Thursday, December 27, 2012

Nine By Forty-Nine

Rather than further exacerbate the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied Sunday night's Nightmare on Rain Street, let's pass around a little holiday cheer by saluting the nine (nine!) 49ers who made the Pro Bowl squad for 2013.

Navorro Bowman, Dashon Goldson, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Aldon ("Defensive Player of the Year") Smith, Justin ("Without You, We're Sunk") Smith, Joe Staley, Donte Whitner, and Patrick Willis all are going to Hawaii, representing the best of the best. Four of these fine fellows-- Messrs. Bowman, Iupati, Aldon Smith, and Whitner-- are first-time selections. Patrick Willis is going for the sixth time in his six seasons, the first 49er to achieve such an honor. Gore and Justin Smith also are 'Bowl veterans, four times each, with Staley and Goldson making their second consecutive appearances.

No less than five 49ers-- Willis, Bowman, Goldson, and the Smith "twins"-- will be among the eleven starters on the defensive squad. Two of the five starting offensive linemen also are ours-- the veteran Staley and the newcomer Iupati. Defense and the running game-- ain't that what we're all about? Whoops, let's not get a controversy going, that's for another day.

Iupati's 2010 first-round draft mate on the OL-- Anthony Davis-- himself landed an alternate spot, as did Alex Boone, Ahmad Brooks (see you on the starting squad next year, hoss), Vernon Davis, Jonathan Goodwin (that accounts for all five of our offensive linemen, for those of you scoring at home), Carlos Rogers, C.J. Spillman, and punter Andy Lee. One of the most rewarding things a franchise can see is its high draft picks paying off. With Iupati and Aldon Smith starting and Davis an alternate, that means we expect Michael Crabtree to join the gang next year and A.J. Jenkins to start making some noise.

Though Pro Bowl selection remains the game's highest yearly honor, the 'Bowl itself seems an endangered species these days. First of all, to play in the game means failure-- your team didn't make the Super Bowl. And second, word is the game itself is in danger of extinction, as several influential owners are terrified at the prospect of their best player being seriously injured in an exhibition game.

We confess ourselves we don't watch the Pro Bowl, we just follow the selection process. Heaven knows there is little to actually play for-- any AFC-NFC "rivalry" is largely the creation of media types.  The Hawaii-themed workouts and events are more entertaining than the game itself, increasingly encumbered as it is by "pleeeeeeeeease don't let 'em get hurt" rules. Is there a way to retain the honor of Pro Bowl selection without risking players in a meaningless game?

Back when the Pro Bowl began, the old "blackout" rule was in effect. If your team was playing at home that Sunday, not only did you not get to see them on TV, you didn't get to see nobody on TV. When you did get to see a game or two, it was whatever CBS (and, later, NBC) decided to show during the "off" time slot. There was no ESPN, just newspapers and Pro Football Weekly. There was no "postseason", just the league championship game. As a result, most red-blooded American football fans might go an entire season without once seeing Lem Barney or Larry Wilson or Charlie Joiner or Russ Francis. The only time everyone got to see the greats was at the Pro Bowl.  Well, that's no longer the case; in that sense the game is a relic, a victim of general overexposure.

Perhaps the Pro Bowl might be converted into a week-long football "superstar training camp" for underprivileged kids, with the Pro Bowl players serving as coaches and advisors (and, of course, drawing all kinds of camera time). Then, at the conclusion of the week, let the kids play the game, with the players on the sideline coaching, cheering them on, and trolling for colorful interviews. It could be the capstone of the league's "Play 60" program, and it could let the fans see the players having some old-fashioned fun.  The honorifics, the selection process, the award banquets, all that would still go on-- but nobody's million-dollar-baby would be risking his spleen in an exhibition game.

Lately the NFL has shown a tendency to throw babies out with bathwater when making rule changes. Let's hope they don't blow this one by dismissing the game's highest honor in the name of risk avoidance.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Best Game of the Year-- Ja, Sure!

Mighty fine, boys, mighty fine.

The general consensus seems to be that the league's two best teams duked it out last night, and the winner was something of a surprise. Things change from week to week in the NFL, but for now, anyway, we who back the scarlet and gold can claim to be Numbah One.

At least until the Seattle game next Sunday night. Yikes.

We've said it before and we'll say it again: when the "unstoppable force" (that would be New England's top-ranked offense) meets the "immovable object" (cue the Niners' league-stingiest defense)  you can bet the game will be won on the other side of the ball. That is, it was the job of the 49er offense, when the chips were down, to outperform the Patriots' defense. And they did. Just barely, but they did. We saw much the same thing happen in last year's semifinal playoff barnburner against New Orleans, which this game resembled.

San Francisco's defense won the first round, frustrating Tom Brady and forcing four turnovers in the first 35 minutes. There's your 31-3 lead. Then New England's offense, going to the hurry-up dink-and-dunk with typical ferocity, won the second round, to the tune of four scoring drives in one of the most amazing 15-minute intervals we've ever seen. There's your 31-31 tie.  And then it was two bang! bang! plays, LaMichael James' kickoff return and the Kap-to-Crab dagger-through-the-heart, coming at the most opportune time to save the day.

As Bill Walsh used to say, "A pass rush in the fourth quarter is the key to winning NFL football," and after twenty somnambulent minutes the 49er pass rushers, tired and weary as they were, drew new life from that last touchdown, even though they got almost no physical rest. To our eyes, the key was lining Aldon Smith up on the opposite side over those final five minutes; suddenly the white jerseys, even without Justin Smith, were winning the battle up front again, Brady, after a pressure-free second half, was hurrying his passes again, and just enough of them fell incomplete at the end there to seal a most shaky deal. But seal it they did.

Talk about a wacky stat line. The teams were virtually even in time-of-possession and average yards per play, but the Pats ran 92 (!) plays on the evening, the Niners only 65. Brady threw more incompletions (29) than Colin Kaepernick threw passes (25). Overall Kap was more efficient (8.1 to 6.5) and his lone interception had essentially the effect of a quick-kick punt, while both Brady miscues led to points.   New England was devastating in the red zone, especially considering they only got to the red zone once in the first 35 minutes; by contrast the 49ers' lone red-zone TD came when Frank Gore alertly picked up one of Kaepernick's four snap-fumbles and ran it in for the score; the play had the effect, if not the design, of an old-fashioned draw delay trap. Despite all that devastation, though, the 49ers held New England to only 2-of-15 on third down conversions, and they weren't all third-and-long by any means. Brady, however, did balance this out somewhat by converting 5 of 6 fourth downs, including yet another of his patented goal-line leaps.  It's worth noting, though, that the unconverted fourth down was a monster: it killed the Pats' attempt at an answer-back drive and led to David Akers' second field goal and a 41-31 lead with two minutes to play (and did anyone else notice the look of utter relief on Jim Harbaugh's face as that chip-shot kick sailed true?)

And what about those doggone fumbles? Glove, no glove, left hand, right hand, this hand, that hand... isolated incidents, Coach would have us believe. You can bet those pesky Seahawks took notice. And another "incident" we can do without is this continuing practice of doing the minute waltz or whatever it is when a punt comes bounding down the field. Fellas, just pretend the confounded thing is radioactive, and run away from it if you have to.

What is the deal with Seattle, anyway? The last time any team scored 50 or more points in successive games was in October of 1950, when the great old Los Angeles Rams of Bob Waterfield, Norm van Brocklin, Tom Fears, and "Crazylegs" Hirsch put up 70 and then 65 in back-to-back weeks. That team finished in a tie for the Western Conference title and had to win a playoff to get to the league championship game. You don't suppose...