Friday, January 13, 2012

A Referendum On Defense

MISTER PATRICK WILLIS was a Madden Cover Boy?
Behold the power of WILLIS, for this means he is Curse-Proof.
Sadly, this is not nearly the same as Brees-Proof.

So earlier in the week I made a point of watching college football's championship game. Alabama ended up winning 21-0. It was an unusual 21, too; 5 field goals (out of 7) and a missed extra point very late in the game when the outcome was essentially decided and Alabama's running back finally scored an actual touchdown. The Tide strung a lot of good drives together, but they all ended up bogging down in or near the red zone; meanwhile their defense absolutely smothered LSU's offense and made all those field goals stand up [although, admittedly, LSU's QB had an atrocious game and their offensive play selection couldn't have been worse and less imaginative even if you consciously attempted to make it so].

Or in other words, it was the same game I've been watching throughout the second half of the 49ers' 2011 season. I inevitably started pulling for Alabama, with their familiar dominance of field position and time of position, their ineffective short yardage offense, their settling for repeated field goal tries and somehow making it stand up until the turnovers started happening and the other team finally broke and surrendered a game-cinching TD. Tony Richardson became Frank Gore in my mind's eye.

I couldn't hope but pick up on the similarity, both in the development of the game and the exasperation of play by play broadcaster Brent Musberger sarcastically whining about their not being enough touchdowns/scoring. Because, after all, this is the 21st Century and Professionalism amongst journalists and broadcasters is a relic of America's Ancient Past, languidly haunting the inside of something called a "phone booth" or perhaps the shattered remnants of a horse and buggy.

It's bad enough when we as Americans bitch about the world's game, football (i.e. soccer), being boring because there aren't enough goals scored. But now, after a couple decades of us playing Fantasy Football, being able to bet over/under in a Gambling Book, and playing the Madden NFL video game franchise, and the NFL attempting to coddle and placate this new market by re-writing its rule book year after year to make the game more conducive to high scoring shootouts that more closely resemble the video game world, here we are, now bitching about our own mutant strain of football being not "exciting" enough because the score totals aren't quite as ballooned as basketball yet.

But that's where we are. 2011, where "taking steps to promote player safety" is merely another fancy way of saying "neuter the defense". If you throw deep balls trying to draw pass interference as a means of moving the ball down the field, you will be rewarded. Holding is almost as decriminalized as marijuana. And casting an unpleasant gaze in the Quarterback's general direction is a 15 yard penalty also subject to later fines and suspensions. Hit a QB high? That's a flaggin'. Hit him low? Flaggin'. Hit him late? Flaggin'. Hit him on time, in the middle of his body, but momentum and gravity carry you through and as you both fall to the turf, you land directly on top of him, and he's thus a little slow to get up? That's a flaggin' too. What's a Pass Rusher to do? Why, be worried about penalties and fines so he'll hesitate a little bit, be a little less effective, and the glorious Offense Show will be unimpeded by those pesky defensive players trying to muck things up with this "competitive balance" bullshit. Since, after all, nothing neuters a pass-heavy offense quite like a dominant pass rush. Go watch Super Bowl 42 again if you need a visual aid of this principle.

[Somewhere Roger Goodell and David Stern are at some degenerate billionaire resort, giving each other handjobs, all the while Stern is reassuring Goodell in a breathy voice that the increased score totals are good, and he loves the way the rules/protection is different for star individual players than the rest of the grunts, and that "you're almost there, Rog!"]

All year long, the passing record book has been getting re-written. Dan Marino's ballyhooed single season passing yard record stood for 27 years. This year THREE QB's eclipsed it. And one of them didn't even make the Pro Bowl roster, think about THAT. Madden fans and Fantasy players are loving this year. The three top teams in terms of power rankings are Green Bay, New England, and New Orleans. All of them have high scoring pass heavy offenses (2 of the 3 Marino Record-Breakers), and all three have forgettable defenses. Green Bay's has often looked bad and the Patriots almost seem indifferent to the concept of playing defense; they have a 3rd string Wide Receiver playing CB, for instance. It hasn't mattered, because they all score TDs seemingly at will.

Thus, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb at the top of the NFL power rankings, trailing just behind those teams, are the lower scoring, defense-led San Francisco 49ers. The Saints average 40+ points a home game. The 49ers only scored above 30 three times; once against a shitty team, once against another shitty team and they needed to resort to a fake field goal to do it, and once against a mediocre team and they needed two special teams return TDs to do it. The 49ers take the antiquated approach to football success; they use a run-heavy offense to control the ball and the clock, taking occasional shots downfield (that fail half the time). They kick a lot of field goals. Their kicker and their punter consistently bury the other team's offense in shitty starting field position and force them to go 90 yards to score over and over again, knowing that a team can do that once or twice, but not repeatedly. The odds are the other offense will make an eventual mistake when trying to cover all that territory. That mistake becomes a turnover and a short field for the 49ers, and thus they dominate the field position battle against opponents as well. The offense needs only be pretty good, not great, when it only has to go 30 yards (or less) to score.

So a long snapper, a punter, a place kicker, and a kick returner walk into a ring of honor...

It's the style that all the rules changes are all but legislating out of the pro game. It is also anathema to folks whose football "expertise" comes from following stats for fantasy football or from playing the Madden franchise. There is no blocking or tackling in Fantasy Football. There are no offensive linemen. There is no field position, or time of possession. There are no gunners or long snappers. There is no punting and there are no punters. The 49ers thrive on these things (well, not the offensive line so much), and they make no sense to the fantasy player. A team that wins this way boggles their mind. [Come to think of it, the Broncos squeak their way into more wins than anyone expected them to get much the same alien way; Matt Praeter hits 50 yard FGs as easily as most of us piss into a toilet bowl and Von Miller wrecks QBs on defense. Of course this crowd has no other explanation for their results than ascribing magic Jesus powers to Tim Tebow!]

It is boring. It is frustrating even for fans of the team. It will cause much petulant whining from the Tony Kornheiser's of the world and the dittoheads that quote them on the internet, smugly complaining about how its a "ratings disaster" whenever the pre-ordained marketing friendly teams don't make it to the championship game. Most of the time they're just trying to cover for their own disappointment as fans and trying to pass it off as objectively bad for the game when their team fails, but it's still annoying as hell when people treat this like a valid complaint. Especially in football, since the Super Bowl is ridiculously popular and has proven time and again that this country will basically as a whole stop to watch it regardless of the teams involved. Fuck those people. Go watch pro wrestling if you want to make sure the championship is always contested between the top ratings draws without any of that pesky real world randomness and legit competition ruining the storyline for you.

But, in regards to the 49ers Defense & Field Position approach, the question "Does This Shit Still Work?" still waits to be answered. The 49ers' Defense hasn't faced an offense on par with New Orleans (there's almost no such thing). The Saints haven't faced a defense as good as what the 49ers have. The old football axiom was "Offense Wins Games, but Defense Wins Championships." It seems to be on trial, in a way, this weekend. Counsel for the prosecution: New Orleans, and Drew Brees, Esq. Presenting the case in defense of... well, defense... will be the 49ers. It is not the ideal test case, since the Saints will not be playing their ideal Dome element, instead in the wonderfully shitty mire that is Candlestick Park, with its below-sea-level playing field. [Note: the weather outside is nice. Bright and sunny and few clouds in the Bay Area. DAMN IT. Break out the fucking hoses and spray that turf down until its yellow and brown. Not one blade of green remaining.] The 49ers, for their part, are in Uncharted Territory: this is the franchise's first playoff game in NINE YEARS, which means its the first taste of postseason pressure for virtually the entire roster, particularly the key players like Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, MISTERS PATRICK WILLIS AND NAVORRO BOWMAN, Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers, and arguably most key of all, embattled Alex Smith. It would not be unheard of for the 49ers to be nervous and choke on the pressure of the big stage. They could vomit all over themselves and Alex could play like he did in the first 6 seasons of his career. But, assuming (hoping) they don't, and likewise assuming no flukes of luck in the other direction, like a last second monsoon or a freak injury to Drew Brees, we could have a litmus test on whether Defense Wins Championships still applies in the modern NFL. There is nothing to suggest the 49ers are capable of out-gunning the Saints in the way some thought Detroit might be able to. If the 49ers win this game, it will be because a great defense CAN cripple a great offense, still. 26-21 would probably be the score; field goals at least coming after long, tedious, time-devouring drives that keep Drew Brees on the side line. A couple turnovers turned into the touchdowns. Long fields increasing the chances of a sack, or a bad throw, that kills New Orleans drives. Not all of them, but enough of them. If, however, this team build is invalid, and Offense now Wins Championships, the 49ers can't win; this IS the end of the fun part of the season, where they run into a team they can't score enough to beat, and the glee of "look how far they've come" turns to the bile of "look how far they still have to go".

1 comment:

Whiouxsie said...

And it just dawned on me that that Madden cover is most likely a photoshop, unless they do localize alternate cover graphics for the game for different markets.

Oh well.