Category: Football

Why Do Low-Scoring Football Games Bore Me, Unlike Low-Scoring Baseball Games?

So what’s the matter with me? I love it when a baseball game ends with a low score and a low winning margin. Pitcher’s duels are a feast for my baseball eyes. But show me an NFL game that ends 10-9 like the Niners’ loss today to the Carolina Panthers, and I’m bored to tears.

Never mind that my team lost; the Panthers’ defense was obviously much better coached and prepared than the Niners’ offense. In fact, I’m beginning to worry about the Niners’ ability to sustain a championship run with an offense that is dead last in the NFL in passing. I thought Colin Kaepernick was supposed to be a gun. Maybe a Derringer?

But I digress.

The game today was just dead for me. To many turnovers, too many sacks, too much offensive futility, and far too little scoring. I think that my sense is that when a baseball game ends 2-1 or 1-0 or 3-2, there’s dynamic tension and strategy at work. But when an NFL game ends that way, it generally means, as it seemed to me today, that the offenses were just sputtering. It comes off as ineptitude. I’m not saying the teams in today’s game were not good teams; they clearly both are. But they’re not exciting teams, at least not the way they played each other today.

I expected a track meet, a high-scoring shootout. Both teams were on long winning streaks, both had scored 30+ points per game in their last several outings in dominating opponents. Instead — and I was obviously in a minority in my expectation because most other observers seemed to expect what we got — we got brutish, smash-mouth, in-your-face defensive football. Which I just don’t enjoy.

kaep_running_towardFWIW, I no longer expect the Niners to make a run at the Super Bowl this year. They may not even make the playoffs but if they do, they’re not going very far. Kaepernick has proven to be a weak (that is, inaccurate and sketchy) passer and once the defenses in the NFL caught on to the college-style offense the Niners tried to get away with behind Kaep, the team has relied on running and defense to win. That formula won’t carry the day, as they learned painfully today.

But I don’t care if they make the playoffs or not; I just hope they find a way to win and lose future games in a bit more exciting fashion than they did today in their first real test against a good defense since the Seahawks clobbered them.

If not, it’s going to be a long five weeks to the end of the season.

 

The 12th Man: Is Crowd Noise Cool or Unsportsmanlike?

Sound meter showing Kansas City Chiefs' crowd noise at 147.57

KC Chiefs crowd breaks outdoor stadium noise record Oct. 13, 2013 at 137.57.

A colleague forwarded a news story about the Kansas City Chiefs’ fans breaking the outdoor-stadium crowd-noise record yesterday with the question: “Dubious accomplishment or unsportsmanlike?” As a long-time sportswriter, I’ve penned more than a few hundred words about this subject over the years. Periodically, I re-think it and I keep coming to the same conclusion: there’s nothing unsportsmanlike about it. While I think the latest trend of having Guinness Book of World Records officials on-hand to measure the noise and certify its volume is more than a tad weird, I can’t condemn the fans or the teams.

Crowd noise is just another playing condition — like cold, snow, heat, rain, long grass, or streakers — under which teams must from time to time play and to which they must learn to adjust. If it were illegal, e.g., for a crowd to make loud noise in some stadiums but not others, maybe — but only maybe — you could make a case for penalizing it or outlawing it league-wide.

is it cool for some teams to engineer stadiums to increase the effect of extra-loud screaming on the players on the field? You betcha. (Sorry, Ms. Half-Term Governor!) It’s good for the fans, who feel like they are really part of their teams’ season, and it’s good for TV (though their sound folks need to learn to cope with it better) because it increases the sense of “there” for viewers.

Sure, there are times — like last weekend in Seattle when the infamous 12th man up north contributed to my Niners’ poor performance and accompanying defeat — when I wish I could conjure a good argument for banning or penalizing it. But in the final analysis, it’s just more great fun on the sporting scene.

Niners Crap Out Again; Blame it on Roman

49ers Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman

49ers Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman

Three weeks into the season and it’s painfully obvious the San Francisco 49ers are not anything close to the team almost everyone predicted they’d be. Sure, they started with one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, with three straight games against playoff teams from last season. And the fact that they’re 1-2 after those three outings isn’t, in and of itself, cause for alarm.

It’s the way they’re losing that bodes ill for the rest of the campaign. After getting creamed in Seattle last week, they got out-played in every aspect of the game in losing by 20 to the Indianapolis Colts today. The Niners’ offense was expected to be powerful and explosive but it’s been pathetic and anemic. Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman didn’t call many plays this week that resulted in open receivers for Colin Kaepernick to hit with his cannon arm.

The NFL’s defenses have obviously caught up with the read-option (not that that was too hard; it is, after all, a pretty simplistic offense when you take it apart) and unless Roman steps up his game a lot, this is going to be a helluva long season for the Niners.

Special teams sucked (what’s with the punt returners fielding the ball inside the 10?), the defense took two unnecessary timeouts in the second half (didn’t turn out to cost much given the offense’s ineptitude), and the Niners were flagged for too many penalties again (though not as many as in the first two games).

This seems like a rudderless team trying to find its true identity in the midst of a season they expected to dominate. The problem is that with a highly improved NFC West, the Niners may well find themselves not even making the playoffs this year if things don’t turn around quick.

To make things worse, they have a short week this week as they meet the St. Louis Rams on the Thursday Night game. (Don’t even get me started on what an amazingly stupid idea it is to play NFL games on Thursdays.)

49ers Week One: Some Less Obvious, Popular Take-Aways

Well the San Francisco 49ers managed to pull out a very hard-fought win over the tough-as-expected Green Bay Packers yesterday, by a score of 34-28 that was closer than it sounded. The Niners led most of the way, but never by very much and always with the very present possibility of shooting themselves squarely in the foot.

After everyone else has hashed over the highlights, I like to come by with my small broom and sweep up a few hopefully less obvious conclusions. So here are my next-day thoughts about Week One.

kaep_ready_to_pass

Colin Kaepernick

Many have said that we learned this week that Colin Kaepernick is who we thought he would be. I disagree. While he was really awesome working in the pocket, his big claim to fame is supposed to be the read option. That, in turn, is supposed to allow him to rely on leg power to get him through the game. That was not the case yesterday. He ran for a measly 22 yards in just seven carries, and candidly executed the read option pretty poorly. There was chaos in the backfield, lack of focus that led to delay-of-game penalties and lousy clock management, all of which appeared to me to be connected to the Packers’ clear ability to stop his main weapon.

The secondary was scary. And not in a good way. True, the Packers under Aaron Rodgers are a formidable group. That guy can throw the ball as well as anyone I’ve seen in a half-century of being a fan. Still, pass defense looked cold, stiff, bewildered, and just out of sorts. That unit has had better games against Rogers and his ilk. They are going to have to step up their game if the Niners are going to end up relying on a shoot-out style of play, as appears to be the case at the moment.

San Francisco 49ers Wide Receiver Anquan Boldin

Anquan Boldin

An embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver corps could actually become an issue as the season progresses. Why? When superstars like Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree are vying for playing time, jealousy and envy can often be a problem. I hope I’m not looking for difficulties that won’t arise here, but Boldin is a seasoned veteran. Having had the amazing start he got Sunday, he is going to be extremely reluctant to give up any playing exposure when Crabtree returns to the lineup. So, that could go either way. If the veteran can stay classy, the Niners’ offense may even be better than it looked Sunday (which was awfully good). If not, things could deteriorate. It’s up to Coach Harbaugh to make that work. His hands-off approach to player management could prove a downside.

Eric Reid opened strong as a rookie and showed glimmers of getting even better as the game progressed. His coach famously worried that  giving Reid his debut against the Packers would be potentially damaging to the young man. No way. I look forward to Eric applying strategically devastating hits to a lot of Niners’ opponents this year. The guy’s an animal.

NFL Official -Confused Much?

NFL Official -Confused Much?

I tried. But I could not leave this week’s report without a comment on the alleged officiating. In my long and storied (hey, I used to be a sportswriter, so I wrote the stories!) career as a football fan, I would rank this game among the 10 worst-officiated of all time at any level. Not only did the crew blow the application of the dead-ball penalty rule, giving the Niners four undeserved points, they missed at least a half-dozen holding and interference calls that were blatant and right in front of their faces. And this is not sour grapes. The terrible calls were about equally distributed between the teams. When the zebras don’t do their jobs, the game and the fans suffer. Hopefully this will turn out to be an aberration.

 

Wow, Was I Wrong!

SuperBowlScoreLeading up to yesterday’s exciting and, for us 49er fans heart-breaking Super Bowl, I predicted that the game would be over by halftime with the Niners winning it going away.

Gulp.

I’ve read and listened to a dozen post mortems this morning and the ones I find myself agreeing most with are those that put the bulk of the blame on the coaching staff. Seldom have I seen a team more poorly prepared for an important game. Both coordinators need to be carefully considered before they’re kept around another season. Greg Roman deserves serious consideration for termination based solely on his incredibly poor play-calling in the closing minutes of the game.

There is and will continue to be a lot of moaning and yelling about that last-second non-call in the end zone. But both teams play with the same zebras and mistakes happen. (I was a lot more incensed at the TV commentary in which Phil Simms bent over so far to kiss the officials’ butts that he turned himself into a verbal pretzel. “I like that non-call,” said a former whiny QB who, if that call had happened to him, would have been screaming louder than the crowd.)

If the team had been prepared and played even a mediocre first half, they wouldn’t have been in a position where one missed call could cost them the Super Bowl.

The good news in all of this is that while Colin Kaepernick proved to be as mistake-prone a first-year starting QB as I’d been saying all along, he showed some brilliance at times and seldom lost his composure. He’s got a great team around him. 2013 could be another banner year.

Go, Niners!

I Was Wrong About Kaepernick in Playoffs, But…

SF backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick

49ers Starting QB Colin Kaepernick

OK, OK, so I was clearly wrong about 49ers second-year QB Colin Kaepernick being unable to play up to the level needed to win an NFL playoff game. The guy scorched the Green Bay Packers, personally and in every statistical category yesterday as he led and carried the Niners to a blow-out 45-31 game that was actually not as close as the final score indicates.

49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh

49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh

Ever since mid-season when Coach Jim Harbaugh benched Alex Smith — who at the time was in the top three quarterbacks in the league — in favor of the less-seasoned second-year horse, I’ve been bitchy. I had written some time earlier that I saw Kaepernick as a true Top 5 QB in another year or two but I was not supportive of Harbaugh’s move because:

  • I don’t think a guy should lose a job he’s doing very well because he gets injured. I don’t like the message that sends to players: play hurt or be benched.
  • After seven seasons of shoving Smith around a totally unsettled coaching situation, I thought he deserved a chance to show what he could do in a stable environment.

For what it’s worth, I still feel that way. At the very least, Harbaugh will wake up as the 2013 season begins and find he has some players who are reluctant to put out 100% for a coach who shows no loyalty to a solid veteran. He made the switch to Kaepernick for one reason: he could.

But, with all that said, Kaepernick turned in a magnificent job on Saturday night. No doubt Smith could not have picked apart the Packers with anything resembling the alacrity and brilliance Kaepernick showed. I suspect the Niners have a better than 50-50 chance of playing the the Super Bowl this year.

Clearly, Kaep will be the QB for the next few years for the Niners. I hope and trust Smith will land someplace where he’ll be appreciated and supported so he can finish what should be an illustrious career in the NFL despite maltreatment by the Niners.

But I’m slightly less a fan of the red and gold these days because of the shabby way they treated a guy who worked his gut out for them and was near the pinnacle of success when he was summarily sidelined by a coach with an ego the size of the new Niners stadium.

 

Harbaugh Sticking With Kaep, So Kiss the Super Bowl Goodbye

Until this morning, I had great hopes for the San Francisco 49ers being good enough this year to win another Super Bowl. No longer. Coach Jim Harbaugh, in one of the shortest-sighted and least defensible moves I’ve ever seen an NFL Head Coach make, announced he’s giving Colin Kaepernick the start against the Rams this week.

I’ve made my arguments against this decision so many times you’re tired of hearing about them and I’m tired of writing them. So I’m going to confine my remarks here to two predictions:

  • First, the Niners will finish the season 111-4-1 and win the NFC West.
  • Second, they will not get past the first round of the playoffs and you can lay that solely at the feet of Harbaugh.

Amazingly dumb move.

 

Wrong Again

I seem to be on a bit of a losing streak as far as pigskin prognostication is concerned. Two weeks ago, I completely missed the Niners vs. Bears outcome other than calling the game for San Francisco. Last week, I was asked if I thought Alex Smith would start a QB against the Saints and I all but guaranteed he would.

49ers Head Coach Jim HarbaughThen Coach Jim Harbaugh tapped Colin Kaepernick for the starting role. Smith didn’t even get a single touch in the game. This despite the fact that he had been cleared for full contact the day before after sitting out a game and a half with a concussion.

What can I say? I think Harbaugh made a huge mistake. His whole treatment of the quarterback controversy that never should have been has smelled badly to me. He’s screwed up in at least these possible ways:

  1. No competent starter should ever lose his job to an injury. Smith is far beyond competent and while his stats may not be impressive, he’s the guy guiding the team to a record of 20-5 over two seasons before his injury. To replace him as starter with an untested sophomore is folly, and I don’t give a crap how competent the replacement might be.
  2. Alex has had his career value decimated by the 49ers’ total incompetence in coaching and managing the team.  By forcing him to work under  under a different offense coordinator in each of his first five seasons, the 49ers effectively required Alex to learn a new system every season. That is a difficult assignment even for a seasoned veteran, but to impose that requirement on our rookie, regardless of how talented, is an abysmal way to treat a star player.
  3. Even assuming that Kaepernick is ready now to be a starter, a position with which I strongly disagree, it’s just not smart to replace the quarterback midseason and expect the rest of the team to coalesce around a new signal caller. This approach can only result in confusion and poor execution, particularly on complex plays.
  4. By replacing him as the starter, Harbaugh has quite probably reduced Alex’s self-confidence. It took him too long to build that up in the face of the terrible coaching decisions and management moves that characterized his first five seasons as a 49er.

San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith

It may well be that Harbaugh will decide to stay with CK for the rest of the season, and if he does the 49ers will still make the playoffs.  But there’s no way the youngster can lead the team through the playoffs, let alone to a Super Bowl appearance. You only need to look at the Saints game Sunday to see what inexperience can lead to in the NFL.  The young signal caller appeared to be in all-out panic mode more than once, and his inability to handle the crowd noise led to several miscommunications and unnecessary timeouts.

In the end, the coach must rely on Smith to carry the team to what may well be a richly deserved championship. It is difficult to see how he can do so if he continues to undermine Smith’s confidence by benching him for absolutely no good reason.

 

Niners’ Harbaugh Cagy on Starting QB, But Why?

Asked in today’s press conference whether he’d be starting Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick at quarterback Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, Coach Jim Harbaugh waffled.

Spouting the usual platitudes about “team interests” and similar drivel, Harbaugh refused to announce the starter. Not only that, he also refused to suggest that he would even announce a starter before the game.

49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh

49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh

This doesn’t make any sense to me. Sure, Kaepernick  acquitted himself quite well Monday night against the Bears, but if Harbaugh is intending to get the fans or the Saints coaching staff  scratching their heads over the question of who will be behind center Sunday, it certainly isn’t clear what real advantage he would gain by doing that.

There may be some value in confusing the Saints coaching staff and forcing them to try to prepare for two quite different signal callers, but somehow I don’t think that’s the kind of deciding edge that the problem may be looking for here.

Hopefully, Harbaugh realizes that in the near term, at least, Alex Smith is our guy. It’s great that we have such a quality backup, but that’s what he is, a backup. He needs more seasoning, and getting training on the job while the Niners are chasing a Super Bowl title would hardly be an intelligent move on the part of one of the smartest coaches in the game.

You can take this to the bank. If Smith is cleared by doctors in sufficient time, he will start Sunday. That’s the end of that quarterback controversy.

3-0 Anyone?

Tonight’s Monday Night Football game between my 49ers and the Chicago Bears promises to be an  ultra-low-scoring affair as both teams sit their starting QBs due to concussions.

Chicago’s Jay Cutler and SF’s Alex Smith are apparently both going to be sidelined tonight. Combine that with the fact that these are the two best defenses in the NFL, and the prospect of a high-scoring game fades to near-black.

SF backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick

49ers Backup QB Colin Kaepernick

I expect the Niners to win. They’re at home. Sophomore backup ackup Colin Kaepernick is already a better quarterback than Jason Campbell, who has a QB rating hovering in the low 80s as he plays for the first season with his third NFL team. In his only extensive outing of this season with Chicago, he wound up with a rating of 70.9, averaged a measly 4.9 yards per completion and didn’t toss a score.

Kaepernick, on the other hand, has a rating near 90, averages just about eight yards per completion and has appeared in six games for the Niners this season. He’s no Alex Smith, just as Campbell is no Cutler, but on average, I’d give him a slight edge tonight. And in a low-low-scoring game, a slight edge is enough.

I look for a 10-7 Niners win tonight with the Bears’ score coming on defense.