The Better Team Lost the Super Bowl

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.

Presented by

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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