Jan 212013
 

Jack-and-Jackie-HarbaughSuper Bowl XLVII is sure to give us all its share of storylines over the next two weeks as the San Francisco 49ers prepare to take on the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans. So let me offer a first set of reactions to the championship weekend and the upcoming game in two weeks.

  • I know I am going to get sick of this particular storyline really fast, but consider for a moment… a father who is a coach raises two sons who both grow up and become football coaches. Those two coaches will now face off in one of the best known sporting events on the entire planet. Jack and Jackie Harbaugh have to be incredibly proud of their sons. I don’t know how they are going to endure the media obtrusiveness in the next two weeks or, for that matter, how they will watch a game that pits their sons against one another. But when one just sits back and considers the math of the situation, it’s hard not to marvel at this accomplishment.
  • The storyline I am already very sick of is the endless Ray Lewis retirement party. Obviously I wanted my Patriots to end his career, but since that didn’t happen I have a feeling that I am about to become a 49ers’ fan for the next two weeks. Of course we also have T Sizzle to thank for my particular feelings on that as well.
  • The Super Bowl will pit the old guard against the new. In one corner… Joe Flacco, the classic drop back pocket passer who can occasionally burn you for a run but will never be confused with Usain Bolt. In the other corner… Colin Kaepernick, the guy who can burn you with his laser like throws, his ability to run, or who can scare you into not defending the guy who has the ball. I have a feeling it is going to be a memorable battle.
  • Speaking of Colin Kaepernick… exactly how much of a genius does Jim Harbaugh look like right now for benching Alex Smith? All Smith did was win, and he still got benched in favor of the second year player from the University Nevada (Reno). I will own up to being one who thought the move would be a short term disaster but a long term gain. And while Kaepernick still has one game left to prove that prediction right, he has more than acquitted his coach of any criticism that the move might have earned. It was a gutsy call, and it is paying immediate dividends.  Watch it pay more dividends in the off-season as the 49ers move Smith to a team willing to pay a steep price to get him.
  • I know Tony Gonzalez doesn’t want to go through the grind of another off-season, more mini-camps, workouts, training camp, and a pre-season to line up for the Falcons next season, but am I the only guy who thinks he should be returning? Gonzalez can clearly still play at a world class level and his loss will be a blow to the Falcons next season.
  • Is David Akers going to kill the 49ers? When he clanked the goal post on the field goal today I had to cringe, even if I was cheering for the Falcons. Akers has had a miserable season and his post-season hasn’t been much better. You have to wonder if Jim Harbaugh is praying that the game doesn’t come down to a last second field goal attempt, or whether Harbaugh will manage the game differently to insure that it doesn’t. 49ers’ fans have to be squeamish about this guy, who is almost sure to be cut following the Super Bowl.
  • Will the Patriots’ try to acquire Bernard Pollard in the off-season? He actually would not really represent an upgrade to the Patriots’ secondary, but Bill Belichick is known for signing guys that have killed him in the past. Let’s see… Pollard has now injured Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Stevan Ridley. Enough already… either get the guy on the team, or send him out for a night on the town with Plaxico Burress, but something’s got to give.
  • Speaking of Belichick… is the man ever going to realize that it probably wouldn’t hurt him to appear a little more human in his post-game conferences? Tonight’s was especially hard to watch, and even the reporters seemed hard pressed to find a question they could ask him, for fear of pissing Belichick off. Making matters worse was when Belichick declined a post-game interview with CBS, sending Shannon Sharpe into a tirade. “There’s something to be said about being gracious in defeat,” Sharpe said. “We’ve seen the New England Patriots five times in the last 12 years be victorious. And we’ve seen the opposing coaches that lost come out and talk to our Steve Tasker. Coach Cowher did it when the Steelers lost to them. We saw this last week when the Patriots beat the Texans. Bill Belichick makes it real easy for you to root against the Patriots. You can’t be a poor sport all the time. You’re not gonna win all the time. And he does this every time he loses. It is unacceptable.” Personally, I don’t think much of Shannon Sharpe, and he has never been particularly gracious towards the Patriots, but in this case he is right. Belichick’s own feelings about losing are not the point; coming out and being graceful in defeat is. It’s classic Belichick to say little when you win and even less when you lose, but it’s getting to be an old act even among Patriots’ fans.
  • Finally, a little GiR note on the Super Bowl. One of our contributors… Reyno Island… accurately predicted a San Francisco-Baltimore match-up in his pre-season predictions. Three of us got it half right, as both Brodrick Kincaid and I picked San Francisco to represent the NFC  and Country Preacher picked Baltimore to represent the AFC. Nice going, Reyno!

That’s probably enough to get us started. We have two weeks of media blitz in the waiting, along with the non-game known as the Pro Bowl taking place next week. We have one more game left in the season before someone heads off to Disney and the whole cycle starts all over again.

Jan 202013
 

Kaepernick and GoreThe San Francisco 49ers fought back from an early 17-0 deficit, and shut out the Falcons 14-0 in the second half to earn a 28-24 victory and give the 49ers their first trip to the Super Bowl in eighteen years.

Colin Kaepernick played the part of the clutch pocket quarterback, throwing for 233 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for only 21 yards. Knowing that Kaepernick would not be able to carve up the Falcons’ defense the same way he did the Packers, San Francisco took a patient, conservative approach, relying on Frank Gore and good decision-making by Kaepernick, who was a highly efficient 16 for 21 in the game. Gore ran for 90 yards and two scores, including the game winner with 8:23 left in the game. LaMichael James also scored on a 15 yard touchdown run, while Vernon Davis added a touchdown reception for the 49ers, who now seek to join the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. The 49ers have won in each of their five previous trips to the Super Bowl. Head Coach Jim Harbaugh will now square off with his brother John in the Super Bowl.

After the Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter on a pair of Julio Jones touchdowns and a Matt Bryant field goal, the 49ers struck back with two straight touchdowns to close the lead to 17-14. But Matt Ryan was able to connect with Tony Gonzalez for a score just before halftime, and it seemed that the Falcons entered the locker room with renewed momentum as they pushed the lead to 24-14. But San Francisco came out and opened the second half with a seven play scoring drive, and seemed to impose its will from that point forward.

GoreThe simple threat of Kaepernick’s legs seemed to help the 49ers on their second half scoring drives, as both second half touchdowns by Gore saw the running back go nearly untouched as the defense seemed to be hedging its bets. “I kind of figured that coming in and they showed that on film, so I assumed Frank and LaMichael were going to have a big day,” Kaepernick said.

Vernon Davis caught five passes for 106 yards and a score. Michael Crabtree, who has been under investigation this week for sexual assault, caught six passes for 57 yards. Randy Moss added three receptions for 46 yards.

RyanThe Falcons’ loss spoiled a terrific outing by Matt Ryan, who threw for a Falcons’ post-season record 396 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. But the interception and a fumble on a mishandled snap helped do in the Falcons, who are now 1-4 with Ryan at the helm in the post-season. The Falcons’ rushing attack, which found new life against the Seahawks last week, was suffocated by the 49ers’ defense. Jacquizz Rodgers ran for 32 yards and Michael Turner ran for 30 as the Falcons were held to only 81 yards on the ground. Julio Jones finished with eleven catches for 182 yards and two scores, while Roddy White caught seven passes for 100 yards. Gonzalez, likely playing in the last game of his soon to be Hall of Fame career, added eight catches for 78 yards and one touchdown.

The Falcons had opportunities in the second half, but couldn’t seem to make plays when they needed to. “We didn’t make the plays when we had the opportunity,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “There were five or six plays, like in most hard-fought games, that make a difference. There were ebbs and flows and changes in momentum, and they made more plays than we did.”

Jan 132013
 

The Denver Broncos vs Baltimore Ravens AFC Divisional playoff game.Saturday was a great day to be a football fan. It was also a pretty good day to be a Harbaugh brother.

The early game, and we use the term “early” loosely, turned out to be a classic as the Baltimore Ravens edged the Denver Broncos 38-35 in double overtime in the fourth longest playoff game in NFL history. And while that game was wrapping up, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers were engaged in their own slugfest, which the 49ers eventually took control of as they went on to a 45-31 victory. Here are quick recaps for the two games.

Baltmore Ravens 38 Denver Broncos 35 (2OT)

Justin Tucker kicked a 47 yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime to give Head Coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens a shocking 38-35 win over the host Broncos.

Ray Rice ran for 131 and a score on 30 carries, and Joe Flacco lit up the Broncos’ secondary for 331 yards and three scores, including an inexcusable 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones with only 41 seconds remaining to allow the Ravens to force overtime. Torrey Smith also burned Champ Bailey for two big touchdown receptions as the Ravens generated 479 yards of offense.

The Denver loss spoiled an amazing performance by Trindon Holliday, who ran back a first half punt 90 yards for a touchdown and then brought the opening kickoff of the second half back for a 104 yard score.

Peyton Manning struggled for consistency, having a solid first half, but seemingly melting under pressure in the second half and in overtime. Manning was 28/43 for 290 yards and three scored, but threw two costly interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown in the first quarter by Corey Graham, and another that was picked off by Graham near the end of the first overtime that set up the game winning field goal.

While Broncos’ fans will no doubt point to some suspect officiating as costing them some opportunities, there are too many internal causes for the defeat. At the end of the first half the Broncos got the ball back with 36 seconds left on the clock and time-outs in hand, but chose to instead run out the clock. The Broncos similarly had a chance to end the game on a third down play late in the fourth quarter and chose to run the ball on third and seven rather than let Manning try to pass for the first down. But the biggest reason for the Broncos loss was the pitiful play of the secondary, including Champ Bailey getting beat deep twice and Rahim Moore giving up the late bomb to Jones. After the game, Moore said, “It is my fault, plain and simple.” But really the fault rests with a secondary that helped make Joe Flacco looked more like Peyton Manning than Manning did.

Baltimore will now travel to face the winner of the New England Patriots – Houston Texans match-up in the AFC Championship.

San Francisco 49ers 45 Green Bay Packers 31

Four plays into the game, Colin Kaepernick threw an interception that Sam Shields returned 52 yards for a Green Bay touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But after that, Kaepernick was unflappable, as he threw for 263 yards and two scores, and ran for another 181 yards and two scores as the 49ers dominated the Packers 45-31  at Candlestick Park.

The two teams fought a back and forth battle throughout the first half, with the 49ers taking a 24-21 lead on a David Akers field goal to end the half. After an Green Bay field goal almost midway through the third quarter, San Francisco took control of the game. Kaepernick exploded for a 56 yard touchdown run to put the Niners in front, and then Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each scored on two yard runs as San Francisco closed the door and advanced to next week’s NFC championship, where they will face the winner of the Atlanta Falcons – Seattle Seahawks contest.

Michael Crabtree had a huge game for San Francisco, catching nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, while Gore ran for 119 yards and one score. James Jones caught four passes for 87 yards and a score for the Packers, while Greg Jennings added six catches for 54 yards and one touchdown.

The Green Bay offensive line did a good job of limiting the San Francisco pass rush, limiting the 49ers to one sack and three quarterback hits. But Aaron Rodgers never seemed to get into synch in the contest, and Kaepernick was simply too much for the Packers’ defense. The young quarterback is making Head Coach Jim Harbaugh look like a genius for choosing to start him over veteran Alex Smith. “It feels good. We’re one step closer to where we want to be,” Kaepernick said. “I feel like I had a lot to prove. A lot of people doubted my ability to lead this team.”

Jan 102013
 

Packers - 49ersIn a span of five playoff appearances between 1995 and 2001, the Green Bay Packers stood in the San Francisco 49ers path to a sixth Super Bowl Championship. On four of five occasions Green Bay emerged victorious and have had good luck in Candlestick Park where they have emerged victorious twice in three chances. Fast forward to 2013 where the 49ers, still chasing the elusive sixth world championship, are set to renew their playoff rivalry with Green Bay. This will be a rematch of Week One when San Francisco drew first blood, limiting the anemic Green Bay running game to 45 yards, and offensively received stellar performances by QB Alex Smith (20-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs) and RB Frank Gore (112 Yards, 1 TD). Much has changed since the 30-22 San Francisco victory that was never in question despite what the score may indicate. While the Niners have continued their winning ways throughout the season, Colin Kaepernick—a Wisconsin born Packer fan– has replaced Alex Smith and will be making his first playoff start. Meanwhile, the loss to the 49ers was the first loss of three that would occur in the first five weeks for Green Bay. The Packers would recover in stellar fashion behind the MVP caliber play of QB Aaron Rodgers (ironically, a Niner fan growing up) by winning 9 of their last 11 en route divisional crown and a 4th consecutive playoff appearance.

Keys for Green Bay
Despite the constant threat of being torched through the air by Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay rushing attack—and attack is a term used lightly here—is not likely to foster any type of impactful effort against the league’s number four ranked defense against the run. DuJaun Harris was superb in his 100 yard effort against the Vikings and FB John Kuhn picked up a score on the ground as well. However, there are vast differences. The X-Factor for Green Bay will be the ability for Don Barclay and the Packer offensive line to give Rodgers the time needed to work effectively against a pass defense that has been as effective against the pass as it has against the run. Given time to executive, Rodgers should enjoy some level of effectiveness to finally healthy targets Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings. Rodgers, looking to up his playoff record to 6-2, was able to pick up 279 yards through the air in the week one contest. It should be noted that Rodgers has never come back against a team above .500 in the fourth quarter in 18 tries; the Packers will need to build an early lead for Rodgers to avoid such a predicament in his first ever trip to Candlestick.

The Packers defense will need to build off their successful performance against Adrian Peterson in the Wild Card round. Peterson, who averaged over 200 yards per game against Green Bay in 2012 in two regular season games, and torched them for 199 yards in Minnesota’s playoff clinching week 17 victory, was held to 99 yards in the Packers 24-10 victory a week ago. They were also successful in limiting QB Joe Webb on the ground. While nowhere near the level of Kaepernick it was suspected that the main asset Webb could utilize was the speed element of his game—which Green Bay had no time to game plan for due to the Vikings late QB change. In Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick (5 rushing TDs in 2012), San Francisco boasts an RB that has had recent success against the Packers combined with a QB with elite speed. Additionally, LaMichael James is a handful when spelling Gore in relief. Ultimately, Green Bay will need to mirror last weeks’ effort if their 17th ranked defense is to contain the Niners 4th ranked rushing attack. To do so B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson must be effective in dealing with the physical multiple tight end and goal line type sets that San Francisco’s used in Week 1. If the Packers can limit the San Francisco running game they could find themselves trending toward their performance in their Super Bowl winning run a couple of seasons ago which was buoyed by a strong run defense throughout the playoffs. Charles Woodson and the Green Bay secondary remains the strong suit of the Packer defense, but stopping the run will go a long way toward stacking the odds against an inexperienced QB by forcing their opponents to move away from the balanced attack the 49ers favor.

Green Bay passed the test against the number 2 rushing attack in the league last week and also where able to get a look at an option style quarterback—albeit one less talented than Kaepernick—in Webb. Kaepernick, in his 5-2 run as a starter, threw 10 touchdowns against only three picks to go with his 5 rushing scored and his 7.2 yards per carry clip. The Packers struggled with Alex Smith in Week 1 and Kaepernick’s speed element makes him profoundly more difficult to game plan for. Nonetheless, if there is a weakness in Kaepernick’s game to compliment his lack of post season experience it is his propensity to put the ball on the ground. He fumbled seven times in seven starts but lost only one—the Packers will need to capitalize if Kaepernick puts the ball on the ground. Furthermore, the Packers remain solid in the secondary and will hope to benefit from mistakes that can be forced if the Packer front seven can pressure Kaepernick.

Keys for San Francisco
Whether it’s John Harbaugh firing his offensive coordinator with a month to go in the season or brother Jim replacing Alex Smith in-season despite a 21-6-1 run as a starting including last season’s post season run, no one will ever accuse the Harbaughs of following conventional wisdom. Last week, John was successful in Baltimore’s first effort of the season with the Ravens defeated the Colts 24-9. This week it is Jim’s turn to throw egg on the critics of his bold move—though his risk to a much higher degree. How Colin Kaepernick performs in his first season start will not only determine whether or not the 49ers earn a shot at an NFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance it was also validate or invalidate Harbaugh’s risky switch. So far, in the regular season, Harbaugh has been rewarded; however, with a quarterback who has been successful and won recently in the playoffs sitting idle the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Pro Bowler’s Joe Staley and Mike Iaputi will need their usual effectiveness in protection. Additionally, Gore and James will need to continue on their recent run of success on the ground. If the Niners are successful in those two key areas it will go a long way to mitigating any nerves and the overall inexperience of Kaepernick. Furthermore, Kaepernick will then be able to target Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree and pick apart the Green Bay secondary.

If you hold up the starting lineup for last year’s 49ers team and the 2012 unit you will note minimal change to the defense on paper. However, the Justin Smith that lined up on the defensive line in 2011 was perhaps the top defensive player in the league last year—making 1st Team All-Pro and 2nd Team All-Pro simultaneously. This year he enters the game after missing two weeks with a triceps injury—emotional impact only goes so far and it will only be known as the game unfolds how much of a physical impact his return will have. Smith went down against New England and the defense quickly unraveled and matters got bad as they gave up 28 unanswered points. Bad turned to ugly the following week when the Seattle scored 42 points in Smith’s absence. How effective Justin Smith is on Saturday with also impact the other Smith—Alden—whose 19.5 sacks this season were a strong derivative of the double teams faced by his namesake at on the defensive line. The Niners will need Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, NT Isaac Sopoaga, and LE Ray McDonald to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers and what will likely be a one dimensional Packer attack

With Pro Bowl Safeties Donte Whitner and FS Dashon Goldson, in addition to CB’s Tarell Brown and Carlos Rodgers (who experienced a career year in 2012), the Niners fourth ranked passing defense is healthy and matches up well with Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb. Jennings has been catching his stride lately with 3 TDs in as many games and Cobb is healthy; however, the Niners will need to keep the Packer deep threats in front of them. With the front seven likely to limit the Packer ground game, the San Francisco secondary will need to limit buy not completely ground the league’s top quarterback.

The Outcome
This is the most interesting of the three games this weekend that feature rematches of regular season lop-sided affairs. The unknown that is Kaepernick in this situation makes this game a virtual pick ‘em in the eyes of many. Questions surrounding Justin Smith’s healthy only further muddy the picture of what the outcome could be. If Smith is healthy and Kaepernick is not caught in the moment it would be hard to pick against the 49ers in a game at home against a team that is 4-4 on the road. The Packers offense will likely be rendered one dimensional against San Francisco—however, that one dimension happens to be the best player in the league. The Packers were workmanlike in taking apart the Vikings last weekend; meanwhile, the Niners have been prone to embarrassing performances on defense in the absence of Smith. Nonetheless, I am counting on Smith to return in grand fashion and Kaepernick to seize the moment. Rodgers will have a strong day but in the end will move to 0-19 when attempting to comeback against better than .500 opponents. This could be one for the ages.

San Francisco 28 Green Bay 27

Dec 142012
 

49ers - PatriotsWeek 15 features a possible foreshadowing of the Super Bowl when the San Francisco 49ers roll into Foxboro to square off against the New England Patriots on Sunday night. The Patriots are 10-3, riding a seven game winning streak including a 42-14 thrashing of the Houston Texans on Monday night, while the 49ers are 9-3-1, and coming off a win over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday.

This game will not be a repeat of the blowout win over the Texans, but the match-ups are not dissimilar. New England features a balanced offense capable of running and passing effectively, against a San Francisco defense that is stout against both the run and the pass, but susceptible to throws to tight ends. On the other side, San Francisco has the second rated rushing offense but is going against a tough run defense anchored by Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo.  The 49ers passing attack is fairly weak, ranking 26th in the league, but Colin Kapernick is a mobile and unpredictable quarterback who can make plays with his legs as easily as he can with his arm. We won’t be seeing another 42-14 blowout, but the match-ups do seem to favor a New England win in what is likely to be a hard fought contest. The 49ers defense does not have the weaknesses that the Patriots are used to exploiting, but the big question is whether or not Colin Kaepernick can score the points that will be needed to win this game.

Here’s how the contest will break down.

When the Patriots run
This is a tough match-up for the Patriots, despite having a solid rushing attack this season. The Niners excel at stopping the run, and generally can do it with five defenders. Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald, and Justin Smith create a formidable wall, and are supplemented by Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman inside, so Stevan Ridley is going to find it difficult to find running room in the middle. But his bruising style is similar to those backs who have given the 49ers trouble this year, so expect the Patriots to test the middle early in the game. This seems like a game where the Patriots might rely more on Shane Vereen or Brandon Bolden to find running room around the edges, but more than likely the biggest damage that Patriots’ backs will be doing is catching balls out of the backfield. Look for the Patriots to be below their season average of 140 yards, probably somewhere around 100. They do need to establish a running threat early in order to be able to sell play actions, but some of their better play actions against the Texans were on runs that appeared to be going outside, which could help sell the play action even without an effective ground game this Sunday. Advantage: 49ers

When the Patriots pass
New England is used to going up against defenses that are statistically excellent and then putting up both yards and points against them, and they have been doing so all season, even in their losses. The 49ers have perhaps the best pass rusher in the game in Aldon Smith, plus Justin Smith is a powerful bull rusher, but they will have to apply consistent pressure with only three or four rushers in order to avoid having Brady carve up the field the way he did against the Texans. The Patriots are known for making pass rushers disappear through flawlessly executed technique, so more than likely the 49ers will need to send more rushers to be able to get to Brady. This opens up the 49er defense to some mismatches.

One of those mismatches is Danny Woodhead, who will likely be active in the short passing and screen game. Woodhead will likely be covered by Patrick Willis (or Bowman) and should find success getting five to ten yards a connection. Aaron Hernandez will find himself getting attention from Donte Whitner, who is undoubtedly the weak link in the 49ers’ secondary. Whitner is the strong safety in the defensive formation, which is exactly where the Patriots like to throw the most. Look for Hernandez to be a frequent target. Another match-up where the Patriots seem to have an edge is Wes Welker against Carlos Rodgers. Rodgers struggles against speedy slot receivers, and Welker is among the league’s best. A steady rotation of passes to Hernandez, Welker, and Woodhead could give the 49ers fits in pass coverage. If Tarrell Brown is moved over to play Welker, then look for Brandon Lloyd to get some chances. Otherwise, Lloyd figures to have a quiet night.

At the end of the day, the 49ers are a solid pass defense, but the Patriots’ receivers are simply too talented to keep in check, particularly with Tom Brady’s ability to read and respond instantly to coverages. Look for Brady to throw in the neighborhood of 250 yards and two scores. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers run
The 49ers have the second best rushing attack, averaging 161.5 ypg, but are going up against a run defense that ranks eighth, yielding only 100.8 ypg. Moreover, the Patriots have a knack for taking away the opposing team’s greatest offensive threat, which in this case is Frank Gore. Gore has rushed for 1,035 yards this season along with seven touchdowns, and is the key to the 49ers’ attack. Vince Wilfork has been a terror inside over the past month and is playing some of the best football of his career. Look for Wilfork to routinely line up over the weakside guard in this contest. Kyle Love is becoming a tough inside defender and will play opposite Wilfork. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones both excel at setting the edge and forcing the action back inside, so Gore is going to have to work hard for every yard he gets. Jerod Mayo is a solid run stuffer, as is Brandon Spikes, who is fighting off an ankle injury. Look also for the Patriots to sneak a safety into the box, confident in their ability to cover the 49ers’ receivers in man to man. Similar to the Patriots, look for San Francisco to only run for about 100-110 yards in this contest. Advantage: Patriots

When the 49ers pass
Jim Harbaugh has opted for Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith, and I still hold that Harbaugh is intentionally choosing long-term gain over short-term pain. In this game, the Patriots will focus on limiting the 49ers running game and seek to keep Kaepernick in the pocket, forcing him to beat the Patriots with his arm, something he has not yet been asked to do as a starting quarterback. Where Mayo blitzed frequently last week against the Texans, this week he will be assigned the “spy” role for both Gore and Kaepernick. Trevor Scott and Dont’a Hightower will be called upon to assist Ninkowich and Jones in setting the edge and keeping Kaepernick in the middle of the field.

Michael Crabtree has 66 receptions this season and will likely be drawing coverage from Aqib Talib (who is day to day) and Randy Moss may have to step up if Mario Manningham can’t go, but either would draw the coverage of Alfonzo Dennard, who is providing to be a steal from the 2012 draft. The tougher match-ups for the Patriots are in the flat, where Vernon Davis has the potential to do some damage, but has yet to emerge as a key Kaepernick target. Look for him to be much more active Sunday night. Delanie Walker might also see some targets over the middle. The 49ers don’t have much depth in their receiving group, and Frank Gore has only 23 catches this season, so the 49ers are not an overly scary passing threat against a Patriots’ secondary that has improved dramatically during their seven game winning streak. Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams
Devin McCourty is an inconsistent kick returner who is capable of an occasional big play. Ted Ginn hasn’t done much in the way of kickoff returns this season. Wes Weler is both consistent and dangerous in the punt return game, while Ginn is again unremarkable but does get a respectable 10 yards per return. Stephen Gostkowski is a solid kicker who has had some occasional struggles this year, while David Akers has been struggling through injury and is not his usual self. Andy Lee is a solid punter and has the edge over Zoltan Mesko. Advantage: Even

Intangibles
The Patriots continue to dominate the turnover battle, with a +24 based on 34 takeaways and only 10 giveaways. The 49ers are roughly in the middle of the pack at +6 with 18 takeaways and 12 giveaways. Both teams protect the ball, but the Patriots are much better at forcing turnovers. Jim Harbaugh is a talented coach in his second year with the 49ers, but has not yet prove himself on the big stage. Bill Belichick excels at devising game plans that take away the opponent’s strengths, and I rather suspect that the Patriots will be focusing on how to control both lines of scrimmage. San Francisco has committed 94 (7.23 pg) penalties this season, compared to the Patriots’ 79 (6.08 pg). Advantage: Patriots

San Francisco wins if… they get consistent pressure on Brady with only four rushers, Frank Gore rushes for 100 yards, Colin Kaepernick protects the ball.

New England wins if… they keep Frank Gore under 100 yards rushing, create and take advantage of passing mismatches on offense, and keep Colin Kaepernick in the pocket.

Prediction
This is going to be a much closer game than Monday night, and the 49ers offer a much tougher defense than the Texans. This game will go down to the wire and will in all likelihood be within one score. What pushes me over the edge on this game is that I can see where the Patriots are going to get their points, as there are offensive mismatches to take advantage of. I am also fairly confident in the ability of the Patriots to make it a frustrating night for Frank Gore, and the 49ers don’t have the type of offense to be able to win a game with the Patriots through the air. I see Kaepernick creating a couple of big plays with his legs but having a frustrating night in the air, and I believe the 49ers are going to have a hard time producing points. Look for a bruising battle with the Patriots eventually squeezing out a win. Projected score: Patriots 24 49ers 20.

Dec 032012
 

For anyone wanting to blame Mark Sanchez for the plight of the New York Jets, remember this; the reason he has been playing when he might have been pulled by many other coaches, was because Head Coach Rex Ryan allowed him to play. So while this Patriots’ fan is glad to see that Ryan finally had the courage to bench Sanchez and bring in Greg McElroy, who rallied the Jets to win over the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, the fact is that the decision is too little, too late to allow Ryan to escape responsibility for riding so long on the back of a quarterback who simply is not capable of carrying the load.

Forgive me for playing the comparison card, but maybe Ryan should have been more willing to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings and learn something from the mastermind in New England. Belichick banked on a 199th draft pick in Tom Brady over an established starter in Drew Bledsoe even after Bledsoe was cleared to return from injury, a move not unlike the gambit that Jim Harbaugh is trying to pull off in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick. Had Brady faltered, that might have been a lethal blow to Belichick’s coaching career in New England, and the Patriots would not enjoy the three Super Bowl banners that currently hang in Gillette Stadium. Sometimes successful coaching requires calculated risks, even if the odds don’t seem to be immediately in your favor.

But in Rex Ryan’s case, there was ample warning that Sanchez was never going to be the quarterback he was drafted to be. Yes, he “got” the Jets to two AFC Championship games, but is there anyone who really thinks that the Jets’ defense was not more responsible for those achievements?

Let’s look at the information that Rex Ryan had available to him going into 2012.

  • In Sanchez’ first three seasons, his completion percentage never exceeded 56.7%; it is at 55% this season
  • In his first three seasons, Sanchez’ passer rating never exceeded 78.2; it is at 71.4 this season
  • In his first three seasons, Sanchez had thrown 55 touchdown passes against 51 interceptions; this year he is at 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions
  • Despite improvements claimed by his coaches, Sanchez inevitably demonstrated a proclivity for mental errors that cost the Jets in key games; in 2012 this has been a regular occurrence that culminated in an embarrassing performance on Thanksgiving night where two key Sanchez mental mistakes led to turnovers

The Jets’ faithful will rightly argue that Sanchez saw better statistics in each of his first three seasons; he was definitely improving. Ah yes, but improving into what? At the end of Sanchez’ “best” season, he was the 23rd ranked quarterback in the National Football League. 23rd. So the Jets wasted three years in developing a quarterback who would “blossom” into  the 29th percentile? Is that an accomplishment to be proud of? In a league where young quarterbacks get routinely chewed up and spat out too quickly, the Jets have been more than gracious in giving Sanchez time to develop into something more than he is. And the reward for this patience is a quarterback who is now ranked 32nd in the NFL.

But that isn’t Ryan’s greatest crime. Ryan had gone out and gotten Drew Stanton as a capable backup for Sanchez in the event that he faltered, only to cash that in for what was behind Door #2…. Tim Tebow, the quarterback who never was. Then the Jets made it worse by committing $8.5 million to Sanchez in 2013 in order to soothe his hurt feelings. Now the burden of winning potentially falls to third-stringer Greg McElroy, who showed composure by going 5 for 7 and leading the Jets to their only score yesterday, but it was enough to win the game. It’s almost more important that McElroy did nothing to lose the game, which is something that seems to be beyond the capabilities of Mark Sanchez.

Of course now Rex is saying he needs more time to make the decision on who will be starting the next game against Jacksonville, where they are removing the tarps to accommodate Tebow-mania. What will Rex decide? It really doesn’t matter. This bed was made in the off-season and the results through thirteen weeks have proven that Ryan has been wrong to stubbornly stick with Sanchez in the hopes that Sanchez would improve. And it was Rex Ryan who removed his best alternative by bringing in Tebow. While McElroy helped the Jets win an ugly defensive contest, it seems clear that the future of success at quarterback is not currently on the Jets’ roster. If the Jets’ brass is smart (and I question if they really are), Mike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan won’t be controlling or managing that roster in 2013.

Time for you to lie down in what you made, Rex.

UPDATE (12/5): Rex Ryan has determined that Mark Sanchez will be the starter this weekend in Jacksonville. What’s that again about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? I’ll say this for him; he’s consistent.

Sep 142012
 

The National Football League has come up with a creative way to resolve the dispute between 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh and Lions Coach Jim Schwartz when the two teams square off this Sunday night.

You might recall that after the Lions and the Niners faced each other last season, there was a rather hostile handshake between the two. Harbaugh offered an overly enthusiastic handshake to Schwartz, who appeared to offer a verbal retort in return. When that didn’t get Schwartz the reaction he wanted, he opted to chase Harbaugh across the field and continue shouting at him. Players ended up getting involved, and the resulting scrum was worthy of a college football game between heated rivals.

The NFL was apparently concerned that the situation might repeat itself this weekend, and decided to intervene. The league’s decision? A cage match at midfield following the game. According to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, this move is not completely unprecedented. “Look, in some Central American cultures, the losing team of a game was put to death,” Goodell said. “Because of our focus on safety, we didn’t feel it would be appropriate to make the coaches fight to the death, but we did want this feud to end. So whoever kicks the other’s ass will be the winner, and then we can all get on with our lives again.”

While Schwarz would not comment on the upcoming match, Harbaugh was more than willing to talk. “I will kick his ass into next week,” Harbaugh said in an interview on NFL Live. “And then when he is laying there, half passed out, I will grab his hand and shake it vigorously. I just hope they keep Suh from trying to stomp on me during the match.”

The NFL Network will air the cage match, although there was initially some dispute as to by which network would be granted broadcasting rights. While Sunday night football is televised on NBC, the network did not hold rights to any separate post-game activity. ESPN then stepped in seeking to make the match part of its follow up coverage on Sports Center, offering Chris Berman and Trent Dilfer as the cage-side announcers, but the NFL declined. According to Goodell, “I watched the game between the Chargers and Raiders, and I was horrified. Berman sounded like he was on vacation and Dilfer is sour on everybody; he’s like the anti-John Gruden. And if I heard one more joke about the players being on a baseball diamond I was going to scream. There was no way in hell I was letting the cage match be broadcast there.”

Steve Bornstein, President of the NFL Network and former Chairman of ESPN, offered a more realistic assessment for placing the match on the NFL Network. “Look, we are desperate for programming. NFL AM is a great show, but we’re almost having to run it twelve hours a day to mask the fact that we don’t have anything else to air. For God’s sake, we’re a network that is about to air a program on the things that we love about Tim Tebow. How much pride do you think we have?”

The cage match is scheduled for three rounds, with each round lasting three minutes. Randy Moss will be serving as Harbaugh’s cut man, while Ndamukong Suh will do the same for Schwartz. According the Goodell, the NFL is closely watching how this event unfolds to see if it has implications for resolving other league disputes. While he would not confirm that the league would utilize the format for resolving the lockout of NFL officials, Goodell made it clear that he was open to the idea. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I think there are a lot of people who suspect that Ed Hochuli’s arms are just a little over-hyped. He may be a demon at the gym, but that doesn’t always translate to the NFL field, nor to a cage.”

Reminder: The Rat’s Tale is a recurring parody feature that appears on Gridiron Rats. No coaches were harmed in the writing of this article.

May 312012
 

Upon first glance, once could make a reasonable argument that the San Francisco 49ers are on the cusp of greatness. In Head Coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season, the 49ers went 13-3 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Alex Smith had a solid if not unspectacular season under center, Frank Gore racked up more than 1,200 rushing yards, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis provided a solid 1-2 receiving combination, and the defense held opponents to just 229 points while finishing fourth in yards allowed. The 49ers created a positive and competitive environment in short order last year, making people quickly forget the circus-like atmosphere of the Mike Singletary era.

But in the past couple of weeks the veil of professionalism seems to have been lifted, exposing a less than disciplined approach to running a team. It began quietly enough in the off-season when the 49ers joined a slew of teams seeking to court free agent quarterback Peyton Manning. And who could blame them for their interest? In his prime, Peyton Manning is unquestionably one of the greatest signal-callers in NFL history, and even Peyton Manning at half of his prime could be considered an improvement over half of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Jim Harbaugh’s pursuit of Manning certainly did not please Alex Smith, who then went seeking options of his own. In the end, Manning spurned the 49ers to take his talents to Mile High. Harbaugh and Smith made nice with each other and everything seemed back on track. No harm done.

And everything remained fine until last week, when Alex Smith felt the need to defend his lack of statistical greatness by taking an unnecessary potshot at Carolina Panther’s quarterback Cam Newton, seemingly blaming Newton’s individual exploits for the team’s poor record or simply minimizing Newton’s accomplishments as a rookie. The point that he was trying to make, that win/loss record is more important than individual achievements, was a solid one. But targeting Cam Newton, who had a tremendous rookie season, seemed bizarre. Things got worse for Smith when Panthers linebacker Jon Beason slammed Smith in return via Twitter, telling Smith, “Alex smith, don’t hate on Cam Bc your stats would’ve gotten u cut if Peyton decided to come 2 San Fran.Truth b told..That’s after a 13-3 yr.” That had to be an “ouch” moment for Smith, as Beason brought back the drama that followed the pursuit of Manning. Beason also rightfully had the back of his quarterback, even if he didn’t make what might have been the best argument in defense of Newton; that win/loss records are not the sole responsibility of the starting quarterback. There are 52 other guys on the roster, and they no doubt contributed to the Panthers success, and to their lack of it.

And that’s where this story should have ended; with Alex Smith learning the lesson that he needs to think before he speaks, and to put his big boy pants on. Life as a starting quarterback is hard, full of pressure, and reacting to criticism by petulantly throwing other players under the bus is probably not the best plan. But alas, it didn’t end there.

Enter Jim Harbaugh, who helped create the earlier drama by pursuing Peyton Manning to be the team’s starting quarterback. His response? To deny that the 49ers ever pursed Manning to be their starting quarterback.

Yes, read it again. He actually said that.

Speaking on Wednesday with the media, Harbaugh claimed that stories of the 49ers pursuit of Manning were “erroneous… silly and untrue.” Harbaugh stated that “Even the perception that we were pursuing. We were evaluating. I’ve said all along that Alex Smith has been our quarterback. There’s no scenario, other than Alex choosing to sign with another team, that we would consider him not as our quarterback (emphasis added).”

Let’s parse this last comment. Would it not be reasonable to conclude that if Harbaugh was pursuing Manning while trying to give Smith reason to explore other offers, then he would have cover for signing Manning? As if he would need it? But Harbaugh couldn’t even stop himself there. He then said that any “evaluation” of Manning was done with the intention of carrying both Manning and Smith on the roster for 2012. Riiiiiiight.

I’m calling bu**sh** on this, Coach Harbaugh. And from a really big bull at that. Harbaugh was pursuing… oops strike that… EVALUATING Manning in order to sign him and either have him back up Alex Smith or take Smith’s spot while he graciously accepted to role of a backup? All while grumbling that the 49ers were lacking cap space? And how does this compare with Peyton Manning’s own comment, who at the time of his signing with the Broncos said, “I wish I hadn’t gotten so close to [Titans coach] Mike Munchak. That was a tough call. Same with Jim Harbaugh.” How did that call go exactly? Did Peyton get on the line and say, “Jim, thanks for evaluating me and weighing your options, but I’m going to Denver”? Does Harbaugh really think that anyone will believe the nonsense coming out of his mouth?

What we are quickly coming to learn is that the Harbaugh brothers are beginning (just beginning, mind you) to rival the Ryan clan as a family of coaches who should (but don’t) pay closer attention to the crap coming our of their mouths. They seem to mistake arrogance for confidence. Perhaps that plays well for Smith and a few other players in the locker room, but my suspicion is that most of the 49ers players know that Harbaugh’s statement isn’t credible, which might well lead to the conclusion that Smith is so fragile that Harbaugh has to create outrageous lies to protect Smith’s ego. Nothing in this chain of events serves the 49ers well, and only leaves Smith looking weak and Harbaugh looking like a liar.

UPDATE (6/11/12) : Great follow up piece on this from over the weekend by Mike Florio at PFT.

 

May 222012
 

 

San Francisco 49ers

Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh

Projected Starting Quarterback: Alex Smith

2011 Record:  13 wins, 3 losses (1st in NFC West)

1-1 in postseason (lost NFC Championship Game)

26th in Total Offense, 4th in Total Defense

2002-2011 10 year record: 69 wins, 91 losses (24th in NFL)

2 wins, 2 losses in postseason

No Super Bowl appearances

5-0 All-time in Super Bowl