Former Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bob Oates became legendary in his coverage of the Los Angeles Rams football team by basing his game stories on the “big plays” that decided the game. Oates usually picked around 5 key plays that were decisive and fashioned his game story around those plays.
In the modern NFL it is now possible to base a game story on the stupidities that were decisive in the outcome. Yesterday’s Super Bowl between San Francisco and Baltimore is a perfect example. Forget the fumble and interception and poor play by the 49er defensive secondary, San Francisco lost the game because of four stupidities.
No. 1: On the first scrimmage play of the game the 49ers threw a pass and gained 20 yards, putting them at midfield. But wait! There’s a flag. Did somebody jump offsides? No. Holding? No. Those physical errors are expected and would be explainable. In one of the dumbest things ever to happen in a Super Bowl, San Francisco lined up illegally.
Former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh, who revolutionized the game with his West Coast offense and won several Super Bowls, would chart the first 10 or 15 plays his team would run in the game in order. They would practice them and, generally, run them to perfection.
Here, San Francisco clearly planned to run this pass play as the first scrimmage play of the game. They undoubtedly practiced it time and again, so that they could run up to perfection. So in a multibillion dollar game, the most important game any of the players ever played, they line up wrong? Did they line up wrong every time they practiced it? Or did they practice it correctly and then screw it up when all the marbles were on the table? It’s the responsibility of the quarterback, before he calls for the ball to be snapped to ensure that the players are lined up correctly. Often you see the quarterback telling the players to move around to get in their proper position. In point of fact, though, all 11 players should know where each is supposed to be for any given play. But they all went out and lined up, and somebody was wrong. At least two people should’ve seen that; the quarterback: Colin Kaepernick, and the player who was wrong. In addition the players next to the player who was lined up in the wrong spot should know he’s wrong.
This was a game changer, a momentum killer at the outset. Instead of first and 10 at the 50, San Francisco was now first and 15 inside their own 20 and depressed. The 49ers’ good karma from the successful pass was destroyed. After three and out, Baltimore got the ball and scored a touchdown. Soon it was 21-3, Baltimore was rolling, Flacco was hot, and San Francisco was inept.
No. 2: With less than 2 minutes left in the half, Kaepernick drove the 49ers down inside Baltimore’s 20 yard line. Because of bad play calling, they were facing a fourth and seven at about 25 seconds left. The 49ers unreliable field goal kicker, David Akers, missed a field goal but Baltimore was flagged for running into the kicker, a 5 yard penalty. This gave the 49ers a fourth and 2 on about the 15 with enough time left to try to score a touchdown if they could make a first down. They had timeouts and plenty of time to throw a couple of passes. Instead, coach Jim Harbaugh opted for another field goal. This was a marvelous chance to reignite the good karma and possibly go in at half trailing only 21 to 10. Instead Harbaugh opted for the mundane, to go in trailing 21 to 6, a three possession difference. He was given a chance to change the momentum and disdained it.
No. 3: After Baltimore ran the opening second-half kickoff back for another touchdown, making the score 28-6, San Francisco had the ball at midfield with around 7 minutes left in the third quarter. Kaepernick brought his team to the line of scrimmage, surveyed the defense, apparently thought he had called the wrong play for that defense, and immediately called a timeout. When you’re trailing by four scores in the second half, timeouts are precious. Anybody who has ever watched football knows that. But this guy, who gets called for delay of game more than any other quarterback in the league, wastes a timeout. One timeout in a game like this is much more precious than saving a five yard penalty on first down at midfield with almost half the game left to play (and he called the timeout with 8 seconds left on the clock, plenty of time to call an audible). He should’ve either called to snap the ball and thrown the ball away, or called an audible. Whatever he did, it was more important at that time to consign that play and down to the trash heap without losing any yards, and to keep the timeout.
No. 4: After San Francisco had come back, with 2 minutes remaining and two timeouts remaining, they had a third and goal on Baltimore’s five, trailing by 5 points. Now he sees the Baltimore defense and time is ticking down. He is incapable of getting the play off before the clock ran to zero, so the coach has to call a timeout at the last second, meaning they only have one timeout left and two plays to get the ball into the end zone. In a world where a team playing for the Super Bowl isn’t just monumentally ignorant, at this point San Francisco would have all three of it timeouts remaining. If they did not score in this situation, they would be able to stop the clock three times after Baltimore took over and still have a chance to win again with another possession. But because of Kaepernick’s stupid timeout in the third quarter and his inability to get a play called in this situation before the clock ran out, they had squandered two of their three timeouts and when they were unable to score, Baltimore got the ball with 1:45 remaining and could basically run out the clock because the 49ers could only stop it once.
The big question is, would Alex Smith, who was San Francisco’s starting quarterback for the first half of the season, have made the hebetudinous decisions Kaepernick made? If not, it’s likely that San Francisco would be Super Bowl champions had Harbaugh allowed Smith to keep his job after he recovered from his concussion instead of jumping on Kaepernick’s bandwagon. The question facing Harbaugh for the future is whether or not Kaepernick’s mental acuity is on a par with his exceptional physical assets. Off the last two games, it doesn’t look positive.
As predicted here last week, if Joe Flacco was on his game, and if Baltimore threw the ball in the first half, unlike last week, the game would be a barnburner and Baltimore had a great chance to win. He was, it was, and they did.