The Better Team Lost the Super Bowl

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But as the 49ers learned, talent won't win games when you're screwing up the basics.

kaepernick super bowl 615 ap images.jpg
AP / Dave Martin

There's a story, possibly apocryphal but with the ring of truth, about Vince Lombardi and early-'60s New York Giants Coach Allie Sherman. Sherman's Giants, with the great Y.A Tittle throwing to Frank Gifford and Del Shofner, were the razzle-dazzle team of the era, contrasting vividly with Lombardi's Packers, whom they faced in the 1961 and 1962 NFL championship games.

Before the 1962 title game, the story goes, Sherman hired a spy to watch Green Bay in practice. "What are they working on?" Sherman asked his man. "Blocking and tackling," was the answer.

It's so easy to forget, with all the sophistication that permeates modern pro football, that the game is still blocking and tackling.

In the Baltimore Ravens' 35-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII there were so many terrific plays, blown plays, and bad calls by the officials that it's easy to forget that the game essentially came down to which team executed better. On the basis of their regular and postseason performances, the 49ers were widely recognized as the better team and went into the game a 4 ½ point favorite. Indeed, when the smoke cleared, many of the numbers—except for the one that counts the most—showed them to be the better team in this game, outrushing Baltimore 182 yards to 93 and outgaining them 468 to 367.

But San Francisco also made nearly all the game's mistakes, drawing five penalties—that's five assessed, though they were guilty of four more that the Ravens declined—to Baltimore's two, and an interception on a horrendous pass by Colin Kaepernick.

And that's just the mistakes that were recorded in the box score. The Niners were guilty of enough boneheaded errors to fill an entire postseason. Although they had the superior offensive line, their front five frequently let the slower Baltimore defenders into the backfield on flubbed blocking assignments. And their tackling ... Well, that was the problem. They often failed to tackle anybody. On the game's most spectacular play, Ravens' wide receiver Jacoby Jones caught a mortar shot from quarterback Joe Flacco and fell down at the SF seven. Three 49er defensive backs stood around Jones doing not much of anything as Jones got up and ambled into the end zone to complete a 56-yard TD drive; if any one of them had simply touched him while he was on the ground, he would have been down.

The 49ers started out badly. On the game's first play Kaepernick completed a 22-yard pass to his All-Pro tight end Vern Davis, and it looked like San Francisco was off and running—but the play was called back on a penalty and they ended up punting. On the first play of the second half they gave up a record 108 yard kickoff return to Jacoby Jones. Eight Niners had a shot at the Ravens returner, but all failed to make the tackle.

That they came back with a roar in the third and fourth quarters was no real surprise since they have so many fine players. (Many analysts have argued that the Niners have more talent than any team in the league.) Down 28-6, they closed the gap to 28-23 in the fourth quarter.

After the game, it was fashionable to ascribe the turnaround to the mind boggling 34-minute blackout at the Super Bowl in the third quarter by still-undetermined causes. This is the kind of pointless speculation that people who never played football are given to. Games can pivot on any number of factors from an injury to a key player to a sudden turnover.

In the 49ers case, the turnaround probably stemmed from nothing more than remembering that they were in fact the better team, an awakening which occurred about midway through the third period and after which they dominated the game, outscoring the Ravens 25-6 (though two of those points came when Baltimore allowed a safety with just seconds left on the clock).

And yet San Francisco squandered chance after chance to either tie the game or take the lead. Their tendency for self-destruction was highlighted when, with about a 1:50 to play when, they moved to the Ravens' seven-yard line for what surely looked to be the winning TD.

Sure, Jimmy Jones should have been called for pass interference on Michael Crabtree. But Kaepernick's desperation pass, at any rate, was uncatchable.

A Vince Lombardi aphorism was that if you were behind in a game when you had the ball inside your opponent's 10 with just a little time left on the clock, you should not make the mistake of passing short of the end zone. In other words, if you have two or three or perhaps four plays—as the Niners did near the end of the game—then make each pass into the end zone where, if someone wearing the same color shirt as your QB catches the ball, you win.

Instead, San Francisco ran the first play into the line for two yards, and then Kaepernick threw two incomplete passes short of the goal line, leaving them with a fourth-and-goal from the five. Once again Kaepernick failed to execute a simple fundamental for pro football: On your last play of the game, throw the damn ball into the end zone. Instead, he threw it high and wide toward the out-of-bounds maker where his intended receiver, Michael Crabtree, simply could not get to it.

Much of the post-game analysis has asserted that this miss happened because Baltimore defensive back Jimmy Jones grabbed Crabtree as he crossed the goal line and held him for a crucial split second. Jones, in fact, did that and should have been called for pass interference, which would have given the Niners a first down inside the Baltimore three. But Kaepernick's desperation pass, at any rate, was uncatchable—LeBron James standing on a step ladder could not have grabbed it—and common sense based on a century of football wisdom dictates that you do not throw an uncatchable pass on your last throw of the game.

Joe Flacco—unheralded, unsung, and now, as it turns out, underrated by the media—was the game's MVP because of his calmness under fire and talent for simple execution. Some writer, maybe me come to think of it, once said that Flacco throws a football with the grace of a shot putter letting loose of an iron ball. But football doesn't award points for aesthetics. Buoyed by a dogged offensive line that blocked with such efficiency that he was sacked just twice in 35 attempts, the unglamorous but unflappable Flacco made all the big plays, including 9-of-16 third down conversions while the Niners were just 2-for-9.

The 49ers had several things going for them in this game: speed, youth and talent. If they'd had the same dedication to blocking, tackling, and fundamental as the Ravens, then Colin Kaepernick would have been the quarterback going to Disney World.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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