to many shades of gray and perhaps a discussion that includes contradictions throughout, but if you don't think those teams are playing a modified style from the NFC powers of 2009-2010 when New Orleans and Green Bay were winning their Super Bowls which included limited helpings of physical intimidation, then I believe we aren't watching the same thing.

Further, the QB play is very interesting and this I am more skeptical about the sustainability of being able to win while asking your QB to carefully navigate a game and make plays at selected times without being the focal part of the team for the entire game.  Teams with Brady, Manning, Rodgers or Brees (and teams without titles who have a guy like Romo) often echo the sentiments of going as far as the extremely highly compensated QB takes them.

I think Russell Wilson is a better QB than Colin Kaepernick, but I also believe that both are fascinating studies of young QBs who will need premium money soon and their clubs will have to decide whether or not to back up the truck for $15-$20m per season when the extensions are due.

Both possess a fantastic ability to defy the Xs and Os and make something out of a play that is breaking down, and both had moments yesterday and throughout these playoffs where they pulled it off again with awesome improv skills.  But, we have seen a few QBs in the last few years who have had a great season or two and then disappeared.  You may recall Vince Young and Tim Tebow who were the next big thing, and before we allow 5 highlight plays to overshadow the role of a QB for 60 plays over the entire game and 16 games over the course of a season, we all should be willing to ask whether we are allowing winning to replace scrutiny about the down to down skills of a QB.

Wilson, like I said, is a more balanced QB and seems to be far better at a number of important skills that teams look for.  If he was 4 inches taller, he would have almost no doubters.  In fact, he is clearly a player being asked to win without premium WRs or a premium TE at his disposal.  If I am Seattle, I feel good about Wilson and increasing his workload so that down the road when I have some proper weapons for him it won't seem out of character to try to get 20-24 completions out of him once in a while as opposed to the 15 that they presently get.

As for Kaepernick, he is a real mystery to me.  In this day and age of "Youtube scouting" he should likely be the internet consensus as the best player alive.  Youtube scouting, of course, is the habit of evaluating a player based on his 10 best highlights of his career.  And Colin is absurd by that standard and again yesterday with his 58 yard run and his ridiculous TD jump-throw to Anquan Boldin demonstrated his unreal upside.  He makes the most difficult throws and of course can seemingly convert a 3rd and 10 with about 4 strides when he decides to run.

But, in that 4th Quarter, he showed his warts again and they weren't pretty.  At 10:17 to go, when rolling left on a 3rd and 6, he tried to throw against his body and did not feel the rush and put the ball in harm's way for Cliff Avril to strip from the backside.  Michael Bennett recovered and ran the ball back to the San Francisco 6.

Then, with 7:44 to play, Kaepernick played right into the Seahawks hand by throwing the out route that Seattle had been trying to undercut all day.  This time, big Kam Chancellor intercepted the pass intended for Boldin and down 20-17 at the time, this set up the Seahawks for a possible kill shot.  The worst part about the play was that it was the dreaded 1st down interception which, of course, is a horrible outcome of a play that has no reason to risk the possession.

Of course, the 49ers then were able to force another FG and were still only down 23-17 and were going to get the ball back with their full allotment of time-outs and plenty of time (3:37).

By this time the stadium is rocking and the Seahawks pass rush is not helping the situation for Kaepernick.  He converts a 4th and 2 on another roll left, throw across the body pass to Frank Gore who had a very limited impact on the contest to convert.  Then, Kaepernick barely eluded another interception on the same out route that was picked off earlier as Walter Thurmond was on the scene but a few inches below the pass.

16 yards to Crabtree on that pass, but Crabtree heads back inbounds rather than stepping out forcing the 49ers to use their first timeout with 0:55.  Next play, right down the middle to Davis for 11 more to the Seahawks 18.  Now, the 49ers show no urgency and walk to the line and snap the ball with 0:29 and still have all of their timeouts.  It is 1st down and Kaepernick sees Michael Crabtree man up against Richard Sherman and goes for the fade.  As you know, Sherman got his hand on the ball and tipped it to the arms of the waiting LB Malcolm Smith and the game ended on yet another 1st Down interception and the 3rd turnover of the 4th Quarter.  They had timeouts and downs in reserve and put the game on beating one of the best corners in the game.  It certainly made you question the lack of a timeout being used by Jim Harbaugh and the decision of the QB when the drive was in a great spot.  If they used the timeout, they have 0:50 and just 18 yards to go.  There was no reason to hurry.

And that was the margin for the game.  For San Francisco, a team thought of as having as stacked a deck as you could have, it is another season without the Lombardi Trophy despite making the Final 4 three straight years.  In all 3 of those years, they appeared right there and ready to win it all.  Would they have done better or worse with Alex Smith?  Decisions made along the way are always fun to consider for those of us who love to ponder such things.

Meanwhile, now Seattle must take on Denver for the Super Bowl.  This will be a very enjoyable game to discuss, but it will be a bit before I get to that.

As for the other lasting memories from the game, Navorro Bowman's injury, the odd rule application of that very play, Marshawn Lynch's touchdown run, and of course Sherman with Erin Andrews will all be high on the list.

An instant classic that put the #1 seed of the NFC for the regular season in the Super Bowl for the first time since New Orleans in 2009.  Great stuff and a very high bar for the rest of the conference to pursue.

1 comment:

g2000 said...

Sturm, I am a long time fan from Seattle that came to the ticket by accident years ago and thanks to internet radio have not looked back. I know that I can always count on you and those at the ticket to provide quality, humorous and real sports talk that is lacking in America, and especially in Seattle. Dont get me wrong Im a diehard Seahawks fan but after the ticket nothing really comes close. Thanks for this write up, its a pleasure to read an article that doesn't focus on Sherman, I think we would agree that trash talking is a part of sport and who are we to call out twenty something professional athletes on the biggest stage for being mean or saying hurtful things to the other team. Frankly any football fan that says they wouldn't want Sherman on there team is being asinine, that being said if I was a 49'r fan I would hate the guys guts, that's what makes being a fan so great. The Seahawks and 49rs have shown the true direction of football, throwing the ball 30-45 times a game, will give you great numbers and big wins but when it comes down to it unless you have a Manning on a team, its very hard to go deep into the season building a team like this. See Detroit/Dallas/SD. Seattle focus is on ball control, tough D, exceptional special teams and explosive plays. I dont have the actual #'s but I believe that Seattle is in the top 5 of explosive plays converted and tops in the least amount of explosive plays allowed. This is a team that grinds it out, beats you up, and hits you with the big play as soon as you drop your guard. It has made for the greatest two years of football in my life and I think as long as the team has John Schneider & Pete Carrol they are going to be in the mix for years to come. I agree with your analysis of Wilson, and the beauty of the 3rd round pick is that we have time to see how he responds with some more offensive weapons (receivers) around him. This team has the resources to sign Earl Thomas, Wilson, franchise tag Sherman and still have $$ left over to bring in free agents while building the team needs through the draft. Thanks again and go sports