NEW ORLEANS -- All of the talk during Super Bowl week was about stopping the running game, legendary linebackers and fearsome pass rushers, no-nonsense power football punctuated by the occasional long bomb. (Plus antlers, homophobia, wide receivers with delusions of grandeur and which Harbaugh did what during peewee hockey; but let's focus on all of the talk worth listening to.) It did not sound like a discussion of 21st-century football.
I looked out this morning and the sun was gone. I turned on some music to start my day.
There is no discussion of precision-passing tactics or fashion-plate quarterbacks. Grit has replaced glamour. The only high-tech strategy on display, the 49ers Pistol formation, runs on a big-block V8 engine. Even the Ray Lewis controversy harkens back to a bygone era, when the men were musky and the deer were nervous.
I lost myself in a familiar song. I closed my eyes and I slipped away.
It's more than a feeling. It's the Super Bowl preview. And sorry, Patriots fans, but that's all the Boston we have in store this year.
Counter Plays and Counter Culture. Long ago, NFL offenses were built around the running game. Backfields had two rushing threats, and game plans were designed to confuse defenders with subtle blocking schemes and misdirection. This style of football was the norm in the 1970s, when the Steelers used Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier like a left-right combo, and the Dolphins were so busy mixing traps and sweeps for Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris that they sometimes forgot they had Paul Warfield.
The 49ers have repurposed many of those tactics for the 21st century, and while Jim Harbaugh gets most of the credit, he said that offensive coordinator Greg Roman designed much of what is under the hood. "We install a core, and then others branch off of that core," he said of his offense. That core is different from others around the NFL and major college programs. "From what they've done in the past, yeah, very different," Roman said.
Back in 2011, before the Kaepernick Revolution, Roman's core offense was already unique. Linemen pulled, trapped and folded. Fullbacks and faux-fullbacks (tight ends and moonlighting defenders) took handoffs as "key breakers" to punish defenders who focused on Frank Gore. This was phone-booth football – lineman using the two-yard box around them creatively to create creases – for a generation that has never used a phone booth.
Roman explained on Tuesday why some of these old-school techniques fell out of favor. "Everything became so zone blocking-oriented. I think with the incredible success that Denver had there for a while, everybody started doing that." The teams that did not mimic the success of Mike Shanahan's zone-blocking schemes started throwing the ball 70 percent of the time. Watch the Lions and Eagles, and you will swear that their running game consists entirely of draw plays. Roman sensed an advantage. "When everybody practices against one thing all the time, they don't quite know how to play that other stuff. So, we kind of took the opposite approach and said, 'Let's be counter-cultured and let's do things that people don't work on.'"
Counter cultured. Groovy.
The Pistol formation is layered on top of that retro core, and the Colin Kaepernick option threat is layered on top of that, until defenses are forced to deal with something totally unique. According to the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project, the Ravens defense saw the Pistol formation on only 13 snaps this season, all by the Redskins in Week 14. Alfred Morris had runs of 29 and 17 yards against the Ravens, and Robert Griffin completed a 10-yard pass but was also sacked on four attempts. The Redskins averaged 5.3 yards per play from the Pistol in Week 14, a minor victory for the Ravens. They did not get gouged too often, but they lost the game, and 13 snaps last month were hardly a Super Bowl warm-up.
The Redskins experience suggests that the Ravens will focus on preventing the Kaepernick run on option plays -- Griffin did not have one designed carry, as the defense dictated his pre-snap reads. The Falcons tried this against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, and look where it got them. Also, the Redskins' Pistol is built on a different drive train: the very zone-stretch concepts that inspired Roman to embrace the counter-culture. The Ravens will be seeing tactics this week that have 21st-century flourishes, but are based on concepts that disappeared from the NFL when Ray Lewis was just a fawn.
The 49ers ' tactical advantage is great, but their inexperience is not something to be shrugged off. The 49ers may have adopted old-school tactics, but the Ravens are truly old school.
Rule Your Emotions, Etc. Back in the late 1970s, the dynamic young coach of a West Coast college arrived in the NFL with a unique attitude and coaching style that earned its share of skeptics. His rah-rah attitude proved surprisingly effective for a down-and-out franchise, and he built an NFL powerhouse from a 3-4 defense full of veterans and an offense that mixed superstars with reclamation projects and cast-offs.
The coach was Dick Vermeil, the team was the Eagles and they lost the Super Bowl they should have won.
It may be hard to watch a gruff Jim Harbaugh press conference and picture the hyper-emotional Vermeil, but both get more mileage from their personalities than, say, Tom Coughlin, and the sudden rise of the Harbaugh 49ers feels like the rise of the Vermeil Eagles. The Eagles went 12-4 in 1980 and entered Super Bowl XV after plastering the Cowboys with a multi-faceted running game and the threat of a rifle-armed quarterback. Those Eagles faced a long-in-the-tooth Raiders team that had undergone offensive upheaval during the season -- Jim Plunkett replaced Dan Pastorini after five games -- and only reached the playoffs as a wild card.
Legend has it that the Raiders upset the Eagles 27-10 in Super Bowl XV (in New Orleans) because Vermeil's Eagles were emotionally spent after defeating the rival Cowboys. It's a cautionary tale about controlling emotions that carried on to the next generation of players and coaches. Football was angry, rowdy and a little wild in the 1970s. It became more professionalized and homogenized, its passion tempered by the need to reign in the extremes, after Super Bowl XV. The Raiders reflected that change. By 1980, their Mad Biker of the Apocalypse mystique had become something of a costume, with Plunkett piloting the team through the transition from Jack Tatum moustache-twirlers to Howie Long technicians of brutality.
Are these Ravens those Raiders, with Lewis and Ed Reed representing an old guard that is being supplanted by Corey Graham and Paul Kruger? The allegory can splinter if strained too far, just as the resemblance between Colin Kaepernick and Ron Jaworski shatters the moment Kaepernick moves his feet. And only Lewis has Super Bowl experience with the Ravens to reflect on, while many of the Raiders of Super Bowl XV were on the team when they won Super Bowl XI.
Still, a team learns a lot by being a perennial contender, as the Ravens have been for five years under John Harbaugh and, really, in the 16 years since Ozzie Newsome and Lewis signed on to a franchise with no name. Players learn about preparing and maintaining both their cool and their energy from multiple playoff appearances. They grow accustomed to longer seasons and a higher level of media scrutiny. The Ravens have encountered many more ups and downs under John Harbaugh than the 49ers have under Jim. It's a smaller advantage than it is sometimes made out to be, but it is there.
That '70s Show. Super Bowls of the '70s came in all shapes and sizes. The game slowly grew into a cultural phenomenon as the decade went on. In the early 1970s, there were still 30-minute pregame shows with sponsors like Black and Decker, and the halftime show was more likely to be a marching band than Madonna recreating the parade scene from "Cleopatra." It was the time before the blowouts of the '80s and '90s and the era of "watching for the commercials." If you said that "the quarterback's girlfriend tweeted something nasty about the wide receiver, and it went viral," in 1978, no one had any idea what you meant, including yourself.
(Little known fact: play "Ten Years Gone" by Led Zeppelin backwards, and you can hear that precise phrase; anti-rock activists of the era dismissed it as gibberish and focused their energies on "melly blerb devilled flurm sweet smimmel," interpreted as "the devil rolled up my tubs socks," which can be heard faintly in a backward spin "In the Light.")
In the 1970s, the Super Bowl was a football game, often a defense-oriented one. The Baltimore Colts won Super Bowl V with a last-second field goal against the Cowboys That 16-13 game was considered one of history's ugliest, but it was close, star-laden, and has taken on the charm of a wood-paneled station wagon over time. The Dolphins beat the Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII, the Steelers beat the Vikings 16-6 in Super Bowl IX. The MVPs were linebacker Chuck Howley, safety Jake Scott and running back Franco Harris. Grit, grime and gristle, all of it glorious.
The score of Super Bowl XLVII will not be that low -- these offenses are too good, and rule changes have eliminated the defensive holding and barbed wire that gave '70s football its character -- but it will be won in the trenches, and in the gaps. It will be won with the subtleties of primitive football: blockers pulling and folding, linebackers reading keys and locating the ball, quarterbacks going up top from a seven-step drop behind a wall of blockers. The aesthetics will be earthier, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The Ravens have deployed their own primitive tactics for years (they kept the I-formation alive when fullbacks were becoming as common as dashboard 8-track players), but the 49ers have a huge edge because of their back-to-the-future style. As I wrote at the Tailgater blog early in the week, they are the best first down team in the NFL, on offense and on defense. It allows them to dictate terms, to sustain drives on offense while creating third-and-long crises on defense.
The Ravens' advantages are on the margins. They are better on special teams, better on third-and-long (a situation the 49ers offense excels at avoiding) and have the experience edge, for whatever it is worth. The 49ers' advantages lie in their counter-cultural core: Roman's revivalist offense, Vic Fangio's stout 3-4 defense and a coach whose fiery demeanor and innovative streak are simultaneously before and ahead of their time.
The 49ers ushered out the era of 1970s football when they dominated the league and won the Super Bowl after the 1981 season. On Sunday, they will usher it back in.
Prediction: 49ers 28, Ravens 21