Thursday, August 15, 2013

If You Had a Choice of Colors, Which One Would You Choose, My Brothers?

With apologies to Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, and the Impressions, today's subtext is, "Scarlet and Gold, or Crimson and White?"

And one answer to our musical question is, "Both"-- at least in the cases of Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, and now Alex Smith.

Over the past quarter-century or so, the quarterback position for the Kansas City Chiefs has, about half the time,  served as a landing strip for former 49er QBs, whether in mid-career or nearing career terminus. Indeed, over a 13-year stretch from 1988 through 2000, every year but one the position was manned by a quarterback who left a good part of his game, if not his heart, in San Francisco.

It all began in 1988, when Steve DeBerg won the quarterback job from veteran starter Bill Kenney.  It wasn't enough to save coach Frank Gansz's job, but when the great Marty Schottenheimer took over as head coach in 1989, he established good ol' Steve as his starter and initiated the process of quarterback importation that would carry the Chiefs over the next decade-plus.

49er fans of a certain age fondly remember Steve as the good soldier who did his best for Pete McCulley and Fred O'Connor in the nightmare season of 1978, and then was transformed from zero to hero via the simple expedient of playing for Bill Walsh in 1979 and 1980.  His career as "Chair-Warmer to the Greats" began in earnest when Joe Montana took over the job in 1980, and Steve began his colorful odyssey, first to Denver (where he preceded John Elway), and then to Tampa Bay (ditto, future 49er Steve Young).

Anyway, DeBerg quarterbacked the Chiefs for four years, during which they improved from 4 to 11 wins per season and began their 1990s run as playoff perennials.  In 1992 Schottenheimer had the opportunity to employ one of the club's long-time nemeses, Dave Krieg, as his starting QB, and he took it. That lasted only one year, and of course 1993 saw the legendary, mega-controversial trade of Joe Montana to the Chiefs--  and the parade of former 49er quarterbacks to Kansas City began in earnest.

Joe played two years at Arrowhead, leading KC to the AFC Championship Game his first year and winning a September 1994 showdown with his 49er replacement, Young, his second year. After Joe retired, the Chiefs' braintrust went right back to the well and hauled in the Niners' other backup, Steve Bono, who had shown his capabilities in 1991 and 1992 when Young was briefly injured.

49er fans who had clamored for Bono instead of Young during those years may have felt vindicated when the former UCLA star led the Chiefs to football's best record in 1995. Not since the 1960s had a Kansas City team been so close to the Super Bowl, but a stunning upset loss at home to the 9-7 Indianapolis Colts, during which Bono threw three interceptions and kicker Lin Elliott missed three field goals, dashed those hopes. (The quarterback of those pesky underdog Colts? Guy named Jim Harbaugh.)

Both quarterback and team sagged the following season; Bono threw more interceptions than TDs, and KC missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Meanwhile, back at Candlestick, a guy named Elvis Grbac was serving as Steve Young's latest backup, and doing pretty darn well for all that.  He started nine games over two years while Young battled concussions, and the team won six of those games despite carping comments about Grbac from such worthies as City Mayor Willie Brown. Thus the Chiefs, needing once again to make a change, needed look no further. After Young pronounced himself fit and healthy for the 1997 season, Grbac, tired of being the local Rodney Dangerfield, pronounced himself a wealthy new Chief.

While Young played on with rookies Jim Druckenmiller and Jeff Brohm standing behind him on the sidelines, Elvis, like Bono, led the Chiefs to football's best record and, like Montana, got revenge on his former team (a 44-9 thrashing before the Arrowhead faithful). But once more, "Martyball" wasn't enough to reach the 'Bowl, regardless of the quarterback: their season again ended in the semifinal round, though it could be argued both Elvis and his teammates mostly outplayed John Elway and the victorious Broncos that day.

Grbac continued with the Chiefs for three more years as the club's fortunes gradually declined. When Dick Vermeil took over the head-coaching job in 2001, he brought his favorite quarterback, Trent Green, with him, and at long last the open road from San Francisco to Kansas City was closed.

Until now. Tonight, Alex Smith lines up opposite Colin Kaepernick at Arrowhead Stadium. Sure, it's only preseason, but it's an irresistible story nonetheless. We'll allow our personal bias to surface as we confess that for over 40 years the Chiefs have been our favorite AFC team and second-favorite overall. Ever since Hank Stram's legendary 1969 club won the Super Bowl over Minnesota, we've wished the Chiefs well (except on certain afternoons that occur every four years or so).  The much-anticipated Super Bowl matchup that could have occurred in 1993 or 1995 or 1997 never did, despite our best hopes, and it's unlikely this exhibition match will provide much competitive juice past the second quarter.  But Alex Smith, who carried himself so well in near-impossible circumstances during those chaotic early years, and who was gloriously rewarded with a great season in 2011, is a class act. We wish him nothing but success working with the great Andy Reid in Kansas City, at least up through the AFC Championship Game, should it come about.

And we wish him well tonight, come what may.  Here's to you, Alex. Nobody deserves success more than you, and here's hoping your tenure in Arrowhead resembles Joe's more than Elvis'. Six sigma, and all that.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

David "Deacon" Jones 1938-2013

The greatest defensive player in NFL history didn't play for the 49ers, he terrorized the 49ers for over a decade.

RIP Deacon. You changed the game in more ways than one. We'll always remember visiting your shrine at Canton. No worthier opponent ever lined up against the San Francisco 49ers.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Weird Scenes Inside the Goal Line

Well, it started like this...

Then there was this....

Then this....

And finally this:

The 49ers' first Super Bowl loss sure was entertaining, wa'n't it? Five yards away from the greatest comeback in 'Bowl history, and all that. A little bit of everything, whether scripted, unscripted, A-listed or two-fisted. One of the Big Game's best quarterback duels. Ray Lewis "pulling an Elway"-- riding off into the sunset holding the Lombardi Trophy. Controversy up the yingyang. Enough second-guessing to last until training camp. And now we know what the New England Patriots and their fans felt like two months ago.

Does anyone else think the game turned, perhaps permanently, on the very first play? Colin Kaepernick fires a 20-yard strike to wide-open Vernon Davis, we jump up and start hollering-- and it's wiped out because Vernon lined up wrong.  Three plays later, Niners punt, and Kap just doesn't look right for the rest of the half.

"They're catching everything he throws up there!" we texted to a family member late in the second quarter. Indeed, it took some doing to remember even one incomplete pass by Joe Flacco before halftime. No argument at all with big Number 5 winning the game MVP award, but if Flacco was the Super Bowl MVP, then Anquan Boldin was Flacco's MVP. "The 'Quan" made five huge catches in this game, three of them on the Ravens' two critical second-half drives when the Niners had Baltimore's defense on the ropes. This was the reason they signed him as a free agent a few years back, and as Boldin made tough catch after tough catch against tight coverage, we were reminded of one of the newest Hall of Fame inductees watching from the sideline-- Cris Carter.

It could be argued that the biggest play of the game was on defense-- a rare 49er blitz and Ahmad Brooks' third-down sack of Flacco six minutes after the power blackout. The Niners had scored their first touchdown barely a minute earlier, which at the time only served to make a 28-6 game slightly less embarrassing. But by forcing a 90-second three-and-out deep in Baltimore territory, that sack set up the ensuing full-throated comeback. On a tough, discouraging night, this was the defense's finest moment.

That said, the 49ers got only one sack from their standard four-man rush, late in the first quarter. Yes, it was a timely one as it drove the Ravens out of field-goal range. But for much of the game Flacco enjoyed plenty of time to throw, and despite the seven men back in coverage, he averaged nine yards a pass and seemed to get the ball to its target every time he really needed it. Those two second-half field-goal drives consumed 11 minutes, and ten of the 22 plays were passes, including the third-down interference call that kept the Ravens' last drive alive. Baltimore converted 56% of their third downs. Was it an ineffective pass rush, an ineffective secondary, or elements of both? The next few weeks between now and April's draft may give us a clue.

If anyone had posited an outcome in which the 49ers would outgain the opposition by over 100 yards, Frank Gore would rush for 110 and a touchdown, both Davis and Michael Crabtree would pass 100 receiving yards,  and Kaepernick would outgain Ray Rice on the ground and also run for a score, we simply wouldn't have believed it could end in a loss. Then again, Mike Smith and  Matt Ryan probably could tell us a thing or two about statistics and losses.

We're not sure if the 34-minute blackout energized the 49ers, enervated the Ravens, or both, but it certainly will go down in NFL legend. Any tales of Jim Harbaugh dispatching a low-level employee to run outside with a Sawzall and start cutting cables are almost certainly fiction. Perhaps descendants of the West Coast hackers who memorably altered the Rose Bowl scoreboard back in 1984 ("Caltech 31 -- MIT 9") had a hand in "creatively" disrupting the Superdome electrical grid. Though we hear DHS has launched an investigation, we prefer to believe this was a giant prank rather than a terrorist act until proven otherwise. It sure didn't terrorize anyone; apocryphal "I was there" stories are likely to swell the game's reputed attendance past several million by midsummer.

Bright moments: "Kap" emerging from the first-half detritus and having a second half for the ages; Delanie Walker's crushing block on Ed Reed as Frank Gore swept right for a touchdown; Crabtree pinballing off Bernard Pollard and Cary Williams without losing balance, speed, or direction; Randy Moss, still ringless after all these years, setting up the 49ers' last TD with a critical sideline catch; Tarell Brown leaping on Ray Rice's fumble at the Ravens' 24-yard-line; Ted Ginn's brilliant, 32-yard punt return to set up our second touchdown-- just watch the Ravens' sideline personnel sag as Ted rounds the corner and breaks into the open; David ("What, Me Worry?") Akers shrugging off a miss and drilling a perfect field goal on his second chance after the penalty.

Everyone on this side of the fence is still agonizing over that non-call at the end, when Jimmy Smith clearly pinned Crabtree's arms and kept him from catching that fade pass-- and folks, it was as catchable as a cold.  But the worst call of the night was seven officials somehow failing to notice Ed Reed at least three yards offside on the two-point-conversion attempt. Sure, there's no guarantee we'd have made it, and even a successful attempt might only have left the final score 34-33 instead of 34-31. But you gotta make that call.

Hand in hand with recriminations against the officials for the Crabtree non-call have come the complaints against Jim Harbaugh for calling three straight short passes to the right side on those last three goal-line plays.  Haloti Ngata was injured and on the sideline, the weary, ragged Ravens' defense was clearly weak up the middle, and 51 of the 75 yards on that final drive had been gained on the ground. Sometimes a coach can outguess himself; certainly John Harbaugh knew his team was vulnerable to the run, and perhaps brother Jim, knowing this, figured John would keep an extra defender or two at home. Most of the 49er yardage on the night came on big plays; if Kaepernick still has anything left to prove it's his effectiveness as a 'touch' passer down deep in the red zone. If the final two minutes of Super Bowl XLVII was a test of that effectiveness, well...  looks like we wait 'til next year, and, for now, congratulate the world champion Baltimore Ravens.


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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"What, Me Worry?"

Super Bowl, anyone?

There's a lot of anticipation building up toward Sunday's Ultimate Game, and we're not simply talking about the usual Super Bowl hype that draws reporters from as far away as Kuala Lumpur and Helsinki to view and critique this most American spectacle of grand excess. It's not really on the scale of those occasional "Clash of the Titans" marquee matchups, as some of us remember from Super Bowls XIII, XVIII, XIX, and even XLIV. These two teams were not the season-long Inevitables cruising toward a February showdown; most of the time that kind of talk was reserved for the Houstons, New Englands, Atlantas, and Green Bays. No, this one is drawing its share of Learned Comments from players and coaches, current and former, who are somewhat quietly anticipating a "purist's" kind of game, a slightly-under-the-radar classic-in-the-making that may not get its full due until years from now.

It's only the second time that both losing teams from the previous year's conference championships have met in the Super Bowl (XXX, Dallas-Pittsburgh, was the other).  Both teams are well-coached, and of course, the "Brother Bowl"/"HarBowl"/"SupeHar Bowl" story  has already been sighted, scoped, tracked, catched, tetched,  fetched, and barbecued from hell to breakfast, as our high-school football coach used to say. Endless other "angles" abound, from the great Ray Lewis' impending retirement to Joe Flacco's emergence as an elite quarterback, from the impossibility (impossibility?) of anyone containing both Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore running the ball, to the predictive value, if any, of last season's 16-6 Thanksgiving night battle won by the Ravens.

But for us, today, the overriding story is an unfamiliar one-- the very real possibility that the San Francisco 49ers might actually be in danger of losing a Super Bowl.  Like, what kind of weirdness is this? The 49ers' Super Bowl record is the Gold Standard of the NFL: five trips to the Big Game, five world championships. No losses. Only one game that even looked like it might be a loss (XXIII). Three epic blowouts. Oh, we know, the Pittsburgh Steelers have more rings, but they've also been beaten twice. Nobody else has 5-0, or anything close to it. Shoot, the 49ers are the only team with more than one Super Bowl win that hasn't also lost at least one 'Bowl. So, since when do we worry about Super Bowls?

Since about nine days ago, actually, to tell the truth. Baltimore is a team that has been built purposefully, step by step, to reach this level, and over the last five years no other team has won with their steady, implacable consistency: from wild-card to division champion, from runner-up to the Super Bowl.  Talk about a five-year plan. Almost every key Raven has been along for the entire ride; there's a definite sense of continuity, not to say momentum, building up around this team. It's not just in the way they play, not just in their talent level, not just in their accomplishments or their coaching, but in everything they do the Ravens present a most formidable opponent. We compare  the desperately brilliant last-minute comeback and overtime win at Denver-- a game almost any other team would have lost-- to the calm, even arrogant manner in which they took control and smothered New England a week later, and we see a team that can win any kind of game, played at any kind of pace, under any circumstance. No matter what happens, no one can say, as we have in previous seasons, that the "real Super Bowl" was won back in Atlanta.  No, sir. To win this one the 49ers are going to have to play their best game to date.

That has rarely been the case. The last two 49er Super Bowl wins (XXIV and XXIX) were cakewalks, both games essentially over in the first quarter. (In truth, Super Bowl XXIX was over as soon as the Niners won the coin toss and elected to receive.)  And there was little drama leading up to those games. In 1989, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen actually had to defend his public comment that he thought his team would win (Heaven knows, rich-guy owners are easy targets for ridicule, but what else was he gonna say?).  And when the 49ers were rated 21-point favorites over San Diego five years later, few, even in the media, were willing to offer up, say, the '68 Colts as counter-example.

The one time the 49ers  nearly got ambushed in the midst of overconfidence (the fans' and media's, we hasten to add, not their own) was in the aforementioned Super Bowl XXIII. After they'd gone and pounded the Chicago Bears into the frozen turf of Soldier Field, few were willing to believe they'd have much trouble with Sam Wyche's Bengals-- that is, until the game started. As it happened, Cincinnati was actually one additional first down away from holding the ball until time ran out and escaping with a 16-13 upset. Instead they surrendered the ball-- and, eventually, the lead and the game-- to Joe Montana with three minutes left.

Now, as for that first Super Bowl, XVI, also against Cincinnati, in the magic season of 1981-- well, after "The Catch" we were so absolutely convinced the 49ers were the 'Team of Destiny', we knew they'd win that game no matter what, even if the Lord Himself had to send an earthquake to tip the field in our favor. Despite the misleadingly close score, the 49ers never even trailed in that Super Bowl.      

So the only comparator to this feeling of pregame uncertainty dates back to January of 1985, when Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins came swaggering into Stanford Stadium for Super Bowl XIX.  Though the 49ers were made three-point favorites in that game (even as they are favored by four this Sunday), you'd have had a hard time convincing most people that was the case. Marino and his 55 touchdown passes were hailed as the harbinger of a new NFL standard, and even such staid, low-key observers as Chuck Noll and Tom Landry were positively gushing over the "unstoppable" Miami offense like teenyboppers at a Justin Bieber meet-'n'-greet.  It was jarring enough to affect even our unruly group as we tried to push our way into a crowded North Beach restaurant the night before the game. We were surrounded by a sea of teal and orange; loud, polyester-clad Dolphin fans on the sidewalk, serenading us with barbed comments about the 49ers' pathetically easy schedule, how the Steeler team which beat us at home had just surrendered 45 points to Marino, and how "games are won and lost in the trenches" and the Miami offensive line had allowed the fewest sacks in the league.

It was a surly evening, as we recall, and although we told ourselves we knew better, none of us could entirely escape the doubts and fears bubbling up from the old subconscious. It wasn't until midway through the second quarter the next day that we realized how foolishly we'd acted, how ridiculously weak our confidence had been, and how little we had learned to appreciate the skill, intelligence, and overall capability of one of the NFL's greatest teams and organizations ever. You all know the rest.

The 49ers have the better team in this tilt. Not by a lot, but by enough. That 2011 Thanksgiving loss turned on a relentlessly blitzing Baltimore defense, and on a bad chop-block call which negated a touchdown. There is no way the Ravens can win this time by blitzing on every down, given Colin Kaepernick's abilities, but without steady pass pressure they can't win either. Absent several turnovers or a truly wretched day from David Akers, the 49ers should be in control of this game midway through the fourth quarter. Flacco is likely to throw the deep ball early, and it's not at all inconceivable he might pull a "Matt Ryan" and pass for a whole lot of yards, but points figure to be much harder to come by. Expect Akers to be a non-factor, and look for the 49ers to separate from the Ravens by a touchdown or two over a field goal or two, on the order of  14-10 or 24-16 or thereabouts.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

"City of Champions"

It's one of the rarest phenomena in professional sports.

It's only happened eight times.

It happened in Baltimore in 1970. In Pittsburgh in 1979, the title of this screed was coined when it happened there.  Most recently, it happened in Boston in 2004 (and the media hangover is only now subsiding). It even happened in Detroit, back in 1935. And, of course, it has happened four times in New York City: in 1927, in 1938, in 1956, and in 1986 (that is, if you count East Rutherford, N.J., as "New York City").  Now, if all goes well at the Louisiana Superdome on February 3 upcoming, it will happen in San Francisco.

Simultaneously, the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers will both, at the same time, be the reigning world champions in America's two premier sports.

We've only waited 48 years for this.

As far as we know, there is no official name for such a rare event. Our own ideas-- "The Clean Sweep," "The Two Titles," "The Daily (daily?) Double"-- have met with deserved ridicule or, perhaps more accurately, utter indifference. So "City of Champions" it is. It's cool, it's extremely rare, and it can be ours if Our Boys come through.

O San Francisco, didn't we come so close in 1989? The 49ers were in their glory, sweeping to a second straight Super Bowl title. Unfortunately our Giants, after a thrilling regular season and a sensational NLCS,  became engaged on the business end of a different kind of "sweeping" and thus fell short. (About the only positive thing that can be said about the Loma Prieta earthquake is that it made everybody forget about the World Series. And no, the fact that is was Oakland who won that Series, right across the bay, does not change a thing. It wasn't The City, so it doesn't count, and you all know how we feel about asterisks.)

Other towns have taken a shot and fallen just short. The 1980 Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series, and the 1980 Eagles reached the Super Bowl-- but lost to the Raiders. In 1954, the NFL champion Cleveland Browns were not joined by the Cleveland Indians, thanks to Willie Mays and Dusty Rhodes.  Had David Tyree not made that helmet-top catch in Super Bowl XLIII, Boston would've had another 'twofer' to brag about in 2007, given the Red Sox' autumn success. The Oakland Raiders from 1972-1974 were in the hunt every year but always one game short, while their Coliseum roommates, the A's, were winning three straight World Series. Had Allie Sherman's New York Football Giants been able to win the Big One back in the early sixties, the Big Apple would have a few more of these to lord over everybody. Even those lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs, had a chance (well, a sporting chance, anyway) in the '32 World Series, given that the Bears would win the NFL that year with a 7-1-6 mark. (Yes, that's six ties, sports fans.)

Strangely enough, probably the best known pairing of all is a combo-that-wasn't--  the New York Jets and New York Mets from 1969. Truth is, the Jets won the Super Bowl in the 1968 season, in which the Detroit Tigers won the World Series. That the world championship for 1968 was played on January 12, 1969 might be of interest to sports-based hemerologists, but in and of itself changes nothing. The Jets and Mets were champions in back-to-back seasons, not the same season, with the added fillip of both clubs beating heavily-favored teams from Baltimore.  As a consolation prize, we will note that in 2006, all four New York sports teams-- Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets-- made their respective postseason tournaments, which has to count as some sort of record.

So perhaps one day soon in The City, we'll see Jim Harbaugh and  Bruce Bochy (and how's that for an unlikely pairing) share the same podium at the same celebration. If it happens, it'll have been a long time coming, and history tells us it will be a long time gone.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


If you're a 49er fan of a certain age, that term is fondly tucked away in your memory. Cooked up by the team's publicity department prior to the 1980 season, it took most of a year to marinate before the rest of the world got a real good taste (see above).  And there were certainly ups and downs along the way. We remember a day at Candlestick in October of 1980, in the middle of what turned out to be an eight-game losing streak, where a large banner stretched across the wall of the north end zone read, "ROAR FORWARD NOT BACKWARD!"

Well, "roaring back" is exactly what the 49ers did at the Georgia Dome Sunday afternoon last, and the end result is that Colin Kaepernick's tenth start for the team will be in Super Bowl XLVII. And yes, we love young "Kap" and the tremendous ability he brings to the game, but to focus excessively on him and what he can do would be to make the same mistake the Atlanta Falcons made that day. And look where it got them.

Y'all know about 'deja vu', but how about 'presque vu'?  We get that on occasion, and we got it a few minutes into Sunday's tilt as Matt Ryan capably and confidently passed his Falcons up to midfield. As the teams walked back to the huddle and we pondered why 'Matty Ice' was getting all day to throw, in our mind's eye we saw, plain as day, Julio Jones wide open and hauling in a perfect rainbow pass, over-the-shoulder for a long touchdown. We kept silent, so as not to disturb the fainthearted, and were not at all surprised when about a hundred seconds later, Ryan and Jones connected on exactly such a play for the signature touchdown of Atlanta's early 17-0 barrage.

It also reminded us, unaccountably or so it seemed, of another championship-game-opening stunner of a touchdown bomb-- that 65-yard strike from Steve Young to Jerry Rice in the 1992 NFC title game against Dallas. Don't bother looking for it in the game stats-- the play was called back due to a holding penalty, and thus had no lasting impact on the game. Though few would have called it at the time, the Ryan-Jones hookup, real as it was, had ultimately the same effect. Look elsewhere for back-breaking plays, because despite their chronic issues with pass coverage against the big Atlanta receivers, the 49er defenders kept their heads, continued with their physical style of play, and finally won the battle.

How many would have figured Ryan would pass for almost 400 yards and his team still lose? We predicted three things would happen in this game: the 49ers would outrush the Falcons, Kaepernick would match Ryan in passing yards, and Ryan would throw one more interception than would CK. Well, two out of three ain't bad, and we hope Ryan will get some much-needed respect for, among other things, giving his team a real chance to come back themselves and win at the very end.  But the 49ers seized this victory thanks to a patient coaching staff, a tremendous offensive line, and a defense that, despite its issues, held that excellent Falcon team scoreless over the final thirty minutes.

Sure, you could also say the 49ers were handed this game thanks to a butterfingered quarterback and a receiver who fell down at the worst possible time, but that's sour grapes. A goal-line fumble and a missed chip-shot field goal more than make up for those lapses, and Douglas didn't catch that ball anyway. Besides, Crabtree's fumble just inches from a go-ahead score led to the key series of the game-- the Falcons' subsequent three-and-out, followed by Ted Ginn's great punt return, followed by that punishing, run-heavy drive that ended with Frank Gore's second TD. Five minutes ran off the clock between fumble and score, five minutes which left Atlanta with only one chance to get the lead back. Fourteen plays, 70 yards, and seven minutes later, it was over-- the 49ers' first postseason road win since January 1989.      

Conference championship games have not been noted for big comebacks. Typically they fall into two categories: back-and-forth battles that go down to the final seconds, or whistle-to-whistle domination of one team by the other. There are a few exceptions: Joe Montana's brilliant-but-doomed 21-point rally in the 1983 NFC showdown at Washington, Bernie Kosar and the Browns rallying from 18 points down in 1987 and then betrayed by "The Fumble," even Troy Aikman passing Dallas over Green Bay in the final minutes of the 1995 game. But the closest match to this one is, of course, the Indianapolis Colts' 38-34 victory over New England in 2006, with Peyton Manning rallying his team from a 21-6 halftime deficit to beat Tom Brady & Co. for the AFC crown. The 49ers' 28-7 comeback now has officially topped that one for the best in conference championship history, and if you're thinking Kaepernick-versus-Ryan lacks the gravitas of Manning-Brady, well, it may only be a matter of time.We see every chance for these two teams, and these two quarterbacks, to battle it out for NFC supremacy over the remainder of this decade. The great game we just saw may be only the beginning of a great rivalry.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Falcon and the Snowjob

Oh, it was a conundrum, all right, watching that Atlanta-Seattle game on Sunday and not knowing which way to lean. (I can't stand the Seahawks, they make me sick. And scared. Don't wanna play 'em again on any field, even our own field.)  Mike Smith's Falcons are the "Rodney Dangerfield" of the NFL: no respect, no respect at all, I'm tellin' yuh. ("Last week I went into the hardware store for a box of rat poison. The girl at the counter said, 'You want me to wrap that up or are you gonna eat it here?'  I don't get no respect!") The consensus commentary from the cognoscenti has been, "Yeah, best record in the league, sure, but, hey, they can be taken." (And if we didn't agree they could be taken, why are we even here?)  The Falcons opened the game as though they had a personal score to settle with every single doubting mind out there; for most of three quarters it was, "Well, (gulp), looks like we're going to, uh, Atlanta next week, huh?" The game achieved a serene, almost somnambulant pace in the third quarter, with the score 20-0; we drowsily settled back into the recliner and woke some time later to cries of alarm: no, the house wasn't under attack, but the Seahawks were on the march! On they came, to the tune of three unanswered fourth-quarter touchdowns, seemingly unstoppable. (Okay, I give! I can't take this anymore. Anybody but Seattle!) Atlanta hadn't seen the like since Sherman. (Who, Richard Sherman? No, it's this Wilson guy I'm worried about!)    

Well, we all know what happened. Seattle won the game when, after that brilliant comeback, their fading defense managed to tackle Tony Gonzalez just short of chip-shot field-goal range and Matt Bryant's last-second kick went wide right. What do you mean, it--  oh, yes, we forgot. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called time-out just before Bryant launched his errant kick, and given the reprieve, the veteran kicker drilled a perfect one right down the pike and poof-- Cinderella's carriage turned into a pumpkin, Seattle's season ended with a thud, and the NFC Championship Game will be played at the Georgia Dome, not Candlestick Park, this coming Sunday.

From a 49er perspective, does it matter? Is it boon or bane, advantage or disadvantage? Would we rather play the league's hottest team ("Nobody wants to face these guys in the playoffs!") on our home field, where we beat them back before they uncorked all this late-season 'mojo', or would we rather face the Dangerfields on the road? Well, some of Jim Harbaugh's most signal victories as coach have come in big road games, haven't they? And the people who do this sort of thing have voted with their dollars and made the Niners a four-point favorite-- and when was the last time the road team was favored in a conference championship game, anyway?

If you're a superstitious sort and a 49er fan, this week must feel like a vacation in Purgatory. Hot off the presses is the Sports Illustrated cover, featuring a dashing Colin Kaepernick being urged on by the perpetually-intense Harbaugh. Not since Steve Young rumbled, bumbled, and stumbled 49 yards to a touchdown against Minnesota back in 1988 (and we were there, football fans) has a run by an NFL quarterback so captured the imagination. Kaepernick's thrilling 56-yard burst against the Packers Saturday night, which really and truly decided the game, was different because nobody even breathed on him, let alone touched him. It was a signature play, the kind of moment that can define a player's career no matter what else he may do.  San Francisco fans have had more than their share of these moments, so what do we call this one? "The Run?"  "Harbaugh's Reward?" "The Spread-Option Speck-tackular?" Perhaps someone out there can do better.

It was only about fifteen months ago that some were anointing the Green Bay Packers, undefeated at the time, as one of the greatest teams ever. We noted then that while Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers, and his powerful receiving corps were a scoring machine of perhaps historic proportion, no team with a defense as shaky as Green Bay's ever deserved such an honorarium. It appears little has changed. While adept at generating turnovers and scoring unexpected touchdowns, the Packer defense also is prone to being beaten physically at the line of scrimmage and consistently being a step late in coverage. We saw all this Saturday night. After the opening interception-runback was out of the way, the 49er offensive line slowly but deliberately took control of the game, until by the fourth quarter it was a borderline rout. The final tally was 579 total yards, 29 first downs, and one of the most mind-roasting stats of all: 323 rushing yards in a playoff game. What is this, 1934 or something?

We're not going to see those totals this Sunday. But we are likely to see them in proportion. The 49ers will outrush the Falcons. Kaepernick will match Matt Ryan's passing yardage and throw one less interception. There will be at least one critical fourth-quarter sack that kills an Atlanta drive. Cut the overall offensive totals by about one-third and you've got a 28-17  49er victory.

Notes from a most entertaining weekend:

Will the ridiculous notion of trying to "ice" the kicker finally meet its appropriate death after Carroll's blunder last week? The same bonehead move cost Miami a game earlier this year as well.  Now, we have nothing but affection for Pete Carroll: he's a Marin county native (Redwood High), he was on a short list of 49er coaching candidates in '97, he spectacularly revived a historic college football program at USC (NCAA sanctions: bleagh), and he's made his third NFL time a charm, even if we loathe his team. Carroll is too smart to believe that "icing" the kicker really works; he was just trying to evade the endless second-guessing that would have fallen his way had he not called the time-out. Eventually, somebody's gonna be brave enough to stop this charade.

Watching that pointless time-out cost Seattle a win Sunday reminded us of the Detroit Tigers, running themselves out of a big inning in Game Four of the World Series when their fastest player chose to sacrifice his speed by diving into first base on an infield grounder. This is another example of a pointless tradition the game can do without. Nobody really believes you'll get to the base faster that way (how many Kenyans dive onto the track at the finish line in the 100-meter dash?), but after all, if you dive, no one can question your hustle, right? "Yeah, doggone shame, but he gave it all he had, didn't he?" Well, son, no he didn't. We signed him for his speed, and you just watched him throw it away. 

While we have cordially despised the New England Patriots ever since they cheap-shotted their way to a championship in a 2001 season that rightfully ought to have ended on that snowy night in Foxborough, there is no question Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have produced one of the most multi-faceted, devastating offenses of all time. Brady stands as the central figure in a constantly-changing cast of supporting players, all of whom seem to be deployed in exactly the right manner to best suit their particular skills. Watching them carve up a good Houston defense on Sunday, we were uncomfortably reminded, not for the first time, of how opponents must have felt watching Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the "49er Machine" relentlessly marching to score after score back in the day.

A beloved family member picked the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC Super Bowl entry at the beginning of the postseason, claiming that with their defense back at full strength they would simultaneously be the most-rested and most-overlooked team in the tournament. We don't know but that he's right. After seeing them win that 80-minute endurance contest Saturday-- despite the overall sloppy play, as compelling a game as we've seen in years-- we're inclined to agree. Beating Denver in Denver is never an easy task, and while the postgame focus has mostly centered around how the Broncos lost it, we needn't forget how the Ravens won it, either. This is an extraordinarily resilient team, and, when we come down to it, probably is better-equipped to slow down Brady and beat the Patriots' secondary than either the Texans or the Broncos.    

How do you slow down Brady? With a pass rush up the middle in his face. And the deep passing attack that turned Champ Bailey into Chump Bailout Sunday can certainly get behind Devin McCourty and company, which is not the same as saying it will, of course. But we like the Ravens to win outright, and were we gamblin' men we'd sure enough take those nine points.

HarBowl, anyone? Or is it Supe-HAR Bowl? Well... you decide.

But on this we brook no argument: GO NINERS!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Justin Smith: MVP?

If a player's worth can accurately be gauged by how his play affects his team when he's not in the lineup, then by that measure Justin Smith may be the most valuable player in football.

The 49ers give up half a yard more per play when Number 94 sits. Their sack rate nearly doubles when he takes the field. Without him the 49ers, like most teams, need to blitz to get steady pressure on the quarterback. With him, they're the Super Bowl version of the New York Giants against Tom Brady: four guys getting it done up front, leaving seven in coverage. For anecdotal evidence, look at Aldon Smith:  from Defensive Player of the Year candidate to Claude Rains in just three weeks.

So, with the big guy listed as 'probable' for tonight's prime-time showdown with Green Bay, we're optimistic. A steady pass rush combined with the power running game was enough to keep Aaron Rodgers on the bench much of the time at Lambeau Field back in September, and keeping the game's top quarterback off the field is the best way to beat the league's best passing team. Just ask all those coaches who opposed Joe Montana years ago. Rodgers is more willing than most QBs to leave a risky play on the field and take a sack, because he has such great confidence in himself and in his receivers he figures there'll always be a next time. Keeping those 'next times' to a minimum will be the job of Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Frank Gore, et. al., and getting those sacks will be much easier if Justin Smith is there to tie up two blockers and allow Aldon Smith to roam free.  We should have some idea of how well it's all working before halftime.

Not a few have opined they believe this game will decide the winner of the Super Bowl. We'll abstain from such comments ourselves, at least as long as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady remain in the tournament.  But this weekend is without a doubt the real highlight of the NFL season. The pretenders were excused last week, and of the eight teams and four games scheduled for today and tomorrow we don't see a dog in the bunch. While leaning sympathetically in the direction of Houston, Atlanta, and Denver in the other games, we only sell out one way, now and forever: GO NINERS!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Week's Reprieve

Well, thanks in large part to Adrian Peterson, Christian Ponder, Jared Allen, et. al., our beloved 49ers have an extra week to rest and heal before postseason play begins.  Justin Smith, for one, will have had nearly a full month of rehabilitation and rest by the time they tee it up at Candlestick sometime over the weekend of January 12-13, and, as the song goes, you know that can't be bad.  In a few days we'll enjoy a full weekend of games which are guaranteed not to make us cry or swear off Tabasco sauce for life. Four teams will move on, four teams will go home, and none of them are our beloved Niners. So let's everybody exhale-- all together now-- and resolve to enjoy ourselves with no worries.

Meanwhile, for those of you belatedly leaping on the bandwagon now that the "second season" is underway, here's your chance to blend in and ingratiate yourself with the hard-core football junkies who've been living and dying with the scarlet and gold all their borned days. As every true fan knows, there's nothing more phony than some dilettante/wannabe cluelessly spouting what he or she thinks is "football jargon" while we're busy watching the play-action fake on the field.

The key to seamlessly blending in and rendering yourself indistinguishable from your newly-found football-fanatic friends is to keep what comments you do make short, blunt, and, most importantly, casually tossed off like Shakespearean asides.  Rather than calling unwanted attention to yourself and your incomplete knowledge of the intricate proceedings, these remarks will simply contribute to the overall flow of the action without provoking criticism or even attention. Good football-fan commentary is the Muzak of the game, and to that end, we offer the following suggestions. (Note: if up until this moment you have regarded Sunday afternoons in late autumn as perfect occasions for the ballet or the symphony, this guide is not for you. Some basic knowledge of the game-- distinguishing offense from defense, for example, or being able to tell a run from a pass--  is assumed. If that's not you, resign yourself to being the "weirdo" in the room, and try using it to your advantage. Remember, some chicks dig the arty, sensitive types.)

For the rest of you: Read, practice, and memorize. Soon you too will sound like a seasoned, knowledgeable fan.

Running Plays:
"He's carryin' the ball like a loaf of bread."
"Just lookin' for a place to fall down."
"Good block!"
"Protect the football!"
"They're trying to tackle the football, not the guy."
"Hah. Ran into his own man."

Passing Plays:
"He's got all day."  (Alternate with, "No pressure." For variety, occasionally switch to, "Hey, he's gonna be sacked!") 
"That guy's wide open."
"Get rid of it!"
"HOLDING!" (Avoid when your team has the ball.)
(Any incomplete pass)  "Lucky it wasn't intercepted."
(After a dropped pass) "He was runnin' with it before he caught it."

Any Play:
(Just as the ball is snapped)  "Hey, that guy's lined up offsides."
"Clip! Clip!"  (Avoid when your team has the ball.)
"He's not all that fast, but he is quick."
"Quit runnin' sideways, you idiot."
"That's holding!"  (Now, occasionally someone will challenge you and say, "Holding? Offensive or defensive?" Unless you're really sure of yourself, the best all-purpose answer to such a question is, "Both.") 
"Watch the play clock."
"Throw a flag!"  (If questioned, wave it off with, "Aaaah, refs didn't see it.")
(After a play with no gain) "Well, that didn't fool anybody." 
(Before any kick, except the extra point)  "Watch out for the fake."
(Play goes your team's way) "It's about time that worked!"
(Play goes the other team's way) "Isn't there a flag on that?"
When your team is losing, shake your head and say, "They can't get outta their own way."
When your team is winning, clap your hands and say, "Okay, guys! Gotta keep the pressure on."
When someone says, "Plenty of time left," nod sagely and reply, "For both teams."

You're welcome.  Break a leg!