NEW ORLEANS -- One team overcomplicated things. The other team kept it simple. That's the story of the Ravens' 34-31 victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Except that the truth is more complicated than that, and also simpler.
The game was a county fair amusement park ride: lots of sudden momentum reversals and a briefly frightening power outage. At its core, though, it was a clash of strategic ideologies. John Harbaugh and his staff use relatively traditional game plans and tactics. Jim Harbaugh and his staff, particularly offensive coordinator Greg Roman, prefer an imaginative retro-chic system that Roman described as "counter-cultural."
Calling the game a "chess match" is both a cliché and oversimplification, because what the Harbaughs threw at each other was far more complicated than anything Garry Kasparov ever dealt with (except perhaps Russian politics). The pawns cannot line up in the Pistol formation, and if they could, the opposing knights could not communicate among themselves to create a counter-adjustment.
The 49ers lived and died by their counter-cultural tactics. To be specific, they died for a little more than a half, then lived for a staggeringly brilliant quarter, then died five yards short of the end zone in their final series. The Ravens built a lead on their signature plays – Joe Flacco bombs, Ed Reed interceptions, a Jacoby Jones kickoff return touchdown that you may have missed if you were blinded by Beyoncé – then held on for dear life once Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense found their wavelength.
The 49ers appeared to be victims of their own gadgetry for much of the first half. Their first play from scrimmage was erased by an illegal formation. On their second play, Kaepernick turned one way for a handoff, only to discover that Frank Gore had run in the opposite direction.
Kaepernick looked uneasy when barking instructions to his teammates, and every time he made one change, Ravens defenders could be seen alerting each other to the proper counter measure. The Ravens had a slight crowd-noise advantage, and it hurt Kaepernick every time he tried to orchestrate changes near an end zone. Roman made a series of strategically brilliant calls to isolate Vernon Davis against Ray Lewis for a pair of big plays on an early drive (he hid Davis inside other tight ends and receivers in a "trips" formation, forcing the middle defenders to pick him up), but the drive stalled when Kaepernick's receivers flooded the left side of the field, but the Ravens blitzed the nervous-looking quarterback from his right.
Soon, the Ravens built a 28-6 lead, and all hope appeared lost when Kaepernick got sacked just before the lights went out. (More on that later.) Perhaps the power outage sparked Kaepernick and Roman's cerebral backup generators. Or maybe the 28-6 lead forced the 49ers to scrap some of their multiple-call-at-the-line rushing plays and spread the field, making Kaepernick's pre-snap life a little easier. Whatever the cause, the transformation was magical.
Suddenly, all of the little innovations worked. The wrinkles became tidy pleats. A 31-yard touchdown to Michael Crabtree was set up by pump-fake, followed by a fake handoff. Ravens defenders found themselves frozen, and then frozen again, by all of the subtle fakes. The 49ers' second touchdown, a six-yard sweep by Frank Gore, had an elaborate clock mechanism built into it: tight end Delanie Walker and lineman Mike Iupati pulling right, Kaepernick sprinting left to fake out defenders while handing to Gore, Walker crushing Reed so hard that his own helmet popped off.
At its best, the 49ers offense looks like 1930s football as imagined by L. Frank Baum, the conventional and everyday layered with fantastic whimsy. For much of the second half of the game, the 49ers offense looked like it was beamed in from Oz. There were full-house backfields and a few T-formations. Kaepernick faked a handoff on an end-around to the left, then handed off on a sweep to the right. Kaepernick did not just run and throw, but pivoted and faked like a "big man on campus" quarterback from a Frank Capra movie. When the Ravens clung to a 31-29 lead, it felt like they had already lost.
But the Ravens, the primitive Ravens, with their I-formations and bombs to Jacoby Jones, hide a few devils in their details. After an eight-yard catch by Anquan Boldin set up third-and-inches (Jim Harbaugh's challenge flag negated the first down that was originally called), the Ravens came to the line in a simple single-setback formation. Flacco, whose sturdy output made him the game's MVP, read the defense and saw two defenders lunging toward the interior gaps where Ray Rice would have to plunge to gain a few feet.
So Flacco called an audible. The call was a simple hand gesture, forearms hammered together, easy to pick up even with the crowd rocking. Flacco saw that the 49ers planned to cover the Ravens' receivers man-to-man. Carlos Rogers had Boldin. It was the perfect chance for a jump ball against an overmatched defender. Boldin gained 15 yards, the Ravens drove for a field goal, and they forced the 49ers to play for a touchdown instead of a field goal, which led to a final stand at the five-yard line.
The Ravens had played things a little too simple when they had the lead. A promising drive early in the fourth quarter ended with a field goal, as the 49ers stuffed two Rice runs at the goal line and sniffed out the kind of play-action rollout coaches run on third-and-goal when they are out of ideas. Some of their moments of inspiration, most notably Justin Tucker's fake field goal attempt, nearly came back to haunt them late in the game.
Meanwhile the 49ers, for all of their formations, weren't running flea flickers or wacky pitch plays, just runs and passes with re-imagined blocking schemes and some gingerbread. Their comeback was based as much on great blocking, hard running and sound tackling as on cutting-edge design.
So the simple team got complicated when it needed to, and the complex team stayed grounded in rock-solid principles once its quarterback settled down. Super Bowl XLVII was one of the best ever, and it represented a victory not for any one football strategy, but for the concept of strategic diversity. Pistol formations and tricky blocking schemes proved that they have their place in the NFL. The I-formation, stretch runs and the play-action bomb have made a comeback. The next breed of quarterback may be a cannon-armed option pivot or a stationary cannoneer, or something else entirely. We now know that he does not need to be a Tom Brady clone in a Patriots-style offense.
Super Bowl XLVII proved that champions and worthy runners-up defy labels and simple explanations for success. It brought an unpredictable season to an unpredictable conclusion, and it kept us glued to our seats.
Even during that part when we could not see anything.
In Your Darkest Hour
First, the televisions in the press box blinked out. Then, the lights dimmed. The stadium's scoreboards flickered and went black. Everything looked like eerie dusk. After a moment's confusion, we discovered there was a power outage.
Fans remained calm. Reporters also remained calm, as the buffet had just been freshly stocked. With cell phones and 4G connections, we confirmed that this was no real emergency. After several minutes, the public address announcer, using the emergency power that kept some house lights on, told the crowd to "pleberse melmnan burble sepple murrmal verse derver terkle." Everyone complied.
Players stretched. Cheerleaders performed back flips. The television network showed a solid block of commercials to a confused audience, so advertisers also did back flips. The crowd did the wave.
After 15 minutes, lights began to return, one at a time. Scoreboards flickered, then died. It was easy to picture Maintenance Chief Scruffy hitting the ol' fuse box with a shovel, pennies flying everywhere. The announcer told the crowd to derver terkle some more, and they did.
Soon everything was back, from lights to television feeds, plus a high-pitched squeal near the stadium roof that sounded like a very angry generator, a sound everyone chose to ignore. Still, suit-and-tie clad officials conferred on the field. Phil Simms made a strange face when he returned to the television screen, a grimace to Jim Nantz that said, "Sorry I tried to eat you."
The brave press crew soldiered on, taking the minor inconvenience in stride while shoveling down food; heck, who knows when refrigeration might go out again? The patient crowd grew surly as the delay extended in a well-lit stadium. Finally, play resumed as normal. The league issued an official statement on a press box handout. "Power has been restored. We sincerely apologize for the incident," said Eric Eagan, Superdome spokesman. "Also, the printers are working splendidly," he didn't add.
By the time the 49ers ripped off 17 points in less than a half hour of real time to turn a blowout into a classic, the blackout was simply an afterthought. We later learned this in an official statement: "a piece of equipment that is designed to monitor electrical load sensed an abnormality in the system. Once the issue was detected, the sensing equipment operated as designed and opened a breaker, causing power to be partially cut to the Superdome in order to isolate the issue." Or, as it reads at midnight after a 34-31 Super Bowl: "pleberse melmnan burble sepple murrmal verse derver terkle."
Meanwhile, Beyoncé's entourage drove away, their halftime holograms and pyrotechnics powered by a tiny white dwarf sun that she forces one of the other Destiny's Children to carry in a purse.
For the Big Guys
As is now well documented, I taught Joe Flacco in high school, and I hail from his neighborhood, or more accurately he hails from mine. (I was there first.) The folks in Audubon, N.J., are rejoicing, and Facebook is providing me with tales of fireworks and celebrations in the streets. I am thrilled for friends and former students, and for the community I have always loved.
Let's take a moment here to celebrate another group of people who were big winners on Sunday: fullbacks. Vonta Leach caught three passes for 10 yards and delivered several key blocks, particularly on short-yardage runs. Bruce Miller lined up all over the formation for the 49ers. He was the pistol blocker on many plays, but Roman had other clever uses for Miller. When Miller lined up at wide receiver, with Delanie Walker outside Vernon Davis at tight end on the same side of the formation, it essentially forced a cornerback to cover the non-blazing Miller while a linebacker dealt with Davis. Miller's versatility kept him on the field for much of the game. And let's not forget Walker, who is technically a tight end but wears No. 46 and can be seen in the backfield looking fullbackish at times.
The fullback was all but extinct a few years ago, but Miller, Leach and a pair of very different offenses that achieved success this year will help keep the position alive. And that is a good thing, because fullbacks are awesome!
Lumps formed in throats. Eyes swelled. Players were visibly shaken. Just hearing that the Sandy Hook Elementary School chorus would perform "America the Beautiful" with Jennifer Hudson at a midweek press conference provoked a visceral reaction. But hearing and seeing the performance, even when we were emotionally steeled for it, induced something primal, a grief for the whole human condition.
It makes you stop and think, you are tempted to say, but then we should never have to stop and think. We should always have the safety of children and the preciousness of family and community in our minds. In an autumn and winter of catastrophes and tragedies, we rarely had to stop to think, because hurricanes and shootings were all we could think about. Though we what we often did was fret and dwell, not think. That choir, and Hudson, reminded us of weeks not too long ago when we had far too much time to stop and doubt everything. They then reminded us how we overcame those doubts.
New Orleans Super Bowls have a way of doing this. This is the city that gave us funeral music that sounds like party music, after all. U2 took the Superdome field 11 years ago to remind us of an event that still needs no reminders. Their tribute to 9/11 victims felt like opening the dresser drawers of a loved one we suddenly lost. Yet with the pain came a small catharsis, and exhilaration. The same thing happened on Sunday night when the Sandy Hook chorus took the midfield risers. A group of scrubbed kids in white golf shirts and tan khakis, just weeks removed from indescribably terror, swayed awkwardly, sang beautifully, and in that way only children can when they are tickled by their surroundings but are striving to stay on their best behavior, exchanged knowing, coy little smiles.
The Super Bowl is our time to stop and NOT think: to be fans and spectators and escapists. In the face of sorrow and loss, it represents celebration itself. At its worst, it can be deadening spectacle. But at its best, when it provides a communal moment of poignancy and joy in defiance of pain, when it brings families and friends together and provides an excuse to cheer, shout or just be lazy and watch the equivalent of televised fireworks, it can feel like distilled life.
The official statement by the school chorus says it all: "Our wish is to demonstrate to America and the world that, 'We are Sandy Hook and We Choose Love.'"
Only a fool would choose anything else.