Monday, February 4, 2013

Super Bowl XLVII: Well, It Was Interesting

Jacoby Jones' 108-yard kickoff return will likely go down as one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history.

By Joe Parello

Super Bowl XLVII, with it's many intriguing story lines, interesting special teams plays, exciting finish and soon-to-be infamous power outage delay, is sure to be one the most memorable Super Bowls in history.

But, football fans should also be sure to remember that both teams did their very best to lose this game, as key players made massive mistakes at critical junctures, and both coaching staffs neutered their best offensive weapons when the game was there for the taking.

In short, both teams played scared.

Many will point to the long delay, caused by an early second-half power outage, as the reason the 49ers were able to claw back into the game after trailing 28-6. But, in reality, it was because the Ravens went conservative, and took the ball out of the hands of their hottest (and the NFL's hottest) offensive player.

Yes, I am referring to Joe Flacco as the NFL's hottest offensive player, just hear me out.

The Ravens began the game slinging the ball with Flacco, and he rewarded their confidence by going 13-20 for 192 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions. The 49ers, like the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, had no answer for Anquan Boldin, and the speedy combination of Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith forced those physical 49er safeties out of the box.

Combining his first half of the Super Bowl and his other three playoff games, Flacco had thrown for an astounding 1,045 yards and 11 touchdowns with no interceptions. If history is fair to Flacco, it will remember this run as one of the best in NFL playoff history, but that is neither here nor there.

But, from the time the 49ers scored their first points of the second half, the Ravens took away Joe Flacco's big play ability on first down. Prior to that score, the Ravens had allowed Flacco to throw on first down at least once on each Ravens drive. After that, Flacco threw on first down only twice.

Flacco's stat line for the rest of the game, while throwing mostly on 3rd and long? Just 95 yards and no scores, with over half of those yards coming on the two 3rd and shorts he faced.

Now to the 49ers, who missed numerous opportunities in the first half that have been chronicled elsewhere. But, what really did the Niners in was not playing to their offensive strengths when the game was on the line.

The San Francisco offense has been nearly impossible to defend in recent weeks because the threat of quarterback Colin Kaepernick getting to the outside on the zone read scared the hell out of opposing defensive coordinators.

It also made it hard on opposing defensive lineman, because even if you were "gap sound" and held your spot on the line, Kaepernick's "read" handoff created an extra gap by forcing an unblocked defender to make a decision that would never be correct. Usually, that lineman would stay at home to keep Kaepernick inside, but then the 49ers would have numbers in the blocking game to the other side, opening lanes for Frank Gore and LaMichael James.

So, with two different opportunities inside the Ravens' 5-yard line, one to tie on a two-point conversion and one to win on a 4th and goal, why on Earth would the 49ers take away the threat of Kaepernick running?

First, trailing 31-29 and needing a two-point conversion, Kaepernick threw the slant left to Randy Moss and over threw the self-proclaimed best receiver of all time. This play came just seconds after Kaepernick got out of the pocket and scrambled for a 15-yard touchdown. To the Ravens' credit, they brought a blitz from the secondary to force Kapernick into a quick pass, and the total number of rushers they brought took away the zone read.

What I don't get is why that play wouldn't be a roll out or waggle of some sort. Sure, you can audible which side you want to run it to when you see the strong safety cheating up like he did, but Kaepernick's ability to run was clearly in Baltimore's head at this point. Use it.

Instead, they forced him to beat the blitz in Tom Brady fashion, and it obviously did not work.

Then, the 49ers had multiple chances inside the Ravens' 10, trailing 34-29, and still relied on Kaepernick's arm. Though they did run the read to James on first down, San Francisco then dialed up three consecutive pass plays, all to receiver Michael Crabtree. All three were incomplete, and the most predictable play came on 4th and goal when the 49er coaching staff essentially said "we're out of ideas" and just threw a quick fade to Crabtree against double coverage.

Now, of course, there was probably some pass interference there, but that doesn't get the normally innovative Jim Harbaugh off the hook for that dreadful sequence of play calls coming from his coaching staff.

So, while this game will go down as one of the most memorable in Super Bowl history, you should also remember that it was an ugly one, where both teams played scared in the biggest moments and forgot how they got there.