Something to Talk About
By order of the herd mentality, by fiat of conformity, and by decree of the invisible, imaginary forces that demand that we all talk about the same things, Mandatory Monday leads off with a Colin Kaepernick segment this week.
Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith as the 49ers' starting quarterback, giving the 49ers an official, certified Quarterback Controversy, the kind we assume every fan finds fascinating, the kind we plan to flog until you tremble at the thought of turning on ESPN2 at midday, or flipping to the sports radio station accidentally, to hear the words "Kaepernick and Smith" repeated like a soul-draining mantra.
Kaepernick led the 49ers to victory over the Saints by a 31-21 score, and a win is a win is a win, even though Kaepernick benefited from two pick-six interceptions by his defense to provide the margin of victory. Kaepernick also ran for a touchdown, just as Alex Smith did against the same opponent in the playoffs last season, but Kaepernick's run is significant in that he is not Smith.
Kaepernick played reasonably well, completing 16 of 25 passes for 231 yards, one touchdown and one interception, plus 27 rushing yards. Those are Alex Smith numbers, accumulated in a slightly different way than Smith would. The 49ers benched a mobile low-risk game manager in favor of a mobile high-risk game-breaker. As a result, the team that was the odds-on favorite to win the NFC West is now likely to win the NFC West. The mean is the same; the standard deviation is just slightly wider.
Kaepernick's performance proved that it does not matter who the 49ers' quarterback is, provided that a) he is better than Charlie Batch, and b) Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and the rest of the 49ers defense retain their starting jobs. The fact that the season's signature Quarterback Controversy is almost entirely irrelevant - that the game which will be held up as evidence that everything has changed in San Francisco is actually irrefutable proof that little has changed in San Francisco -- is one of the delicious ironies that makes writing Mandatory Monday such a joy.
Kaepernick looked like the typical freewheelin' young quarterback in the 31-21 victory over the Saints. His highlights are better than anything Alex Smith could ever do, and his bloopers could make a dog cringe. He was much more impressive when slaloming through sideline reporters after the game. Pam Oliver nabbed him for an awkward Fox moment, asking the quarterback a confusing question about his father. Kaepernick said that he hoped his father was proud of him. "He is," Oliver assured him, and Kaepernick gave Oliver a funny look, wondering when she became a guidance counselor.
A few minutes later, Alex Flanagan cornered Kaepernick for NBC. Kaepernick obligingly made "great teammate" noises when talking about Smith, but Flanagan noted that when she spoke to Smith, the former starter just "shrugged" and didn't say much. Smith's silence speaks volumes, though it wasn't really silence, and Kaepernick is the man of the hour, so long as he talks about Smith, and accepts the fact that even his father's approval must be cleared through the networks.
At least Jim Harbaugh has stopped comparing people who question his quarterback decisions to gobbling turkeys. Thanksgiving is over, and all the turkeys have been pardoned. Good thing, as the gobbling has grown deafening.
So the most important story this week is unimportant, because the 49ers were a top-flight playoff team with Smith and are still one with Kaepernick, and the rift between the quarterbacks is built upon interpretations of shrugs. The rightness or wrongness of the quarterback change will be retrofitted based upon the results, and Sunday's 49ers victory will be remembered as a turning point in the season, even though nothing really turned.
And so it goes.
Viva la Revolution
There is a revolution going on in the NFL.
In the NFC, there is a Fifth Column that has been stirring up trouble for weeks. The Seahawks, Vikings, and Buccaneers refused to behave like good little also-rans as the weather got colder, instead rattling off a mix of surprising upsets and impressive victories over other middleweights.
In the AFC, a trio of Young Turks are threatening the Patriots-Ravens-Steelers playoff hegemony. The Bengals, surprise playoff participants last season, have spent November blowing out opponents big (Giants) and small (Chiefs and Raiders). The Colts keep hovering in the playoff rearview mirror with a roster built entirely of old guys and rookies. The Dolphins just refuse to quit, something the Jets and Bills are all too happy to do, leaving them in position to ride a second place finish in the AFC East to a still-possible Wild Card berth.
The Fifth Column and Young Turks demand a national voice. They are fresher and more dynamic than the sagging Cowboys-Jets-Eagles-Chargers aristocracy of drama sponges that get by on reputation and our morbid fascination. They represent a real threat to teams like the Steelers, who have grown old and frail within the halls of power.
The Fifth Column teams suffered setbacks this week, but most of them were minor. Only the Vikings looked like pretenders, as Jay Cutler restored order to the Bears offense, allowing the defense to clamp down in a 28-10 win. The Buccaneers spoke truth to power by nearly upsetting the Falcons. The Seahawks found themselves on the wrong end of one of their patented down-to-the-final-field-goal defensive slugfests at the hands of the Dolphins, who are no strangers to that type of game. The other Young Turks in the AFC also won: The Bengals swatted the Raiders around for four quarters, and the Colts did what successful teams like the Patriots do to stay sharp (i.e. beat the Bills).
The three NFC losses and three AFC wins made a slushy mush of both Wild Card pictures. The six revolutionary teams (plus the Redskins, perhaps) may represent a NFL power structure, with exciting young quarterbacks, promising new coaches, some great defenses, and front offices that either a) appear to know what they are doing (Seahawks, Colts) or b) have given solid evidence that they have recently changed their foolish ways (the Buccaneers spending dollars instead of shillings, the Bengals overhauling their whole organization, Jeff Ireland going a solid month without saying something utterly embarrassing). In the long term, the NFC Fifth Column and the AFC Young Turks represent a real threat to the establishment. But for now, it is hard to figure out which of these six teams is even going to make the playoffs.
To get a real sense of who will reach the playoffs from among these two factions, we must ask two simple questions about each team. Who is truly playing at a playoff level right now? And who is likely to get a break or two down the stretch?
First, here's how the six upstarts rank in terms of postseason-worthy performance:
The Buccaneers: Sure, it was a divisional game at home, but the Buccaneers appeared to be on equal footing with the 10-1 Falcons in a narrow 24-23 loss that was as revealing as their previous four wins. They also looked like a team playing within themselves: The Buccaneers are loaded with players doing about what we expect them to do. Receivers like Vincent Jackson and Dallas Clark are playing the way they have done in playoff runs of the past. Clark may be the league's secret weapon this year, a player written off as one of Peyton Manning's aging entourage who now has 31 catches, all of which seem to be 11-yarders on third-and 10. With two new weapons, Josh Freeman's rebound from last year is only a minor shock. Ronde Barber intercepted a Matt Ryan pass by undercutting a route, exactly the kind of veteran move you would expect from a future Hall of Famer. Rookies Doug Martin, Lavonte David and Mark Barron are playing at the upper end of what scouts expected of them, but they are not playing over their heads. The Buccaneers had 10-6 talent two years ago, and they appear to have 10-6 talent again.
The Bengals and Seahawks: These two teams have their niches. The Bengals are not as bad as they looked on their three-game losing streak or as good as they looked in their blowout of the Giants, but lopsided wins over the Chiefs, Raiders and Jaguars make them defining members of the AFC's middle class. The Seahawks play great defense, swat down the Cowboys and Jets like true revolutionaries and build their offense out of Skittles and skitters. Russell Wilson is an exciting quarterback, and if you want your signature offensive play to be a four-second loiter in the pocket, followed by an anything-can-happen scramble, he is a great quarterback. But the Dolphins exposed the limits of the Seahawks business model in their 24-21 win: Wilson led two great drives but stalled on too many three-and-outs, the Seahawks offense scored just 14 points (kick returner Leon Washington provided the rest) and the NFC team that lives and dies by last-second plays died on another one.
The Colts: A quick look at the gooey heart of their schedule - Browns, Titans, Jaguars, Dolphins, Bills - is enough to remind you that the Colts are a team that will lose 59-24 if forced to face an opponent like the Patriots in the playoffs. Still, there are many things to like about the Colts besides the obvious. Their rookie class is very deep beyond Andrew Luck. T.Y. Hilton is an outstanding home run threat as both a receiver and a punt returner. Yes, that's right: With a Hilton touchdown against the Bills, the Colts are officially trying to return punts instead of calling for fair catches for the first time in about eight years.
Exciting rookies and a newfound appreciation of special teams aside, the Colts look more like a postseason team of opportunity than of substance.
The Vikings and Dolphins: Feisty teams with good running games and stout defenses that are wringing everything they can get out of athletic young quarterbacks despite a near total lack of healthy receiving talent. The Vikings' early-season win over the 49ers is receding from relevance; their most impressive victories are a sweep of a Lions team with a knack for self-sabotage. The Dolphins have an amazing ability to play 24-21 and 23-20 games, mixing in a 17-14 score now and then. If they were playing those close games against the Patriots and Broncos, they would be at the top of this list. But they do it against the other teams on this list, and they mix in 37-3 losses to the Titans, so they round out the group instead.
Now, who is likely to get a break down the stretch?
The Bengals: Take a look at the Bengals' upcoming schedule: at San Diego, Dallas, at Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, Baltimore. The Bengals face three straight teams likely to fire their coaches on New Year's Eve. By the time they reach Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger could be healthy, or Bubby Brister could be back at quarterback.
The Steelers face a similar late schedule - they also get the Ravens, Chargers, and Cowboys - but it is hard to pencil a win for them against anyone when Roethlisberger is out of the lineup and the Senior Citizens Pinochle Club of Crawford County is in. Think of the Steelers as the first ones with their backs against the wall when the revolution comes.
The Colts: They get the Titans and Chiefs down the stretch, plus a beatable Lions team. With seven wins in the bag, they can be swept by the Texans and still come away with 10 wins. That could be enough for a Wild Card berth with the Batch Masters faltering.
The Buccaneers and Seahawks. Nothing is quite so easy for the Fifth Column in the NFC. The Buccaneers have the Broncos and Falcons on their late schedule, plus a Saints team that refuses to give an inch. The Seahawks travel to Chicago and face the 49ers in a slate that looks slightly easier. Unlike the AFC, there is only one Wild Card spot realistically up for grabs now that Cutler is back.
Vikings and Dolphins: The Vikings have the Packers twice, host the Bears and travel to Houston. The Dolphins, already on the fringe with six losses, get the Patriots twice, plus the 49ers. Thanks for playing, guys!
Withier the Revolution? Based on what we saw on Sunday, and in the previous 11 weeks, the Bengals and Colts are very likely to still be playing in January. The Buccaneers or Seahawks will also be there; the Buccaneers may be the best team of the bunch, but they face the toughest road, so don't be surprised if the revolution goes on without them.
We will see the Vikings and Dolphins next year, as well as the Redskins and perhaps some other upstart. Hopefully, we will see much more of them than the Eagles or Jets. It is time for more of this revolution to be televised.
Tuesday is Jimi Hendrix's birthday. Hendrix would turn 70 if he were alive, and would probably be working on some album where Bruno Mars and Selena Gomez appear as guest performers and sing over his guitar solos to make the singles more palatable for download. Yikes! Or perhaps Jack White would be producing an edgy, retro-sounding Hendrix revival record. Yes, that sounds better.
As a tribute to the guitar legend my 10-grade English teacher called "Jimmy Hendricks" in a self-defeating effort to sound cool, here is a Hendrix-themed roundup of news from around Week 12:
Purple Haze: Kyle Rudolph left the Vikings' 28-10 loss to the Bears with an apparent concussion. Who will the Vikings throw to if both Rudolph and Percy Harvin are out? You can almost hear Christian Ponder mangling the lyrics: "Excuse me, while I kiss this guy, named Jarius Wright."
Fire(d): You don't want to stand next to Romeo Crennel for the next few days. The Broncos' 17-9 victory over Kansas City would have been winnable for the Chiefs, but for some terrible decisions.
On third-and-three from the Broncos' 16-yard line early in the first quarter, Crennel and coordinator Brian Daboll called the week's most ill-conceived trick play. Fullback Peyton Hillis slipped in front of Brady Quinn to field the direct snap, rolled to his right, wheeled and threw back across his body to Quinn. It is a clever play that colleges often run, but only in circumstances in which a) their fullback can throw 20 yards without hurting himself; and b) their quarterback is fast enough to actually escape the defense. Hillis' pass skipped on one hop to Quinn's knees, but a better pass would have been intercepted, anyway, because Quinn was covered. The Chiefs settled for a field goal.
Late in the game, the Chiefs punted on fourth-and-six, from the Broncos' 46-yard line, down by five points, late in the fourth quarter, after using a timeout to think about it. The timeout is the kicker: Crennel needed to step back from the situation to decide if Peyton Manning was the kind of quarterback who could protect a five-point lead, or if the Chiefs had reached the nothing-to-lose stage of their franchise history, and to come up with the wrong answer twice.
Crennel almost looked like an involuntary genius on the punt: Dustin Colquitt is a left-footer known for his knuckleballs, and the Broncos return man bobbled the punt before falling on it. But once you achieve "maybe they will fumble our punt" enlightenment, you have transcended the football field and entered a new stage of consciousness, so it is time for Crennel to go meditate under a Bodhi tree somewhere. Chiefs fans have only one itchin' desire: They want to know who the team will hire.
Cassels Made of Sand: Brady Quinn was 13-of-25 for 126 yards, two sacks and one interception for the Chiefs. His longest pass play was for 21 yards. Then again, switching back to Matt Cassel does not make much sense. Cassel did make the highlight reel with an over-the-shoulder catch of a Quinn throw that found him standing on the sideline. Maybe the song should be retitled "Cassel's Made of Stanzi." Or Hillis can play quarterback, and Cassel can move to wide receiver.
Still Raining, Still Dreaming: Sprinklers popped out of the ground and started showering players with water in the third quarter of the Dolphins-Seahawks game. The "Bull Durham" rainout tribute was blamed on a computer error. The computer may have used a censor to gauge the size of the crowd and determined that the game was over. The paid attendance in Miami was 51,295, but Dolphins fans stayed away as if they had been threatened with Marlins tickets.
If this happened in Foxborough, imagine the conspiracy theories!
Love or Confusion: See the long Colin Kaepernick intro.
Wind Cried (Hail) Mary: A Titans Hail Mary at the end of the game was intercepted by the Jaguars. On the play before it, the Titans ran a playground lateral pitch-fest that nearly achieved the impossible: a football palindrome! Jake Locker threw to Kenny Britt, who pitched to Jared Cook, who gave the ball to Chris Johnson, who fumbled the ball to Paul Posluszny. But Poz could not get a handle on the ball, and Britt retrieved it and pitched to Locker. It was almost perfect, except that the Titans lost yardage with each successive lateral.
Brady Quinn's Hail Mary landed in the arms of safety David Bruton, who looked like he was about to call a fair catch. No Chiefs receiver was within five yards. Nor was Cassel.
Knowing that Charlie Batch could not throw 30 yards downfield without pieces of his elbow falling to the turf, the Steelers opted for a playground lateral play to end the game. Batch tossed to Mike Wallace, who threw across the field to Emmanuel Sanders, who … got confused and fumbled. It was Wallace's only catch of the game.
Asante Samuel injured himself while defending an incomplete Hail Mary by the Buccaneers (shoulder; status unknown). This would be a great place for a "footsteps dressed in red" reference, except that no one hears footsteps when Samuel is approaching.
Are You Experienced? Sheldon Brown intercepted a Charlie Batch pass intended for Plaxico Burress. Just get your mind together and think about it: It was like 2003 showed up and commandeered the Steelers-Browns game for a few seconds. Those three players are a combined 105 years old.
Crosstown Traffic: As usual, the Ravens were caught in it when traveling. They showed up late to erase a 13-3 deficit, force overtime, and beat the Chargers 16-13. Seventy minutes of a Ravens-Chargers field goal battle. Come to think about it, arguing about the 49ers quarterbacks is starting to look entertaining.