Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Gold Standard

As amazing as this NFL season was for witnessing historic levels of play, records being broken is not why I'll remember it so fondly.  I'll remember this season fondly because of what happened in San Francisco.  Now normally I wouldn't feel the need to write about a team that I personally support.  But I feel compelled to write about them, because this isn't just about my favorite football team.  This is about my favorite team of all-time.  Of any sport.  Of any year.  I've had other favorite teams win championships, but following the 2011 49ers tops them all.  As a sports fan, there are two types of teams that I root for: my favorite teams that I support year in and year out and teams that are brilliantly constructed (like the Thunder).  It just so happened that those two things coincided this year with the Niners, which led to an unbelievable experience. 

Coming off of last year's disappointing season, in which arguably the best play of the year happened in the preseason, I think many Niner fans were looking for some big moves from management that could provide some promise for the future.  When the decision was made to do an in-house hire for the vacant General Manager position, with the promotion Trent Baalke, I think a lot of people were skeptical that it was just business as usual.  Hiring Jim Harbaugh was a step in the right direction (obviously), but there was still a lot of work to be done with the roster.  Many, including myself, were calling for the team to make a strong push for Asomugha.  For years, cornerback had been a weakness.  Signing Asomugha would be addressing that weakness, while signaling to the fans that management was serious about making the team better.  As that option seemed less and less likely, with Asomugha eventually signing with Philly, the hope for the team's season dimmed a little bit.  This was a team coming off a 6-10 season, with a lot of key players becoming free agents (Smith, Franklin, McDonald, Spikes, Baas, Goldson, Lawson), yet still wasn't doing very much.

They came up short in the Asomugha sweepstakes and had lost David Baas and Takeo Spikes to free agency.  Meanwhile, they had only re-signed Alex Smith and Ray McDonald.  Bringing back a polarizing QB and choosing McDonald over Franklin (the guy who they franchise-tagged just a year earlier) weren't exactly moves that inspired confidence.  When Baalke was confronted with the criticism that their offseason moves were taking, he said, "We have been patient. We do have a plan. We’re executing the plan. And I guess the only thing that’s going to tell is the test of time, and how successful this plan is will be measured with how successful we become on the field."  I remember reading this quote at the time and pretty much rolling my eyes.

Turns out they did have a plan.

They replaced Baas by signing Jonathan Goodwin, Spikes by promoting NaVorro Bowman,  Lawson by promoting Ahmad Brooks, Franklin by moving Sopoaga and promoting Ray McDonald, they re-signed Goldson, cut Clements, traded Mays, and signed Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Braylon Edwards, Blake Costanzo, Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant and David Akers (among others).  With the exception of Edwards (which looked so promising at the beginning), every move Baalke made in free agency paid off.  When you combine that with the drafting of Aldon Smith (which, at the time, was received with a collective "Huh?"), Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter, Bruce Miller, Collin Jones, and Colin Kaepernick (time will tell), his whole offseason was a home run.

Watching a GM construct a team like that is easily one of the best aspects of sports.  The only thing that tops it is when a coach capitalizes on the talent assembled.  And that's exactly what Harbaugh and his staff did.  They guided Alex Smith to the best year of his career, while vastly improving upon Singletary's offensive philosophy.  It was still a power-run offense, but it had creativity (a pass to the left tackle, a pass to the nose tackle, a fullback wheel route, a fly sweep - even doing a fake field goal).  It was no longer one-dimensional. 

On the defensive side of the ball, sliding Sopoaga over to replace Franklin and starting McDonald proved to be ingenious.  Couple that with the usual brilliance of Willis and Smith, the great play of Brooks, the development of Bowman into an All-Pro linebacker (even resembling Willis as a play-maker), and the tandem of Haralson and Aldon Smith, the Niners had the best front seven in the league.  Solidifying that is the fact that Ricky Jean-Francois and Larry Grant started games - due to injuries - and the team didn't miss a beat.  In the secondary, the additions of Rogers and Whitner, the re-signing of Goldson, the promotion of Brown, and the drafting of Culliver provided great improvement.  In fact, Rogers, Goldson and Brown combined for more interceptions than last years entire team. 

The defense wasn't the only unit to experience an amazing year.  Special teams performed incredibly well.  Ted Ginn had a very good year, finishing 3rd in kickoff return average and 4th in punt return average.  The coverage unit - especially Blake Costanzo and CJ Spillman - seemed to be around the ball constantly.  And of course, the cream of the crop of special teams was the three Pro Bowlers: David Akers, Andy Lee, and Brian Jennings.  Akers broke the record for most field goals made in a season and most non-touchdown points in a season.  He also ended the year with a perfect passer rating, after executing a fake field goal. Lee obviously had fantastic year (as seen here), setting the record for the highest net punting average for a season in history.  And for insight into what Jennings does on a weekly basis, here's what Matt Maiocco wrote earlier this year: "Have you ever noticed that holder Andy Lee never (or rarely) has to spin the football on field-goal attempts? That's because Jennings is so consistent at making sure the revolutions of the football on his snaps are perfect so that the laces are pointing toward the goal posts."  Is there a better kicker-punter-long snapper trio in football?  I'm guessing no.

The production of this team was off the charts.  From Baalke down to Harbaugh, Roman, Fangio, Seely - as well as the rest of the staff - all the way down to the players.  The offense went from 24th in points scored last year to 11th this year and from 11th in fewest turnovers to 1st.  The defense was arguably the best in the league.  They had the best rushing defense, the most takeaways, quarterbacks had the 5th worst passer rating against them (improved from 26th the year before), and they gave up the second fewest points in the league.  Special teams was 1st in kickoff return average, 5th in punt return average, 13th in opponent kick return average, and 11th in opponent punt return average (up from 30th, 7th, 15th, and 15th the year before).  They had the most Pro Bowlers (9) and most All-Pro players (5 first team and 2 second team) in the league.

But as amazing as the talent and production of the team was, there's another component to why this is my favorite team of all-time.  It's the emotional investment I have in the players.  I liked all the players on the team this year, but there's a handful of them that stand out.  For starters, there's Frank Gore, Andy Lee, and David Akers.  Coming into the year, Gore's future with the Niners was uncertain.  Thankfully, a contract extension was agreed upon; which was welcome news, because he's one of the best running backs in franchise history.  He's been integral to any of the success they've had over the years (as little as it's been at times), so it was nice to see him rewarded with an actual winning season.  The same goes for Andy Lee.  In many years where there were few bright spots, he was consistently one of them; the only silver lining to the team's frequent three and outs was watching him punt.  For the last five years, he's been in the top 4 in punting average every year and he's been in the top 5 in net average every year but one (only Lechler's been better).  The guy has been spectacular.  He's got to be the best punter in franchise history.

Now Akers is a little different.  Obviously he hasn't been on the team a long time. And while it's easy to like someone who's making field goals in bunches and perfectly executing surprise onside kicks, that's not the only reason I'm mentioning him.  The reason I feel differently towards him than a bunch of other players is because of Rick Reilly's piece on ESPN.  That column came out after the season was almost over, but it gave me a retroactive appreciation for him.  After reading what he had gone through the previous year, it added so much sentiment to his season.  What he accomplished this year was already something special to have witnessed.  For him to have done it after what he had gone through only made it exponentially more meaningful.

Finally, the four guys that I feel invested in the most: Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Vernon Davis, and Alex Smith.  Patrick Willis is the face of the franchise.  He's the best player on the team, and has been ever since he stepped onto the field.  Here's a quick comparison to Ray Lewis' first five years:

16 sacks, 9 INTs, 0 TDs, 0 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 590 tackles, 4 Pro Bowls, First-team All-Pro (2x), Second-team All-Pro (2x), DPOY, approximate value- 72

17 sacks, 5 INTs, 2 TDs, 41 passes defensed, 12 forced fumbles, 542 tackles, 5 Pro Bowls, First team All-Pro (4x), Second-team All-Pro (1x), DROY, approximate value- 77

He has a long way to go to be Lewis, but to even be on a similar trajectory to him is pretty impressive. When you combine his stellar play with what he's been through, how could you not love the guy?  He's an exemplary professional.  The best part?  He's not the only one.  Justin Smith is as well.  And he too is one of the best players in football.  He sealed two wins this year, when he stripped Jeremy Maclin and batted down Eli Manning's pass.  He made Aldon Smith better, by purposely drawing double teams.  And is it any coincidence that Ray McDonald had his best year, after working out with Justin during the offseason?  I don't think so.  Since his rookie season, he hasn't missed a single game.  He's the first player in history to make the All-Pro team as both a DT and a DE (yet somehow finished behind Jared Allen in the DPOY voting?).  Halfway through the year, Matt Williamson ranked the top 50 players in the NFL and placed Smith at number 10.  Mike Sando reviewed the list and had this to say: "Williamson's explanation for this choice is perfect. He asks any doubters to watch Smith play a full game. Any game. They're all outstanding."  It's true.  Watch this guy play any game.  He's unbelievable.

In contrast to the great starts Patrick and Justin experienced in their careers, the journeys of Vernon and Alex were a little different.  These guys didn't experience quality starts to their careers.  Vernon started out as a prima donna that needed to be straightened out.  Thankfully it happened.  And all the credit in the world goes to Singletary for initiating it and to Vernon for responding.  Now Singletary's tenure in San Francisco may have ended on a sour note, but I consider it a success.  Not only did he straighten out Vernon, but he also coached and mentored Willis.  And both of them went on to become the highest paid players at their positions in history.  He may not have won a lot of games, but he positively impacted their two franchise players.  That's pretty beneficial.

Unfortunately he couldn't do the same for Alex Smith, who experienced about as bad of a start to a career as you could.  He had to endure arguably the two worst coaches a young quarterback could, which included terrible teaching and terrible play-calling.  Combine that with a bad offensive line and a lack of playmakers and the guy had virtually no shot at success.  This resulted in me having a yo-yo relationship with him.  In the offseason, I would acknowledge all of the mitigating circumstances that led to his poor performance and would give him the benefit of that doubt that he would improve.  Then during the season, I would grow frustrated and think he was hopeless.  This process culminated last year.  Going into the 2010 season, I was at my most optimistic point for him to succeed.  He had the same offensive coordinator for consecutive years for the first time in his career.  Additionally, the team had drafted Crabtree the year before and had just drafted Iupati and Davis.  They had seemingly addressed a lot of the variables that had contributed to his failure.  So when he stumbled again, I wrote him off for good.  As fate would have it, the offseason I gave up on him would be the one prior to the best year of his career.  And his best year would culminate in the team’s first postseason berth in 9 years.

And what a postseason it was.  The game against New Orleans was perfect.  From the weather to the atmosphere (Bailey performing his song live and the crowd chanting along) to the energy and swagger of the players (as seen during Future’s live performance of their kickoff song) down to the actual game.  Not only was it a great game, but it could not have had a more significant ending.  If Alex Smith’s touchdown run had been the winning score, it would’ve been a great ending.  But what happened was even better.  The careers of Alex and Vernon are seemingly connected at the hip.  Alex has more chemistry with Vernon than with any other receiver and they have probably faced more adversity than any two people on the team.  For the game-winning touchdown to be a throw from Alex to Vernon could not have been more perfect.  It was poetic.  In fact, that one play did something that I never thought would happen: it made me let go of the bitterness of the team drafting Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers and made me appreciate Singletary.  To see these two men triumph made drafting Smith and hiring Singletary worth it, because those things led to this play in this game.  One play absolved the team's baggage. 

That’s what made this team, this game, this season so incredible.  It wasn’t just a fantastic team putting on fantastic performances.  It involved redemption.  Alex had been through so much.  To see him gain 327 total yards and score four touchdowns, while leading two game-winning drives, in the franchise’s most important game in nearly a decade was exhilarating.  I could not have been happier for him.  Granted, the ending of the season was painful.  Coming off such an emotional win and playing without three of their top four receivers, from their opening day roster, they still came within two mishandled punts from going to the Super Bowl.  How could it not be?

But while a Super Bowl win would've been the ultimate ending to such a magical year, it tarnishes this season in no way.  The journey this team and these players went through to do to what they did was unparalleled to anything I've experienced with any other team.  Winning championships is great.  Reviving a franchise and redeeming a career?  That's monumental.  Maybe these guys will win a championship in the near future.  But unless that happens, this is the greatest team I've ever followed.

Take it away Vernon...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


In my last post, I mentioned how I thought that the season Drew Brees put together also served to highlight how good Marino's '84 season really was.  That wasn't the only time that happened this year.  Remember when Calvin Johnson had 9 touchdowns in the first five games?  At the time, it looked like he was going to make a run at the record for most receiving touchdowns in a season.  Heck, he was on pace for 29 touchdowns.  While he didn't quite reach the record, I think the season he had should only highlight how amazing Jerry Rice's '87 season was.  I say that because if you think Calvin Johnson scoring 9 touchdowns in 5 games is impressive, how much more impressive is it that Rice scored 22 touchdowns in 12 games?  Calvin Johnson was on pace for 29 touchdowns through 5 games.  Jerry Rice was on pace for 29 touchdowns through 12.  Imagine if he would've had four more games.  And if you think that he wouldn't have reached 29, consider that Calvin Johnson was on pace for 16 touchdowns through 12 games and finished with what?  That's right, 16.  Or that Randy Moss was on pace for 23 touchdowns through 12 games and finished with what?  You guessed it, 23.  But for the sake of argument, let's assume that Rice doesn't reach 29.  What if he reached even 25 or 26?  Would that be an unbreakable record?  I mean, it took Randy Moss until the last game of the year - as a part of the greatest offense in history - to even break the record that Rice had set in 12 games.  If Moss on the '07 Pats couldn't touch the level of production of Rice's '87 season, then who could?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

NFL Season: A Year of Records

2011 was a phenomenal year for professional sports.  After the best NBA season I've ever seen, we had a fantastic NBA playoffs that was capped off by an amazing Finals.  If baseball wasn't to be overshadowed, it would need to have the craziest night in MLB history and one of the best World Series of all-time. Check and check.  How would football follow those up?  How about with some amazing achievements of its own?

We witnessed the near-perfection of Aaron Rodgers (he had only three games with a passer rating lower than 111 and none lower than 80) as the Packers marched to a measly 15-1 record, the resurgence of the Lions and Niners (behind the emergence of Matthew Stafford and Alex Smith), the surprisingly good rookie year of Andy Dalton, Aldon Smith finishing one sack shy of having the rookie record, Patrick Peterson's historic return game, David Akers breaking the record for most points scored in a season, the usual brilliance of Brady, Gronkowski's record-breaking year for a tight end, and the best season of Eli Manning's career.  But I think the biggest takeaways from this season are Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, and Drew Brees.

I found the run of Tim Tebow and the Broncos to be extremely fun this year.  Why?  Because it can't be explained.  Here's what Bill Simmons wrote about Tebow in October, "Can't Tim Tebow just be a super-athletic QB with an erratic arm and possibly mystical powers who bugs the hell out of hardcore football analysts and stat guys because not EVERYTHING about sports has to have a concrete answer?"  I couldn't agree more.  I loved that it couldn't be explained in a box score or an algorithm.  All I know is that if the Broncos were losing, and time was running out, a win somehow seemed improbable yet simultaneously inevitable.  And after they pulled it off, there was nothing you could do but shake your head and laugh.  Then to top it all off, after a full season of winning by running the ball, it was incredible to see them beat the Steelers in the playoffs by Tebow throwing deep ball after deep ball.

It's been brought up that the Broncos season would feel unrealistic as the plot of a movie.  And it's true.  No team could believably pull off those types of comebacks.  That's what made it so incredible.  If something is so inexplicable that you couldn't script it, it shouldn't be irritating or angering.  It should be celebrated and marveled at.  When "great comeback" and "2011" are brought up together, am I going to immediately think of the ending to the Packers-Giants week 13 game (as good as it was)?  No.  I'm going to think of the Broncos' comebacks against the Jets and the Bears.  Why?  Because the Giants and Packers exchanging comeback drives made sense.  The Broncos' comebacks didn't.  That's what made them so fun.

Remember when there was never a hint of doubt that Cam Newton should be the number one pick?  Remember when there was never a hint of doubt that he should start right away?  Remember when everyone thought he would have the best rookie season of any quarterback in history?  Yeah, me neither.  Turns out that he probably did though.  Let's see: He finished 10th in passing yards (4,051- most by a rookie in history), he finished tied for 11th in passing TDs (21- 3rd most by a rookie in history) and he finished 15th in passer rating (84.5).  Not to mention that he also finished 26th in rushing yards (706) and 2nd in rushing TDs (14- most by a QB in history and 5th most by any rookie in history).  That's a total of 4,757 yards and 35 TDs (most total touchdowns by a rookie in history).  Incredible.

If that wasn't enough, this year also saw Drew Brees break Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season.  But as impressive as it was, I also think it underscored how impressive Marino's season really was.  When you think of the difference in era, it's quite astonishing what Marino pulled off.  It's even more incredible when you think about the fact that Marino's records for yards in a season and touchdowns in a season were achieved in one year, but broken separately.  So while I think Brees breaking the record was an impressive accomplishment, I also think it was a testament to what Marino accomplished.

The fact that so many records were broken this year was fitting, considering the way the season started (here's what I wrote in September):

"On a positive football related note, the NFL had a very strong opening weekend.  Not just in quality, but record breaking as well.  Rodgers and Brees set a record for each having 300+ yards and 3 TDs with no interceptions during the same game on opening weekend.  Ted Ginn Jr. became the first player to return a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the first game of the year.  Cam Newton threw for 400+ yards, the most by a rookie in his first game.  Sebastian Janikowski tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal.  Dallas lost for the first time in history when leading by 14+ points in the 4th quarter, bringing their overall record to 241-1-1.  And Brady threw for 500+ yards, which is a team record.  There's definitely worse ways to kick off a new season than with half a dozen historic happenings.  Should be a good year."

The record-breaking began in week 1 and continued through the entire season.  Not bad.  While there were some unfortunate happenigs this season (the injuries to Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub, and Jay Cutler), I'd say this was a pretty amazing year of football.  At least the record books will say so.