$.01--The San Francisco 49ers went into Atlanta and engineered a comeback victory over the host Falcons that shocked the home fans. Just like a week ago, Atlanta played two very distinct games. Last week they were able to hang on and vanquish the Seahawks, but the 49ers proved too tough to hold down.
The biggest factor in the game to me was the Niners mixing up their defensive coverages and solving the Atlanta offensive line, which dominated early but struggled in the second half. The adjustments showed real in-game savvy by Jim Harbaugh and his staff. After being eviscerated by Julio Jones in the first half, the 49ers largely abandoned the vanilla Cover-4 scheme that predominated the first half. They also made a very subtle change in coverage technique, with the corners (notably Tarell Brown) playing more inside technique than outside. That means they steered the action to the middle of the field instead of the sidelines. That brought the safety help into play and prevented the big plays down the field that defined Atlanta’s early 17-0 surge.
I also greatly admired the move to get Vernon Davis integrally involved in the offense. The Falcons defense was giving away the middle of the field in order to prevent Kaepernick from attacking the edges with his legs and Michael Crabtree down the sidelines. Instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole, Harbaugh chose to go with his round peg in Davis, and the Falcons had no answer for him. It was a brilliant move and it was made all the more sweet by Davis’ background. He’s been with the Niners for a long time, from the lean years when they fielded the least efficient offense in NFL history to this meteoric rise the last couple of years. At the beginning he was no small part of the problem, so to see him be a big part of the solution is pretty cool. I’ve been hard on Davis over the years, but as I told him personally on Twitter I always want players to succeed even if it makes me look bad. Congrats Vernon, you earned it and I’m proud.
For the Falcons, they have nothing to be ashamed of by losing. They came out great, with a cogent game plan that worked. They simply lose to a more complete, better-coached team. Mike Smith is going to kick himself all winter for not being more aggressive in the second half and for not switching coverages to stop the Davis onslaught. They’re still a team with a championship window that is wide open, and they’ll enter the 2013 season knowing how to win in the playoffs. As I wrote in the preview for this game, it’s all about taking steps forward. Atlanta took a huge step forward in 2012 and I expect they can do the same next year.
$.02--The All Harbaugh Super Bowl came to fruition in the late game, as the Baltimore Ravens went into New England and punked the Patriots 28-13.
There are a number of different directions to take with this game. I want to focus on the precise moment where the game was lost by New England. Just before halftime the Patriots were driving deep into Baltimore territory with a 10-7 lead but all the momentum in the game. A touchdown would have fundamentally altered the dynamic of the game, and the Patriots had ample time and opportunity to get into the end zone. But Tom Brady, or OC Josh McDaniels, badly mangled the clock management. An imprudent timeout called too early was followed by another one called too late, and the Pats settled for a field goal.
The difference between six and 10 points at halftime is mentally huge for both teams. The ability to still be within one score despite not playing real well had to bolster the Ravens confidence. It certainly showed with Joe Flacco, who was flat-out awesome in the second half. Even with the wind playing tricks on his deeper throws, Flacco was far more accurate and poised than Brady in the second half. It was as if he saw exactly what the Patriots were giving him, and he greedily took it. Baltimore won the second half 21-0 thanks to dominant performances from both the offense and the defense. Had the Patriots not bungled the end of the first half, I’m not sure that happens.
New England is now teetering on treacherous territory. They still haven’t won a Super Bowl since the overhyped Spygate incident, which I see more as coincidental. Still, this is yet another season where the Patriots were the smart money to win the Super Bowl and failed. The second half of this game was painful to watch. Tom Brady kept getting balls batted down, and the Patriots defense showed a gross inability to cover down the field and terrible ball awareness. The perennial disappointment in New England is threatening to rewrite the narrative on Bill Belichick’s coaching career and Tom Brady’s illustrious quarterbacking career. Are we going to remember them more for their failures than their success, because there are so many more of them? I’m not suggesting they go down as Marv Levy and Jim Kelly, because they have won three Super Bowls in four years. But that seems a distant memory, and the last nine years are chock full of underachieving finishes for New England. That’s a long time to not meet expectations for anyone.
$.03--After one of the longest, strangest courtships in coaching search history, the Eagles and Chip Kelly finally consummated their relationship. This came several days after Kelly told the Eagles “thanks, but no thanks” and went back to counting more money from the Nike folks that endow and enable Oregon football.
You really have to hand it to Kelly; this is a man that knows how to negotiate from a position of power. At first he was the hot name for several jobs, but most notably the Browns and Eagles. Those two teams got into a de facto bidding war for his services after the Fiesta Bowl, which Kelly’s Oregon team won convincingly over Kansas State. It seemed the Browns had the early upper hand but worried that Kelly was more interested in Chip Kelly the brand than the Cleveland Browns, and they left the table. Kelly either really didn’t like the Eagles subsequent offer, or felt like staying at Oregon was the better move and went back to the Quack Attack.
At some point, Kelly changed his mind. Perhaps it was the impending NCAA sanctions that are poised to hit Oregon hard enough that perhaps even Nike can’t buy their way out of some trouble. Maybe the Eagles upped the ante to Kelly as more candidates spurned their advances. It could even be that Kelly just changed his mind and decided that he really is ready for the challenge of the NFL, a place where he has never even been to one practice even as a positional assistant.
I think there is credulity in all three. I also think that Kelly will prove worthy of all the consternation, with a couple of caveats. Foremost, he must hire good assistant coaches with some NFL experience, particularly on defense. Second, the Eagles must get him the quarterback he wants. If that means trading up to the No. 1 spot to ensure they get Geno Smith, the Eagles need to make it happen. If it’s signing Alex Smith, they must go get him. If it means bringing back Michael Vick, who seems precisely like the type of quarterback Kelly favored at Oregon, then Vick stays. For all those who believe that Kelly cannot adapt his fastbreak offense to the NFL, underestimate him at your peril.
$.04--The Chicago Bears hired Marc Trestman as Lovie Smith’s successor, a move that was not generally well-received by the Windy City blowhards. Many seem concerned that Trestman’s most recent background is in the CFL as coach of the Montreal Alouettes.
I happen to think Trestman going to Chicago is the best new coaching hire of the offseason. Trestman is a brilliant offensive mind, proven at every level including the NFL. More to the point, he maximizes the potential of quarterbacks better than any coach this side of Bill Walsh. He built an offense around Bernie Kosar, perhaps the least athletic but brainiest QB of his generation, first at The U of Miami and then in Cleveland, after a brief foray into coaxing a career year out of Steve DeBerg on a truly awful Tampa Bay team. He then moved to Minnesota to work with Rich Gannon, morphing the young benchwarmer into a decent starter. Next came piquing the very best from Steve Young in San Francisco before spending a year making heretofore dreadful Scott Mitchell into a legit Pro Bowl quarterback. Then came a reuniting with Gannon for some highly prolific success in Oakland which made Gannon one of the best QBs in the league. He’s been wildly successful in Canada with Anthony Calvillo.
Now, he gets a chance to maximize the potential of Jay Cutler, whom Trestman worked with leading into Cutler’s draft. Bears GM Phil Emery clearly and correctly understands that the key to Chicago taking the steps forward they desire rests on Jay Cutler’s talented but mercurial shoulder. Cutler has been largely wasted under Lovie Smith and his carousel of inept offensive assistants. Emery got Cutler the premium receiving weapon in Brandon Marshall and still Smith couldn’t construct a functional offense around those two and versatile RB Matt Forte. Where Smith so painfully and egregiously failed, Trestman gets a chance to succeed. They still need at least one upgraded starter up front and a tight end capable of catching a ball more than 10 yards down the field, but if anyone can get Jay Cutler from being pretty good to elite--and he has that kind of top-end potential--it is Marc Trestman.
1. Cleveland continues to befuddle the fan base. They deserve plaudits for hiring Norv Turner to run the offense and Ray Horton to run the defense, giving them two of the best coordinators in the business. But bringing back Michael Lombardi in any capacity is just, wow, a stunningly tone deaf decision by new owner Jimmy Haslam and President Joe Banner. Lombardi is a bad word in Cleveland, right or not.
2. Arizona made an interesting coaching hire with Bruce Arians, the Colts offensive coordinator. Arians gained the spotlight for admirably filling in for Chuck Pagano as he battled cancer, something that Arians himself has overcome. The Colts also lost Tom Telesco from their front office as he was hired as the new GM in San Diego. This is a very interesting gamble, taking chances on secondary figures from one of the luckiest, flukiest teams in NFL history. I like Arians but sense he is one of the dreaded “better coordinator than head coach” types like Norv Turner or Wade Philips.
3. I’m in Mobile for the next week for the Senior Bowl practices, and one of the more depressing things is seeing all the out of work coaches clamoring for jobs along the sidelines and in the hotel lobbies. I’m hearing that more GMs and head coaches are avoiding Mobile this week to avoid these awkward situations. I can’t blame them, but they’re costing themselves a golden opportunity to get to know players that will overwhelmingly populate the draft from picks 15-60.
4. The Eagles are hiring former Browns head coach Pat Shurmur as their offensive coordinator, which is an interesting blend with new head coach Chip Kelly. This indicates to me that Kelly is more than willing to scrap the collegiate offense that made him famous, because Shurmur is deeply steeped in conservative West Coast offense principles. Knowing both men a little, I really have a hard time seeing their personalities blend, and though Shurmer puts forth a professional face he’s not one to lose an argument without a fight.
5. I don’t know about you, but the hit that knocked Stevan Ridley from the AFC Championship game gives me pain. Taking a head shot from Bernard Pollard is bad enough, but doing a complete split with a violent landing is just brutal. Men everywhere cringed. Well, men that aren’t hockey goalies cringed, and even some of them had to feel some sympathy man pain.
6. The early line on the Super Bowl is San Francisco -4.5 or 5, depending on the book. My initial gut reaction is to take Baltimore and the points, because I think the reshuffled offensive line in Baltimore is working well enough to give Flacco enough time to attack the Niners over the top, where they are vulnerable.