Joe-Pinions: Sports

23 Jan 2012 – Heartbreak at Candlestick

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 23/01/2012

Maybe the rain that fell from the heavens was portentous, a sign of the tears to come.

The team that seemed destined to enjoy a repeat of glorious history instead saw a re-run of history of a different kind.  Instead of yet another improbable victory against a superior opponent beaten by the inexorable combination of superior willpower and destiny, the 49ers instead relived the nightmare of losing to the New York Giants due to an ill-timed lost fumble.

For diehard San Francisco 49ers fans, this defeat was yet another echo of the past.  In 1990, Roger Craig lost a fumble when the 49ers were seemingly on their way to punching their ticket to a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.  The Giants stole the win with a successful field goal attempt at the end of the game.

Last night, in overtime, wide receiver Kyle Williams lost a critical fumble on an attempt to return a punt whilst in Giants territory, after yet another heroic stand by the 49ers defense.  This was actually Williams’ second lost fumble of the evening, the first having resulted in an eventual touchdown that gave the Giants a three-point lead.  With the second fumble resulting in the game-winning field goal, Williams’ gaffes were, effectively, ten points gifted to the Giants.

Let’s get one thing perfectly straight, though:  The Giants were the better team on Sunday.  The scoreboard said it all:  20-17 in OT, Giants over the 49ers.  The game film will show how they did it.  Their offense was miles ahead of the 49ers’.  Defensively, they did a brilliant job of not giving San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith any open receivers.  And on special teams, they came up with two game-changing turnovers.

When the 49ers win, they usually dominate in at least two of those three phases.  You can count on their defense to limit the damage the opposing offense can cause at the very least; in many cases, the championship-caliber defense was also very good at taking the ball away from the opponent and giving the offense extra possessions.  The Niners’ special teams units have also been stellar in terms of converting field goal attempts into points and creating favorable field position through great punting and punt coverage.  Moreover, the 49ers special teams kick return units have also been effective all year long.

In last night’s NFC Championship game, though, the 49ers’ strengths were neutralized, and their weaknesses were magnified.  Defensively speaking, the Niners actually played very well, especially in the second half of the game.  Where in the first half the Giants had obviously found their match-up advantage in WR Victor Cruz up against 49ers CB Carlos Rogers, San Francisco did a great job limiting the damage in the second half.  The 49ers started mixing up their coverages in the second half, and Cruz was only able to catch two more passes thrown to him after a monstrous first half performance that saw him pull down eight passes from Eli Manning.  Moreover, the Niners’ pass rush also made their adjustments, finally overcoming the Giants’ effective pass protection and scoring brutal hits and sacks on the Giants quarterback.  And, as expected, the Giants’ dual-threat running attack was ineffective.  The only “negative” thing to say about the 49ers’ defensive unit was its inability to get a turnover; I have to say that that was more a testament to Eli Manning’s excellent decision making and accuracy on his passes than any specific failing by the 49ers defense.

The 49ers’ special teams units were steady and unspectacular.  Kicker David Akers converted his only field goal attempt, and punter Andy Lee was solid with his punts.  Kickoff/punt coverage, as usual, was very good at stopping the Giants’ return men from getting big yardage on their chances.  Indeed, the only true black marks for the special teams units were Kyle Williams’ two critical errors.

On offense, the 49ers’ biggest weaknesses were exposed and exploited by the Giants.  Alex Smith looked harried for most of the evening.  Except for three big plays — two long TD bombs to tight end Vernon Davis and a long gain by halfback Frank Gore — the 49ers’ passing game was atrocious.  For most of his pass attempts Smith had nobody open, especially in the desperate second half when the offense needed to convert on third down.  Consequently, he pulled the ball down and ran for positive yardage.  Gore and his backup, Kendall Hunter, also had a productive game running the ball.  It’s just a pity that the 49ers didn’t seem to be willing to get more from their ground game.

It’s easy to look back in hindsight and point to all the blown chances, but the fact is that the 49ers still led the Giants before Kyle Williams let a rolling punt graze his knee for his first fumble.  That was a huge, avoidable mistake (return men are coached to get away from the ball if a punt/kick isn’t caught) that resulted in the Giants’ wresting the lead away.

The 49ers struggled mightily to tie the ballgame after Williams’ first big error.

Unfortunately for them, and for the 49er Faithful, Williams’ second error was the proverbial kill shot.


Although the season ended on such a sad note, the 49ers have much to be proud of.  This year’s team fell short only in the way it didn’t fully repeat a glorious moment from its own history, but this still has been a magical season.

For this fan, starved of not just playoff appearances and playoff victories, but of just plain ol’ good football, the San Francisco 49ers’ 2011-2012 season gave just so much joy.  And the Niners’ success is all the more gratifying since it came the right way:  Through hard work, determination, guile and cunning, and smarts, the 49ers exceeded all expectations.  All I wanted from this year’s team is a sign that it is back on the right track, after almost a full decade of ineptitude.

Jim Harbaugh’s arrival really has been the difference.  Even given the handicap of having next to no off-season with which to install offensive and defensive systems, Harbaugh and his staff still got the maximum from this team.  It’s hard to imagine any other coach and coaching staff getting as much performance and achieving the same results as they have this year.  Despite the loss in the championship game, this coaching staff still deserves to be covered in glory.

The players, too, deserve a lot of congratulations and gratitude from the fans.  Speaking just for myself, this team is composed of very likeable men.  They played together the whole year, and even in their darkest hour they rushed to protect and nurture the man whom many have held singularly responsible for their moment of failure.  Coach Jim Harbaugh proclaimed, almost from the onset, that his team is a squad of blue-collar workers, and it is an appropriate and accurate portrayal of this year’s 49ers.  They worked hard, they worked together, they covered for each other, and never ever resorted to petty finger-pointing when things didn’t work out.  I can honestly say that I like all of these 49ers, which is something I can’t say about the organization’s last Super Bowl-winning team.


So what does the future hold for the 49ers?

I think that there is a very strong core, a super-stable foundation already in place.  If any good came out of losing in the NFC Championship game, it’s that the Niners cannot hide their weaknesses any longer.  There is a dearth of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, so I suspect that’s the weakness that the team will seek to shore up first during the off-season.  The team needs a pair of reliable receivers to complement their two aces, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis.  I think the quarterback position is solid, and Alex Smith has already expressed his desire to stay; Coach Harbaugh has repeatedly said he wants Alex back, so I wholeheartedly echo his sentiments.  The offensive line is likewise good and will likely further improve.

Defensively, it’s a matter of convincing a few known contributors to stay despite free agency looming.  Linebacker Ahmad Brooks, cornerback Carlos Rogers, and safety Dashon Goldson all made big plays all year, but all three will be free to sign with whomever they want once the new league year begins in March.  The dream scenario would be if all three stayed with the team, and Rogers and Goldson have both said they want to be 49ers (Brooks may also have said the same thing, but I’ve not heard it); however, we’ll see how things shake out.

The coaching staff looks like it will stay together.  No complaints from me on that front.  Coach Harbaugh had been very generous with his praise for his fellow coaches, so I imagine he’d want to “keep the band together,” as he himself said.  There is a possibility that offensive coordinator Greg Roman may become the next head coach for the Indianapolis Colts, but until the Colts make their final decision that is all just conjecture.  (Coach Roman helped Coach Harbaugh groom Luck while they all were at Stanford.)

Will next year’s team take us on as good a thrill ride as they did this year?

I, for one, hope they do not.

I hope the ride lasts a little bit longer next year.


20 Jan 2012 – Giant Killing

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 20/01/2012

Last week I very strongly felt that the San Francisco 49ers were going to beat the New Orleans Saints.  Despite the Saints’ significant offensive firepower advantage, I thought that the 49ers were simply the more complete team.  With a championship-caliber defense and a superb special teams unit, the 49ers had the advantage in two out of the three phases of the game.

This week, the 49ers are looking to advance to their sixth Super Bowl appearance.

Standing in their way are the mighty New York Giants.


I’ll be honest with you.

As strongly as I felt the 49ers were going to win last weekend, I’m finding it harder to be as confident this week.  What troubles me is I don’t quite understand why I don’t feel the same degree of confidence this weekend.

I mean, I’ve been saying to friends and family that I truly thought that the New Orleans Saints were probably the most difficult opponent the 49ers were going to face in the NFL playoff field.  Yes, that feeling even took into account the possibility — the likelihood, in fact — that the 49ers had to travel to Lambeau Field and play the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers should both teams advance to the NFC Championship round.  As things transpired, only the 49ers did their part; the Packers vindicated my opinion that they were not truly that formidable, losing to the New York Giants.

The Saints, with their vaunted high-firepower offense, kept the game’s outcome in doubt throughout.  Despite being forced into three turnovers in the first half and finding themselves in a 17-0 hole, the Saints, led by their brilliant quarterback Drew Brees, closed the gap to three points by halftime.  One quarter later, another turnover – this time a lost fumble on a punt return – led to a 20-14 49ers lead.  The 49ers defense was doing its mighty best containing Brees and the explosive Saints at bay.

Alas, the 49ers offense had been stymied by too many drops at key downs by their wide receivers, which meant they had to surrender the ball to the Saints.  The stagnant 49ers offense in the middle quarters meant that the team’s defensive unit was spending far too much time on the field; as a natural consequence, of course, the Saints’ best players (their offense) were also on the field, stretching the Niners’ defenders to their maximum.

Thus it was no surprise that the 49ers’ defenders finally gave up not one, but two, explosive scoring plays that surrendered the slim lead to the Saints with around four minutes of game time left.  The Niners’ defense simply couldn’t hold the tide of a Drew Brees passing attack back forever.

Indeed, the big surprise was that Brees’ counterpart on the 49ers, Alex Smith, was able to respond to the Saints’ offensive barrage not once but twice to wrest back the lead and control of the ballgame in that same time period.  First with a brilliant quarterback naked bootleg to the left which resulted in a 28yd touchdown run, then with a calm and precise final game-winning drive punctuated by tight end Vernon Davis’ dramatic touchdown reception, Alex Smith emerged as the victorious field commander at the end of simply one of the greatest games in NFL playoff history.  As the man himself said when asked whether or not he could out-throw Drew Brees, all he was concerned about was coming out on top at the end of the game.

To the joy of all 49ers fans, starved of playoff success for almost a decade, that’s what he did.


The Giants were always going to be a tougher opponent than the Green Bay Packers.  The Packers, while explosive on offense and enjoying home field advantage for the entirety of the playoffs, did not impress me on defense at all.  Also, their special teams were adequate, but not a game-changing factor that the 49ers’ unit is.  Aaron Rodgers might be a prolific passer, but he also commanded a largely one-dimensional offensive attack.  The Packers, unlike the Saints, haven’t had an effective running game all year.  Also, their pass offense seemed to be geared towards getting chunk plays; ball control, which, like controlling field position, was an oft-ignored characteristic of sound fundamental football, was a facet of offense that Green Bay didn’t seem too concerned about.  The Packers were schematically predisposed to lose the time of possession battle.

If there is one essential truth to football, here it is:  You can’t score points if you don’t have the ball.

The Giants did a great job in covering Green Bay’s receiving corps; quarterback Aaron Rodgers couldn’t find his guys open for much of the game.  Moreover, even if they did get open, the Packers’ receivers picked the worst time to drop good passes.  The lack of an effective ground game (Rodgers was the Packers’ most effective runner in their contest vs. the Giants, which is a damning indictment of Green Bay’s offensive scheme) meant that Rodgers was a sitting duck in the pocket for the Giants’ impressive defensive line.

The Packers’ terrible defense further compounded the defending champions’ problems.  If there were two plays that illustrated Green Bay’s ineptitude on defense, look no further than Hakeem Nicks’ two touchdown plays.  On his first touchdown, Giants quarterback Eli Manning found Nicks open on a deep in route; why was Nicks so wide open?  His defender was playing way off of him, giving him a huge cushion of about three or four yards.  Nicks simply found an opening between three Packers zone defenders, absorbed a hit from the Packers’ deep safety that probably should have been a proper tackle instead, then avoided pursuit to run in for the touchdown.  But as unforgivable that lax coverage was, Nicks’ second score was even more egregious.  Towards the end of the first half, with the Giants up by only three points, Eli Manning heaved a “Hail Mary” last-second pass.  Somehow Nicks was able to come down with the ball in the end zone, despite being surrounded by three or four Green Bay defenders.  Nicks’ touchdown catch gave New York a ten-point cushion.

The Giants exposed the Packers as an incomplete, one-dimensional team with an ineffective defense.  Against their more complete arsenal on both sides of the ball, Green Bay never had a shot once their receivers started making all those drops during what was their biggest game of the year so far.


So now it’s down to two teams in the NFC.

The San Francisco 49ers are hosting the New York Giants in a somewhat unexpected match-up.

Of course, I’ll be rooting for the 49ers as always.

But who is going to win, and how is that team going to do it?

After much thought, I think San Francisco advances to the Super Bowl.  I won’t call the score, but given the likelihood of rain on game day and the quality of both defenses, I think neither team will score over thirty points.

Here are the keys to a 49ers victory:

  • No big plays.  If this sounds familiar, it should.  I said something similar for the New Orleans Saints game.  Against the Giants, this means the 49ers secondary cannot miss tackles as well as limiting the Giants’ receivers to as few YACs (Yards After Catch) as possible.
  • Line play.  I think this game will be won and lost by the team that dominates the line of scrimmage.  The 49ers must generate pressure against the Giants’ O-line, and their O-line must keep Alex Smith upright and open up holes for both Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.  I feel good about the 49ers’ capability to generate a good push up front on offense, as they are very good at loading up the line with extra linemen and tight ends.  Whether or not the Giants can contend with all that beef with their vaunted D-line (which is more specialized for rushing the passer than it is for containing the run) and a weak linebacking corps is going to be interesting to watch unfold.
  • Creative play-calling on offense.  All year long the 49ers have gotten big plays with trick plays.  Whether it’s a brave naked bootleg on 3rd down and 8 or a pass to a lineman or a pass on a fake FG, the 49ers offensive coaches have shown a penchant for creative solutions to the problem of moving the ball down the field.  Two things I’ve not seen too much from the 49ers this year that I suspect will be unveiled against the Giants:  Screen passes and what Bill Walsh used to call “action passes,” where the QB throws on the move.  Don’t be surprised if the 49ers use a lot more of these aspects of the offense against the Giants to defuse their potent pass rush.
  • No mistakes.  The Niners must limit blown coverages on defense, drops, fumbles, and interceptions by Alex Smith on offense.  The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win this game.


I don’t know if this game will be an instant classic like last weekend’s thriller against the Saints.  It will be a good game, but I think the 49ers can win by more than a touchdown here.  I just think their defense is a good match-up for the Giants’ strengths, and their offense plays to New York’s weaknesses.

Of course, all this is just speculation.  Words don’t mean anything compared to how these men will play on the field.

And that’s the big fun of it all, watching it all unfold.

Go Niners!

17 Jan 2012 – From Nine Years to the Last Sixty Minutes, to the Next Sixty Minutes

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 17/01/2012

It seems like it has been forever since Candlestick Park was so alive.

In the grand scheme of things, nine years are nothing, much briefer than the blinking of an eye in a universe of forever.

But nine years can feel like forever.

Nine years since the San Francisco 49ers were last in a playoff game.

Nine years since the 49ers last embarked on a post-season quest to take home the team’s next Lombardi Trophy.

Nine years since the grand old lady, The Stick, was the venue where magical things happened for the good guys in cardinal and gold.

Nine years of ever-growing heartache and disappointment, when the organization seemed intent on casting aside past glories, purging head coaches and players who operated within the parameters of a tried-and-true system – the “Walsh Way” – and replacing them with new people with seemingly nary a clue on how to win.

Nine years of an inexorable, agonizing slide into mediocrity and frustration.

Nine years of acquiring talent, but never reaping the benefits because of deplorable mismanagement of resources and the absence of great leadership.

Nine years of disrespect, of outright derision, by all parties — the press, other teams, other teams’ fans — because the 49ers deserved it for continually betraying its own history of grand achievement.

These last nine years have seemed like forever for this 49ers fan.

But in one gloriously beautiful January afternoon, all the pain, disappointment, and frustration dissipated.  The fog that had shrouded the view to the summit of the NFL had finally lifted.

The San Francisco Forty-Niners, my beloved NFL team through thick and thin, are finally playoff winners again.  They beat the vaunted New Orleans Saints in what must be one of the greatest games in NFL playoff history.

Those sixty minutes of game time washed away the ignominies and futility of the past nine years.

Nine years of angst, gone after sixty minutes of unadulterated joy.

And in a universe of forever, after the last sixty minutes, 49ers fans everywhere rejoice in the fact that we will have a further sixty minutes to somehow find a way to go even further.  The team stands at the threshold of a full return to glory.  After a sojourn in the wilderness where souls are cleansed and spirits are forged to be worthy once more, the San Francisco 49ers have arrived at the gates of destiny.

For all who follow and love this team, people like me, the last sixty minutes were just the latest leg of a journey back in time.  This season has paralleled events from thirty years ago in so many ways, it’s eerie.  I’ve touched on how this year’s current course is so much like history repeating itself before, with only the final outcome yet to be determined.

Before getting to that final outcome, though, will be the next sixty minutes.

The San Francisco 49ers overcame some New Orleans voodoo black magic during the last sixty minutes; in the next sixty minutes, they now must slay the Giants guarding those gates of destiny.

So much is riding now on these next sixty minutes.

13 Jan 2012 – Alex Smith

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 13/01/2012

I have always liked Alex Smith.

I’ve defended him over the years despite everything that’s been said about him.  49ers fans have largely had nothing but bad things to say about him, and the press has followed suit.  Most of his coaches have even gone so far as to humiliate him in public.

But I can honestly say that I’ve always seen something good in him.  Back then, I guess it was just a simple admiration for his intellect, as well as an appreciation for his genuine class as a person.  Few professional athletes are as polite and modest as Alex Smith.

Nowadays, though, after a year under head coach Jim Harbaugh’s guidance and tutelage, we see a different Alex Smith emerge from the chrysalis:  We see a man of iron determination.

What else could he be made of, having endured so much crap over his entire stay in San Francisco?  Lesser men would have left his situation years ago.

Deciding to stay, to prove to all the doubters and the haters that he is a good quarterback, a quarterback who still hungered to join the roll call of greats playing his position on the team that has always been about the quarterback, exposes the truth about Alex Smith:  He had only ever wanted to have the chance to get there.

With his team’s and his coaches’ help, he stands at the brink.

The time is now for Alex Smith.

If I had his ear, I would implore him to live in the moment, to cherish the here and now.  I’d advise him to take to heart the hard-won lessons of the past.  Leave history where it belongs, far and away in the rear-view mirror.  He should blind himself from supposedly-perfect hindsight; after all, what’s done is already done, and there’s no changing what has already happened.

If he still hears the boos cascading down from the stands onto the sacred ground that is Bill Walsh Field at Candlestick Park, be deaf to them.  After all, these are nothing but echoes from the past.  The past doesn’t matter nearly as much as the here and now do.

If he still hears his old coaches’ admonitions, whether given in private or tossed out in the harshness of the media spotlight, I’d tell him take from them whatever valuable lessons he cared to take.  Whatever else, I’d say to him to just don’t believe it when they said he was meek, or soft, or that he just didn’t have what it takes to be the leader of his team.  If they were right, how could he be where he is now, leading his team in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs?

If ever he read the countless column inches proclaiming that he was a bust of a draft pick, that he would never measure up to Montana or Young or even Garcia, I’d tell him that all those guys were nothing until they all played and won their first playoff games.  Every journey starts with a single step, the first step, and for Alex Smith his journey, his quest towards validating his place amongst the NFL’s greatest quarterback tradition begins on Saturday, January 14, 2012.

He doesn’t have to approach this as a shootout between himself and Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints’ excellent quarterback.  To his credit, Smith himself has said that that’s not the point.

It’s not about who throws for more passing yards, or who throws more touchdowns.

As Smith said, all that matters is who wins at the end.

And the best way for Alex Smith to do that is to be Alex Smith as he has been all throughout the 2011 season.

That means making good decisions, starting with whether or not to go with the called play or to check to a different one depending on what the defense is showing pre-snap.  Only Smith and his teammates know what he means when he yells either “Let it roll!  Let it roll!” or “Kill!  Kill!  Kill” at the line of scrimmage  every single time they line up.  That secret knowledge is an advantage, and one that Smith has exploited very well this year.

But more than just the pre-snap adjustments, Smith has done superbly at not making the killer error, the kind of mistake that destroyed his team’s chances at victory that had been the hallmark of his past prior to head coach Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in San Francisco.  Five interceptions over sixteen games’ worth of pass attempts is superb, no matter how you care to slice this onion.  Montana and Young, Hall of Famers both, never threw so few interceptions in any of their seasons at the controls of the San Francisco offense.

To be Alex Smith means making timely completions.  Smith has notably made some really big throws at key moments, including the game-winning touchdown pass to Delanie Walker on a quick slant in Detroit.  He doesn’t need to throw a lot of passes, or to make every single throw; no quarterback is perfect.  Not even Drew Brees (or Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning, or Aaron Rodgers, or whoever else you care to name) can do that.

To be Alex Smith means being a tough athlete.  He has taken hits in games when his offensive line was a confused mess, but he always got up, dusted himself off, and kept on going.  He has been superb at using his legs to earn yards when his receivers were covered, and his protection was breaking down.  Positive yards all add up in the end when you consider just how critical having good field position is.

To be Alex Smith means being a tough, athletic, intelligent quarterback.  That’s who he is, what he is.

And that’s all he needs to be from here on out.

10 Jan 2011 – A Renaissance in San Francisco

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 10/01/2012

The San Francisco 49ers are enjoying a long-awaited renaissance during the still-ongoing 2011-2012 NFL season.  For the first time since 2002, the Niners are in the NFL playoffs.  Where for most of the past decade the 49ers and their fans were ready to shut the door on a just-ended season full of misery and despair, this season’s story has yet to reach a conclusion.

The team’s most ardent fans, myself included, are hoping this story’s ending doesn’t come this upcoming weekend, when the good guys dressed in red and gold face off against the baddies in black and white.  The New Orleans Saints are visiting, and they intend to use their high-powered offense, the very best the NFL has to offer, to put the 49ers’ fairy tale to bed.  The 49ers, meanwhile, have perhaps the NFL’s most complete team:  The defensive unit is championship-caliber, the special teams are superb, and the offense is effective enough insofar as operating within its own limits.

Here are some keys for the 49ers to win this game:

  • Contain the Saints’ air attack.  The fewer explosive passing plays the Saints get, the fewer points they score.
  • Establish an effective ground attack.  The 49ers must get the running game going.  This will move the chains, chew up yards, and, most importantly, keep Drew Brees off the field.  The Niners must win the time of possession battle, and do so convincingly.
  • Do not fall behind by more than six points.  The Niners’ offense lacks explosiveness; they don’t score points in bunches.  If they are forced to abandon a ball control strategy, that plays into New Orleans’ strengths on defense.
  • No mistakes.  The 49ers will get their fair share of big defensive plays and turnovers; they cannot allow big chunk plays (runs or pass plays that gain 20 or more yards each) on defense, and they must not give the Saints extra possessions via lost fumbles or interceptions.
  • Field position is key.  The 49ers are the home team, and the Saints are not as good out in the elements.  Controlling the field position battle through great special teams play will play a big part towards helping the 49ers to a victory.

It promises to be a great showdown.


Though it has been almost a full decade since the 49ers last competed in the NFL playoffs, there’s something familiar about this season.  Long-time 49ers fans, especially those with a knowledge of the team’s history, can undoubtedly see points in the narrative where the past met the present; the only thing left to see is whether or not the story ultimately ends the same way, with a Super Bowl championship.

The synopsis of the tale goes something like this:  The Niners suffer through a long period of malaise and mismanagement; a “new” owner takes over, cleans house, and plucks his new head coach from nearby Stanford University; the new head coach succeeds in making the team gradually respectable, and, eventually, winners; the 49ers complete their rebirth by winning the Super Bowl.

This story has already come to pass before:  In 1979, after spending a near-decade of futility and mediocrity, the 49ers’ newish owner, Eddie deBartolo, Jr, decided he had had enough and fired his team’s old coach and general manager.  He needed a new front man for his team’s football operations and hired Bill Walsh to be his head coach and chef d’equipe for the 49ers.  It took Walsh three years, but he gradually built his team’s roster and taught what was then a radical new system of football (not just offense, mind you; Walsh re-engineered the entire organization from top to bottom to facilitate high performance on the football field) to his team.  Walsh’s efforts were rewarded with a victory in Super Bowl XVI.

In 2011, the story repeated itself almost verbatim:  After almost a full decade of futility and mediocrity, the 49ers’ newish owner, Jed York (nephew of Eddie deBartolo, Jr), decided he had had enough.  He installed a new head coach, Jim Harbaugh, whom he plucked from Stanford, and hired Trent Baalke as the GM.  Where Walsh took three years (since the team’s talent cupboard was pathetically bare in 1979) to turn the team’s fortunes, Harbaugh and Baalke accomplished essentially the same thing in one year by virtue of simply adding on to the team’s already talented core and returning to many of Walsh’s organizational, operational and football strategy concepts.

Now the only question that remains is:  Will Jim Harbaugh’s repetition of history ultimately end as Walsh’s original story did?  Can Coach Harbaugh lead the 49ers to the team’s sixth Super Bowl championship?

I’ll take the liberty of speaking for all San Francisco 49ers fans and say, “I sure hope so.”


9 Jan 2012 – Thoughts on Tim Tebow

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 09/01/2012

Tim Tebow.

He is easily the NFL’s most polarizing player.

You watch him, and how you react depends completely on what your rooting interests are.

If you’re a student of the techniques on how to play the game, interested in the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of football, there’s a good chance you’d be aghast.  The footwork on his dropbacks looks fine, but, yes, that extended wind-up on his throwing motion is the complete opposite of a Dan Marino-like quick release.  When Tebow throws, you’re tempted to think that you should time his release not with a stopwatch, but with a sundial.

If you like watching film on passing plays, breaking them down and looking at the coverage and the receivers’ routes and deducing how the play should work, he’ll likely make you tear your hair out.  At least six times in yesterday’s Wildcard round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whenever the camera angle allowed you to look at the receivers and the secondary and see the pass play develop, I saw Tebow locked in on one receiver on each play, failing to see his other receivers coming open.  By watching Tebow closely, you can deduce that his ability to read coverage drops and going through each play’s progressions is stunted at best, and non-existent at worst.  (Each pass play at the professional level is designed to incorporate a progression with at least two receivers, a primary and a secondary option, to account for an anticipated coverage.  The more sophisticated the passing play design, the more options a quarterback has.)

If you enjoy pinpoint accuracy from your quarterback, Tebow will make you yell ineffectually at your television (or, if you were watching him play live, at Tebow himself) in frustration.  Most quarterbacks lose their ability to throw to a target effectively when they’re under pressure (from a fierce pass rush, for instance).  Tebow, though, is one of just a select few professional starting quarterbacks that I’ve seen who can miss throws despite enjoying good protection from his offensive line.  He throws them high; he throws them low; he throws the ball anywhere but where his receivers can get to it more than half the time, even when the receiver had done a great job running his route and creating separation from his defender.  In other words, Tebow makes a pass completion seem like a godsend.

To someone who studies the game of American football, especially someone who wants to understand the passing game and the art and science of playing quarterback, Tim Tebow is probably not the first guy you’d want to look at as far as studying the textbook way of getting things done.  I know he’s not on my own short list.

Tim Tebow, though, is something else.

To a defense opposing him, his unconventional methods are a cause for concern.  To defenses, the man under center (or taking the shotgun snap) is seen as a two-way option; well within one second of the start of the play, most good defenses will have determined whether the quarterback is dropping back to pass or is going to hand the ball off to a teammate on a run play.  Tebow, though, presents professional defenses with a third, much less common, option:  He could keep the ball and run with it himself.

To a defensive unit, Tebow is worthy of respect.  To some defenses, I’d say Tebow is actually scary.

Tim Tebow played and thrived in what’s called a “spread option” offense when he was in college.  The spread option combines two apparently disparate offensive philosophies, the spread offense (where the offensive team deploys all five eligible receivers spread across the field, leaving the quarterback often alone five yards behind the center in the shotgun) which is primarily a passing-oriented attack, and the option offense (a run-oriented attack where the offensive backfield is occupied by up to four backs at times, and the offense as a whole presents a compressed look horizontally).  Tebow’s college coach, Urban Meyer, did the intelligent thing and maximized Tebow’s particular strengths — Tebow is very athletic, a very good ball-carrier with surprising speed, power and quickness, and is amazingly tough — and hid his weaknesses (as discussed above, his skills as a passer are limited).  The upshot?  Meyer’s Florida Gators, led by a quarterback with limited passing skills, won two BCS National Championships (in 2007 and 2009).

In the NFL, though, option offenses are thought to be anachronistic, a relic of the game’s ancient past.  Running-based ground attacks, generally speaking, are falling out of favor in the NFL, and option-type plays are almost non-existent in most teams’ playbooks.  Talking heads everywhere proclaim that heavily pass-biased offenses like the Green Bay Packers’ and the New England Patriots are what you need in the modern NFL; accordingly, teams are all searching for that rarest of gems, quarterbacks who can pass like Aaron Rogers or Tom Brady (or Drew Brees or Peyton Manning).  Given his known limitations as a passer (ignore the stats, folks; though he’s had a notable sampling of games where he’s had amazing pass attempts : completions ratios, all you need to do is watch the guy throw.  His receivers, and the relative lack of talent of college pass defenses, flatter his college statistics), it’s still a bit controversial and surprising even to this day that the Denver Broncos selected Tebow as their first-round draft pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Despite his first-round draft choice status, Tebow rode the bench for most of his first year and a half in Denver.  When he was inserted in games, though, the Broncos would somehow get electrified.  The Bronco fan base’s clamors for Tebow’s permanent promotion to the starting quarterback spot became too loud to ignore, so new Broncos head coach John Fox finally acquiesced (Fox’s predecessor, Josh McDaniels, was Tebow’s first pro head coach).  From Denver’s sixth game onwards, Tim Tebow was the Broncos’ starting quarterback.

Tebow’s first couple of games as the full-time starter were decidedly ugly.  The primary reason was that the Broncos’ offense was not specifically tailored to his strengths; if anything, Denver’s game plans featured far more passing than Tebow’s abilities could handle.  Perhaps grudgingly, Fox reinvented Denver’s offensive philosophy, eschewing much of the passing game, re-emphasizing the run, and, most dramatically, introducing a package of option/spread option plays.  Fox, like the best of coaches, reconfigured his team’s tactics to better fit its strengths and disguise its weaknesses.  Instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, Fox hacked up the hole and made it as close to a square shape as possible.

The effect was immediate and dramatic.  The Broncos, who had lost four of their first five games in 2011, overtook the Oakland Raiders and won the AFC West.  Tebow and the Broncos were in the playoffs.

I have to confess that I hadn’t seen too much of Tebow prior to yesterday’s Wildcard round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I’m one of those fans who studies pass offenses and the art and science of quarterbacking; by no means am I an expert, but based on what I’d seen of Tebow in college and the little I’d seen of him in the pros he just wasn’t that interesting.

Watching the game yesterday, though, opened up my eyes to another facet of Tebow that I’d never ever seen.

To his team’s fans – to his fans, and he has a legion of them – Tebow is not flawed; he isn’t scary.

Tim Tebow is beloved.

I know, that seems a bit hyperbolic.  But it’s true, as far as I can see.

He’ll never be a passing champion.  He’ll never threaten Tom Brady’s record for passing TDs in a season, or Drew Brees’ mark for most passing yards in a year.  He won’t ever come close.

But those are the wrong numbers to look at.

The single most important thing to consider when you look at quarterbacks above all else is:  Does he lead your team to victory?

Yesterday, Tebow as a passer was typical Tebow:  He completed less than half of his pass attempts (10 of 21), with lots of balls sailing past open receivers or thrown into the ground despite the receivers being open; despite this, he did go over 300 passing yards (316yds) and set an NFL record for yards per completion in a playoff game (31.6yds/completion).  His numbers were inflated by a game-winning 80yd TD pass to Demaryius Thomas (in fact, Thomas accrued 204yds by himself on just four receptions!), demonstrating the point that his receivers do a great job at making Tebow’s numbers look great.  On many of his incompletions, Tebow did not practice sound quarterbacking techniques – going through the play’s progression of receivers in a systematic attempt to find the weakness in the coverage and find the most open man.  He forced the ball to a covered receiver a few times, and on many passes simply misfired (he threw to the right guy but just outright missed).

However, give him a chance to carry the ball, and Tebow – Tim Tebow, the football player, the quarterback – showed up.  Unusually big and amazingly tough for a quarterback, Tebow ran like a quicker version of fullback Mike Alstott.  He ran on belly dives (run plays into the middle of the line); he ran on option keepers around the defensive end.  He took his hits and got up for more with nary a sign that the defense hurt him.

On some option-type plays, he pitched or handed off the ball to his running backs with great effect as well.

You can sum up Tim Tebow’s execution of the Bronco’s offensive game plan against the Steelers in one sentence:  He made the Steelers defense guess and hesitate.

Thus, on the first play of the overtime period, the Broncos lined up in shotgun, in “Tiger” personnel (2 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 RB).  The formation was balanced, with one WR and one TE per side; Demaryius Thomas is on the left.  Tebow had his running back next to him on his left.  The pre-snap look had both safeties deep.  Just before the snap, though, both safeties crept towards the line of scrimmage, clearly intending to blitz and jam the likely run play that the Broncos were going to open the overtime period with.  Tebow caught the snap, faked the handoff to his running back, and found Demaryius Thomas on a post route with inside leverage against the cornerback.

The Steelers guessed that the Broncos would run, then hesitated on the quick play action fake.  Tebow recognized that Demaryius Thomas had beaten his man and threw a perfect pass that hit his receiver in stride.  A little less than nine seconds later (the whole play from snap to the game’s end), the home crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High exploded into a deafening chorus of cheers, and the magic of Tim Tebow continued for at least one more week.

Tebow may have a strange stat line, but he did answer that most important question:  He led his team to victory.  At the end of the day, helping your team get one more W is more important than getting all those yards and touchdowns.  Style points don’t count for squat in the final reckoning.

In hindsight, everything, of course, becomes crystal clear.  Lots of people were perplexed that the Steelers called a double safety blitz, leaving the cornerbacks on their proverbial islands.  You know what, though?  I thought that the tactic was correct; against a quarterback who is more dangerous as a runner or as a run decoy (on option plays), you need as many men close to the line of scrimmage as possible for possible run support.

The simple fact is that Demaryius Thomas did a great job getting inside of his defender, and Tebow both recognized this AND made the perfect throw.  The two of them had to beat the defense’s tactics, and they did.  It’s stupid to fault the Steelers for their decision to blitz.  All you have to do is give credit to the men who defeated the correct tactic.

How you see Tim Tebow depends entirely on how you look at him.  If you’re a student of football, there’s little to learn from Tebow’s technique, mechanics, or approach to the passing game.  If you’re a coach, you’ll likely be baffled by what you’re seeing, since his strengths and capabilities are simply unconventional.  If you’re playing against the Broncos (or, if you’re a fan of the team the Broncos are playing against) you likely deride him for his shortcomings, yet fear his strengths.

But if you’re a fan of either his team or of Tebow himself, well…

He’s manna from heaven.

5 Jan 2012 – Random NFL Thoughts

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 05/01/2012

Instead of a coherent post on a singular theme or topic, today I present a bunch of haphazard thoughts on the NFL.

  • I have to confess that I’m somewhat amused with the reaction from San Diego Chargers fans to the announcement that the team’s general manager, A.J. Smith, and head coach Norv Turner, were set to return next year despite what most observers (including yours truly) say has been yet another year of gross underachievement by Southern California’s only NFL team.  I think that it’s a bit silly for the Chargers fan base to complain about their team’s state of affairs now, of all times, since their window of winning (or at least more seriously challenging for) the Super Bowl closed at least one year before LaDainian Tomlinson lost his legs.  Without wanting to be intentionally insulting, when have the Chargers been worth a damn anyway?  Isn’t mediocrity the usual state of affairs for this team?
  • The Oakland Raiders’ huge gamble to trade away a good chunk of their future (via the draft) to acquire quarterback Carson Palmer turned out to be a fool’s ploy in hindsight.  Head coach (and presumably the Raiders’ new top dog) Hue Jackson’s move to mortgage the team’s future to get Palmer in a bid to win right now was audacious, but was ultimately foolish.  The bottom line:  You just can’t plug in a player into a football team without any real time for him to get fully integrated in a team’s system.  This is especially true for quarterbacks.
  • The most dangerous playoff team in the NFC, I very strongly feel, is not the defending champion Green Bay Packers; the New Orleans Saints take that honor.  While not exactly an offensively-balanced team, the Saints do seem to have a more effective running game.  They also have more explosive big play potential than even the Packers.
  • I think the AFC doesn’t have a real strong chance to win the Super Bowl this year.  I’d feel differently if the New England Patriots had both a more effective running game and a much better defense.
  • Most disappointing team this year:  Philadelphia Eagles.
  • Most surprising team:  A tie between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals.
  • Intriguing coincidence # 1:  When the 49ers won their first Super Bowl (in 1981), they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
  • Intriguing coincidence # 2:  The season the 49ers first won the Super Bowl, they came from behind to beat the Detroit Lions.  In Detroit, no less.
  • Is Tim Tebow a great NFL quarterback?  I don’t think so.  Not yet, anyway.  Unless he truly develops his passing skills and his ability to read NFL defenses, I won’t be calling him great.
  • Is Cam Newton a great NFL quarterback?  I don’t know.  Ask me again in two years.  I have a feeling, though, that the shine on Newton will get a bit tarnished in his second year, when coaches have got a lot more tape on him to study.  Things will get harder to accomplish for Mr. Newton, and how he reacts to the inevitable adversities in his path will be what determines whether or not he’s a great quarterback.
  • I have a feeling the San Francisco 49ers will have at least one playoff victory this year.  This is even if they play the New Orleans Saints.

That’s all I’ve got for today, folks!  See you all soon.

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