49ers Defeat Saints in Classic

15:47 Sun 15 Jan 2012. Updated: 10:55 17 Jan 2012
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Football is a very complicated game. I can’t think of another sport as demanding for participants on an intellectual level. Soccer, basketball, and many other team sports often involve specific philosophies or systems that players need to learn, but none involve the level of complexity of football.

The main reason for this is the stop-start nature of the game. It’s not a game of flow, but instead at the start of each play the players line up in formation, and because of this their actions can be scripted to a very significant degree. This naturally emphasizes the importance of preparation and deception, and hence leads to an escalating competition between play designers on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

Depending on how you define it, the “modern” game has been around for about 40–80 years. It’s played in the United States at the professional level, at several college levels, and in high schools—and for all of those, the game is far from simple. Innovation and experimentation occur at all those levels, and the sheer amount of football knowledge out there is staggering. The range of options available for any given play is so vast that some of the important innovations are purely about how to communicate the chosen selection to the players, who have to learn a code for that purpose (as satirized in this ESPN commercial).

This complexity means that coaches have a tremendous impact on team performance, possibly more than in any other sport. Personnel and player talent are both still hugely important, as is the degree to which specific players are suited to coaching philosophies[1], but the difference between good and bad coaching is colossal.

This season’s San Francisco 49ers are dramatic evidence of this. There are few personnel differences between last season’s team, with a 6–10 record, and this season’s team, with a 13–3 regular reason record and yesterday’s victory against one of the league’s best teams and a resulting berth in next week’s Conference championship (the semifinal, the winner of which gets one of the two spots in the Super Bowl). The big difference between the two seasons? The coach, Jim Harbaugh, who replaced last year’s coach, Mike Singletary. Harbaugh had been extremely successful as Stanford’s football coach, and in his first year at San Francisco has effected a stunning turnaround, taking a team that was widely expected to be one of the NFL’s worst and remaking it into a legitimate Super Bowl contender, one with the league’s best defense (and one that was historically great against the run).

While the media tend to emphasize the psychological aspects of coaching, in this case making much of a preseason conversation between Harbaugh and quarterback Alex Smith, the truth is that while increased player confidence and effort is beneficial, coaching success comes from mastering, and tweaking to suit personnel, systems that are simply too complicated for non-professionals to comprehend. Dramatic inspirational speeches—awesome as they may be[2]—provide a rather minor edge in comparison.

The 49ers’ 13–3 record was proof enough of Harbaugh’s coaching ability, but beating the Saints yesterday (the Saints were slightly favored) makes abundantly clear that Harbaugh’s 49ers can beat elite teams.

That being said, the 49ers should have put away the game earlier, and having to rely on Alex Smith’s heroics (twice!) despite a plus-four turnover differential in the game isn’t a good sign. They jumped out to a 17–0 lead, but the Saints calmly went back to work and relied on Drew Brees’ phenomenal passing to cut the lead to 17–14 and then, late in the fourth quarter, took their first lead at 24–23. With four minutes to go, I had my doubts that the 49ers could score a touchdown, but felt that a long drive culminating in a field goal would be entirely feasible and might well win the game.

Instead, Alex Smith led them rapidly downfield, largely with a 37-yard pass to Vernon Davis, and then scored a 28-yard rushing touchdown with 2:11 left in the game[3]. A failed two-point conversion made the score 29–24. Could the 49ers’ excellent defense keep the Saints out of the end zone? Not this time, as two 49er defenders failed to tackle Jimmy Graham (possibly the best tight end in the game) on a 66-yard catch-and-run with 1:37 remaining. The Saints succeeded on their two-point conversion to lead by three, 32–29. I thought the 49ers had a good shot at making it to field goal range and sending the game to overtime.

Instead, Alex Smith led them rapidly downfield, largely with a 47-yard pass to Vernon Davis, and then scored with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with 9 seconds remaining in the game. 49ers win their first playoff game in nine years and set up a matchup with either the Green Bay Packers (at Lambeau Field) or the New York Giants (at Candlestick Park)—both historic 49er rivals. The 49ers would likely be underdogs against the Packers and favorites against the Giants[4], but would have a good shot at winning either.

Getting ahead of reality a little bit, if the 49ers were to win the NFC Championship game, they would be in their sixth Super Bowl. They’ve won all five of their previous Super Bowls, putting them one behind the Pittsburgh Steelers for the record for Super Bowl wins. A win would cap a historic turnaround and put the franchise, after a decade of futility, back on top of the NFL in terms of all-time greatness.

[1] See Kurt Warner, or, going in the other direction, Nnamdi Asomugha.

[2] Note that even in Any Given Sunday, while the Sharks won the game featuring that speech but lost in a blowout later on; inspiration can only take you so far.

[3] Returning to the topic of the game’s complexity, there’s some debate over whether it would have been better for Smith, instead of scoring on that play, to have slid at the 1-yard line, the 49ers to have knelt on the next two plays and then taken one rushing shot at the endzone before kicking a field goal to leave New Orleans trailing 24–26 with no timeouts and about 40 seconds remaining.

[4] At time of writing, the Giants lead 20–10 at halftime at Lambeau Field

2 Responses to “49ers Defeat Saints in Classic”

  1. jeffliveshere Says:

    Wow. You almost make me want to watch football. Almost.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Heh, should I take that as almost a compliment on this piece?

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