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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