In the coming years, when I think about the Super Bowl just played, I know I'll think about the play that might have been: third-and-goal from the Baltimore 5. Colin Kaepernick, at the snap of the ball, took one step back and Frank Gore roared in front of him to clear a hole on what looked for all the world to be a designed counter by the quarterback ... and then the whistle. Timeout, San Francisco; Jim Harbaugh called it, thinking the Niners weren't going to get the play off before the play clock expired.
"There are so many coulda, woulda, shouldas in that game,'' offensive coordinator and play-caller Greg Roman told me. He wouldn't tell me if, as it appeared, the play was a designed run for Kaepernick, and when the timeout was over there was another play call, a pass to Michael Crabtree. Roman didn't have to tell me; the answer was on the tape.
But more about the end of the game later.
When Roman was a young boy, he spent a couple of summers with his uncle, writer Jack Clary, in the training camp of the Cincinnati Bengals. Clary and Bengals founder Paul Brown co-wrote PB: The Paul Brown Story, the 1981 book about the life and times of one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. As a ballboy/gopher who loved football, Roman tried to spend as much time around Brown as he could at practice and away from the field, trying to soak up whatever he could.
Roman is now the offensive coordinator and play-caller for the San Francisco 49ers">49ers. And as corny as it sounds, there is no question that Brown, an innovator of the first order in his years with the Browns and Bengals, would have loved the varied play selection and alignments Roman used in the 34-31 Super Bowl loss to the Ravens. After an examination of the game tape -- both the TV copy and the all-22 coaches' video -- I didn't want to get too far removed from the game without writing about what the Niners were able to do ... and, of course, weren't able to do in a game we'll all remember for years.
This is what I found amazing about what the tape revealed: On the first 13 offensive snaps for San Francisco, Roman dialed up 13 different alignments using 12 different combinations of running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. In those 13 plays, Roman had four wide receivers in the game, four running backs (two running backs, two fullbacks) and four tight ends. On the fifth play of the game, a no-back look, he spread three receivers left and two to the right, with a fullback (Bruce Miller) and running back (LaMichael James) split the furthest; Kaepernick hit Crabtree, running from the left slot, on a 19-yard incut. On the very next snap, Roman dialed up something Walter Camp invented 140 years ago, the T formation. Kaepernick lined up under center, with three backs tight together behind him -- Gore to the left, fullback Walter Tukuafu in the middle, and fullback Miller to the right. None went in motion. Gore powered ahead for no gain into the teeth of the Ravens' D. Win some, lose some.
In those first 13 plays, Roman ran three wides once, three tight ends twice, and three backs once. For the game, he had Kaepernick in the Pistol 51 times and under center nine plays; and, by my count, he ran 13 plays in the read-option and 47 with Kaepernick not playing option football.
Two other points from watching the tape twice (and individual plays many more times): Kaepernick didn't take a big hit all day, following a trend that runs counter to what football wisdom says -- mobile quarterbacks running a partial-option offense are going to be endangered species because of the punishment they take from running so much. And other than the baffling illegal-formation penalty on the first snap of the game, the Niners executed one of the most complex game plans you'll see symphonically ... at least until the very end.
"That's the one thing people get wrong about this offense,'' Roman told me. "It's all rooted in the fundamentals of football, not like the run-and-shoot. It's not gimmicky. We don't have to run Colin one time for this to be a varied and effective scheme."
Roman elucidates the part of football that many coaches won't. "Sometimes as a play-caller,'' he told me after the NFC title game victory in Atlanta, "the intent is to deceive." In a couple of ways. Sometimes you deceive by running a play no one would expect with the players you have on the field; sometimes you deceive by misdirection and funny business. Take the first two plays of the Niners' final scoring drive early in the fourth quarter. First play: For one of the few plays all game, James and Gore were in the game together, James was in the right slot, with Randy Moss and Crabtree split wide to the left and right, respectively. James ran back as if to take an end-around handoff from Kaepernick. But it was a fake, and Gore ran a counter to the right for five yards.
Next play: Gore behind Kaepernick in the Pistol, Miller to the right as a sidecar protector to the quarterback. Tight end Vernon Davis and Moss tight to the formation, Davis right and Moss left. Crabtree flanked left. Power formation on second-and-five. Moss floated past the line, and past the first wave of pass defense into a hole in front of Ed Reed, and he turned left, and the ball was there. Easy. Gain of 32. Three plays later, the Niners scored to make it 31-29.
As one Ravens official told me after the game with gallows humor: "Good thing that game wasn't five quarters." He's right -- the Niners, after a very slow start, were clicking in the second half, the exact same way they did in the previous game against Atlanta. Until the final four plays of the final series.
Down 34-29 with 2:39 to play, Roman called an inside run to James on first-and-goal from the Baltimore 7. Gain of two.
Two-minute warning. Now a Kaepernick rollout right and an incompletion to Crabtree. Third-and-goal from the 5. As the play clock runs down to zero, and just a tick beyond, Kaepernick takes the Pistol snap and takes one step back, then forward, as if to run left, with Gore as his escort. Gore was about to smash into safety Bernard Pollard when the officials all stopped the play.
I'm sure it would have been a run. And I'm almost as sure this play could have come down to left tackle Joe Staley getting a block on the only free Ravens defender in the picture. Ray Lewis.
So what if the play runs? What if Staley gets past the line and hits Lewis but doesn't finish him, and what if it's Lewis, on the last and arguably most important series of his 17-year career, having to stop this new phenom, the way he'd stopped so many young phenoms in his past. Stop him and the Ravens win. Don't stop him, and the Ravens lose.
We'll never know.
But watch that dead play and you can dream of the drama. The only other thing better than that play running would be the play running with the late Steve Sabol able to cut the piece for NFL Films two days later, and the late John Facenda there to narrate it.
The next two plays, stereo incompletions to Crabtree, inflamed Niners fans for their lack of imagination. So ironic given what the Ravens had had to defend all day. I almost wish Kaepernick had gotten the delay of game penalty, so he could have had more room to maneuver from the 10-yard line on the last two plays. But he didn't.
"That's life,'' said Roman. "That's sort of the life of a coach. Will it eat at me? Of course it will. But I'll use it as motivation going forward. To dwell on something that's over is so utterly pointless. Anytime you make a call and the play doesn't work, you think of another play that might have worked. We had a valiant effort, a great comeback, and it wasn't enough. That's life. It's the game we love, the highs, the lows. But it doesn't take away from what we did this year, and how excited I'm going to be to coach these guys next year.''
I wrote in the magazine last week about the new wave of quarterbacks and offenses that entered the league in 2012 and about how teams will spend part of this offseason (no doubt some already are) watching tape of San Francisco, Washington, Seattle and Carolina, and all the next wrinkles these mobile quarterbacks present. Roman understands.
"We're going to do the same thing too,'' Roman said. "We won't be the same either.''
Can't wait for opening day 2013.
Now onto your email:
JACKIE CHILES UPDATE: "Factoid of the Week Part II: Phil Morris aka Jackie Chiles is the son of Greg Morris of Mission: Impossible fame. Great column that you run: objective, fair, reliable and always interesting.''
--James, Deer Park, N.Y.
Wonder if Mission: Impossible ever had a case about lattes that were too hot.
ON THE VALUE OF FLACCO. "I understand your valuing of Joe Flacco following a solid season and spectacular Super Bowl run. However, I harken to a comment Danny Ainge made regarding the trade value of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett recently: The Celtics value those guys more than other teams do. In essence, I don't believe other teams perceive Flacco's value as strong for their specific situation as a Baltimore would. Not that he isn't a good QB and worth somewhere in the mid-teens, but he's not considered a Peyton or Rodgers that came into poor situations and helped create a winner. Flacco has always been surrounded by talent on both sides of the ball, and much like Eli, has managed to elevate a decent team into better team stratosphere. I could be wrong, but I would be shocked if someone offered him more than $15 million a year over five years.''
---Greg V., Pawling, N.Y.
Seeing that the Ravens offered Flacco more per year last summer -- before he had one of the best postseasons a quarterback ever had and won a Super Bowl -- I'd have to strongly disagree. Plus the fact that a rival team without a strong quarterback has $50 million-plus to spend under the salary cap.
I AM MISJUDGING THE RAVENS ON FLACCO. "Ozzie Newsome is one of the great, forward-thinking GM's in the game. So if you have confidence in your coaches and your scouting, then why risk salary-cap purgatory over any one player? I'm a long-suffering Lions fan, and look at their situation: They have allowed a large portion of their cap dollars to be concentrated among a few players, and now they are constantly re-structuring those contracts just to stay under the cap. Unfortunately, the Lions (Bills, etc.) have neither the coaching or scouting that the Ravens possess, so they have to overpay individuals and pray that those players carry them to the playoffs, but those teams are doomed to stagnate and then finally rebuild from the bottom, again. Conversely, imagine the Ravens with Alex Smith, two extra first-rounders for the next two years and their core intact. Wow. They'd be set up as a contender for the next 5-6 years.''
---Jeff Horst, Vancouver
I believe that's what I pointed out, Jeff -- that the Ravens could consider moving away from Flacco if some team makes an offer that is in the stratosphere. The big issue is whether the Ravens will put the lesser tag on Flacco, meaning a team would have the chance to make a huge bid on him.
GOOD QUESTION, AZHAR. "After this weekend's massive snow dump, I wondered what would have happened if this happened next year when Super Bowl 48 is held outdoors in New Jersey. Surely the NFL brain trust must have a contingency for this? Micro-blackout will be nothing compared to havoc massive road closures would have on getting to and from game. Then there's the whole party scene too. I know moving the game to another city or even indoors is not something they'll consider, but what of holding the game on Saturday mid-afternoon instead?"
---Azhar Khan, Toronto
The issue with moving the game is all about TV. You can't sell 30-second ads for $4 million for a game airing in prime time on Sunday night -- a huge TV night -- and then turn around and move the game to a spot that would be more weather-friendly. If the NFL schedules the game for Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time, and there are 30 inches of snow overnight on Sunday in New Jersey, I doubt sincerely the game would be moved or postponed.
I WAS IRREPONSIBLE FOR GIVING THE CALIFORNIA MASS-MURDERER PUBLICITY. "Terribly disappointed in your decision to post a portion of this California criminal's 'Manifesto.' We all know by now that by allowing their names to be shown everywhere, they've accomplished one of their main objectives, to be glorified. Please don't allow these wicked people to be part of your future articles.''
Duly noted. You aren't the only one to send me a similar note of protest, and I hear you.
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