The Spotter’s View: Super Bowl XLVII

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We don’t get to see Tom Brady take on Aaron Rodgers in this 47th version of the Super Bowl. The “great ones” aren’t here. No discussions about QB legacies or the emergence of a dynasty either. The expected Super Bowl plot lines that we have been accustomed to in recent years have all been thrown out the window. This particular championship game down in the Bayou is different. Not better or worse. Just different.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some very intriguing themes that will play out on Sunday night at the Super Dome. There’s actually a lot going on. The Harbaugh angle. Kaepernicking. Ray Lewis’ impending retirement. The first post-Katrina Super Bowl down in the Crescent City. And two franchises seeking their first titles in over a decade. Here is The Spotter’s View on The Big Game and a few interesting story lines to keep an eye on as you wolf down your portion of the estimated 1 billion chicken wings that will be consumed on Super Sunday.

HarBowl

super-bowl-harbaugh-660The brothers Harbaugh will be on opposing sidelines coaching against one another in our nation’s largest sporting event come Sunday. You’ve seen this story covered in every conceivable way by now. We’ve heard from Jim, the 49ers’ fiery leader. We’ve heard from John, the intellectual head coach of the Ravens. We’ve heard from former teammates and classmates and old friends. We’ve even heard from their parents – Jack and Jackie. The overriding conclusion: these are two young men raised in a football-centric environment that have learned to attack each day with unbridled enthusiasm.

I can’t add much to this discussion other than my own experiences. This isn’t meant to equate my life with that of the two great coaches. They obviously have achieved things I have only dreamed about to this point. Instead, it’s meant to shed some light on what it’s like growing up with brothers in a football-centric home. Maybe in doing so, we can understand what it will be like for these two siblings as kickoff approaches.

I grew up as one of three quarterbacks with a father that spent his nights coaching us in our youth league. My brother Frank was the trail blazer. The oldest usually is. My younger brother Michael and I watched Frank and learned from him. We followed him to QB camps. We threw with him in the backyard. We saw the highs and the lows and gained an understanding of the position through his experiences.

Michael started as a freshman at a private school before transferring to Mainland as a sophomore. He led his team to the State Championship game and eventually received a scholarship to play under Chip Kelly at the University of New Hampshire. He was the most talented of the three of us and may have warranted some NFL looks had he not been injured his senior season.

Learning from Frank and admiring Michael’s skill drove me to work harder. I wanted them both to have success but as brothers we were also competing. Always. If I could find a way to surpass Frank and simultaneously ward off Mike as the “best” quarterback in our family, that would mean something. It’s a weird environment. Nothing was better than seeing Frank celebrate his huge Thanksgiving Day win over Egg Harbor Township except maybe witnessing Michael light it up in Durham. And, yet – there was always this quiet competition going on in the background.

“I threw three TDs today, Mike”….

“That’s awesome. Me too. I ran for a fourth though”….

That was typical fall conversation when I spoke with Michael over the phone during our college days. Michael seemed to always have that little extra. He’s the Jim in our relationship. The bigger, stronger and better athlete. I rooted for him tirelessly and still remain his biggest supporter. I also wanted to beat him because he was my brother. The same dynamic is present in most brotherly relationships. Not all of them, but most and particularly those involved in sports.

The Harbaughs will be dealing with this under the brightest of lights at the Super Bowl with the Lombardi Trophy hanging in the balance. The two brothers respect each other fiercely. They know each other intimately. And they will be competing… not just for the right to be called champion but also for the unspoken truth of being “better” than their sibling. The winner will have that feeling juxtaposed with remorse though. The instant gratification of beating your brother is immediately followed by a sense of regret. A bizarre, internal struggle that one of the brothers will be dealing with as the final seconds of Super Bowl XLVII tick off the clock. I wish there was a way for us to read Jim and John’s thoughts during that post-game handshake. One a winner, one a loser – two brothers dealing with an outcome witnessed by millions.

Winner: “We did it! Super Bowl champs baby! I won!!!……I wish he could feel this”

Loser: “I can’t believe it’s over. We lost #!$%&*@*!!!!……..I lost to him!!! No……..”

Here’s their actual quotes following their first and only meeting against one another as head coaches:

Winner (John): “To the 49ers and to my brother, I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of him and the job he’s done building that football team,” John said after the game. “That’s a football team. The way they’re built, it’s pretty hard to figure out a way to beat them.” – Conciliatory and full of praise for the loser, right?

Loser (Jim): “There’s a saying that goes, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen another,'” Jim said. “And I have to say my brother John is the sharpest iron I’ve ever encountered in my life.” – Competitive and full of disappointment.

The Retirement of Ray Lewis

For 17 seasons we’ve witnessed greatness. We’ve witnessed passion. We’ve witnessed intensity. Ray Lewis was the premier defensive player of a generation and a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer. He’s been the emotional center for the Ravens franchise since they drafted him in 1996 and his impending retirement has served as the driving force during Baltimore’s playoff push. It’s hard to overstate his impact on this team. Add in the fact that he’s credited with 44 tackles this post-season while playing with one arm and you get the whole picture. This is a guy who is solely driven to go out on top and his desire to do so has raised the awareness of everyone wearing purple and black. The coaches, the players, the owner and even the fans have been caught up in Ray Lewis’ swan raven song.

This isn’t a new storyline for a Super Bowl though. We’ve seen John Elway go out as a champion. Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis too. But Ray is Ray. He dances. He preaches. He inspires. He’s arguably the most influential player in the NFL when it comes to the emotional side of the sport. He’ll need to bring all of that and an A-plus effort on Sunday if the Ravens hope to contain the 49ers dynamic run game.

It will be Lewis that needs to step up. As the middle linebacker, he’ll need to quickly diagnose plays, get off blocks, shoot gaps and eliminate the Frank Gore portion of San Francisco’s inside zone scheme. If he’s successful, it will greatly hinder the effectiveness of the 49ers other plays that are built off of their inside zone to Gore. Namely the read-option, San Francisco’s most dangerous offensive weapon. Lewis, playing in his last game – the Super Bowl – likely holds the title of “most important” player on the field. Stopping Gore and the inside zone would likely mean Lewis walks away with the Super Bowl trophy in hand.

Speaking of the Read Option

The 49ers have run the read option 29 times during their playoff run. They’re averaging 8.4 yards per attempt and have scored 4 touchdowns on those plays (1 by QB Colin Kaepernick, 2 by Gore, 1 by RB LaMichael James). I’ll repeat: 8.4 yards per attempt! 4 TDs on 29 snaps! Not to mention the impact the read-option has had on the 49ers ability to throw the football off of play-action.

Just take a look at TE Vernon Davis’ numbers in the NFC Championship Game against the Falcons: 5 receptions, 106 yards, 1 TD. Davis found tons of room operating down the seam against Atlanta due to run-action of Kaepernick’s play-fakes and – more importantly – the uncertainty it created for the Falcons linebacking corps. The onus will be on Lewis and his position mates to corral this portion of the Niners attack. One mis-read, one blown assignment could lead to a game-defining, big-play for San Francisco.

The Packers and Falcons both felt the wrath of the read-option in these playoffs. If the Ravens hope to win, they can’t allow those same big plays that allowed San Francisco to get here. They must force the young and inexperienced quarterback to “earn” every point. That means no big plays, that means playing assignment football, that means forcing long drives in the hopes that Kaepernick will eventually make a mistake. The Ravens linebackers are the key to this game.

Dennis Dixon Could be the MVP of Super Bowl XLVII

That clearly won’t happen officially for the Ravens’ practice squad QB but unofficially one could make the argument that Dixon is the most valuable asset Baltimore has on its roster heading into the big game. Why?

The read option is a very difficult play to practice against. It requires having an athletic scout team member to play the role of QB who has an intricate knowledge of the scheme. The scout team QB needs to give realistic looks. He needs to read the defense correctly, have experience with the mesh-point of the running back and have the athleticism to threaten the edge of the defense. Dixon has all of that and more. He’s the former leader of Chip Kelly’s spread attack at Oregon. He ran the read-option as a Duck and has been running it in practice as a Raven.

When Baltimore played RGIII and the read-option heavy Redskins back in December, it was Dixon who prepared his defense for the task. He played the RGIII role in practice and the realistic reps he gave to his teammates was partially responsible for the outcome: the Ravens held RGIII to just 34 yards on 7 carries (note: RGIII was injured in this game but not until the final play of regulation. Those statistics and the effectiveness of the Ravens defense in corralling the electrifying QB came against a fully healthy RGIII).

Leading up the Super Bowl, again it was Dixon playing the part of an athletic quarterback in a read-option based scheme. This time, Kaepernick. If Baltimore can keep Kap under wraps like they did with RGIII some of the credit has to go to Dixon. It’s a thankless job…being a practice squad guy. But that doesn’t mean the effort and impact of a guy like Dixon should go unnoticed. He was and remains a very valuable asset to the Ravens especially now against a team like the 49ers. Dixon deserves credit.

Strong Arms

If you were to rate the strongest arms of the current NFL quarterbacks, you wouldn’t get too far down that list before you saw the names of Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick. Both are top-5 arm talents. Flacco throws one of the best deep balls in football, watch:

That ball sailed from his own 25-yard line to the other 20 while traveling from one hashmark to the far sideline despite having a defender in his face. I’m also pretty sure – given the high-arch of Flacco’s throw – that the FAA tracked that ball on their radar system for roughly :05 seconds. Amazing! Did I mention that Flacco won the distance throwing competition in ESPN’s State Farm College Football All-Star Challenge with an improbably awesome 74-yard toss? He did.

Kaepernick also has a high-powered rifle attached to his right shoulder. Here’s what Randy Moss had to say about it: “Man, he dislocated my finger,” Moss said Nov. 21. “He put one them Randy Johnson fastballs on me. When it hit my finger, I felt my finger pop – dislocated it. So I had to come back to the sideline and the doctor had to pop it back in.” Moss said it was the first time he has ever experienced a dislocated finger attempting to catch a pass. He’s been in the NFL for 14 seasons.

For all their differences – Kapernerick a dual-threat hybrid and Flacco a statuesque pocket-passer – the two are similar in this one regard. They both can sling it. This ability to stretch the field vertically with their arms is extremely valuable given the caliber of defense in this Super Bowl. The home run threat of these two quarterbacks and their respective arms should keep the safeties honest on both sides. I say “should” because if either secondary gets caught out of position, both of these guys have the arms to make them pay.

Speaking of Flacco

The Ravens QB is having one of the best statistical post-seasons in NFL history. He’s thrown 8 TDs and 0 INTs through his first three games. If he’s able to toss three more scores in the Super Bowl, he’ll tie Joe Montana and Kurt Warner for the most of all-time. He’s also beaten Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady during this amazing stretch – not an easy task.

The good news: there have been five other QBs in history that have thrown 8 or more TDs in a single post-season without tossing an interception. All five of those QBs went on to win the Lombardi Trophy.

The Ravens Defense

In the three playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl, the Ravens defense has been on the field for a total of 256 snaps (an average of 85/game). That’s a ton plays for any defense let alone an aging group headlined by a 17-year veteran at the MLB position. That said, this group kept the Colts out of the end zone in Round 1, held Denver scoreless on six of the final seven drives of the Divisional Round and yielded zero points to the Patriots in the second half of the AFC TItle Game.

Interesting Side Note: All three of those impressive performances came against traditional pocket-passing quarterbacks. We’ll see if the trend continues against Kaepernick and his dual-threat abilities.

Bill Walsh

Did you know that the late, great former 49er coach Bill Walsh once was the head-guy at Stanford? If you ever played Sega Genesis as a kid, the answer is yes. Did you also know that the resurgence of this historic NFL franchise is being led by a former head coach of The Cardinal as well? Jim Harbaugh – like Walsh – joined the 49ers after a successful stint at the prestigious west-coast University. Walsh went on to win three Super Bowls with the Niners. Harbaugh….two NFC title games in two years and one Super Bowl birth, so far.

Local Ties

The 49ers offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, grew up in Ventnor, NJ and attended Holy Spirit High School (my football alma-mater). Roman is credited with revamping San Francisco’s offense, installing the pistol set and fully maximizing the potential of the offenses’ varied talents. Kaepernick, Gore, James and WR Michael Crabtree have all hit their strides playing under the tutelage of the South Jersey native. It’s only a matter of time before we hear Roman’s name floated around for potential head coaching jobs in the near future – perhaps as early as next season.

Kaepernick

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I witnessed this young man perform at the college level against a much more talented Boise State team. I saw him carry his team to a victory that otherwise wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t there. Certain guys have that persona. That big-game flare. Kaepernick has it.

Before his Monday Night Game against the Bears this season – I said the same thing. He wouldn’t be distracted. The moment wouldn’t be too big for him. He’s got confidence in his abilities and he understands his role. After dismantling the monsters of the midway on national television, the rest of the country started to see what I already knew. This is a special kid with rare skills. People are unsure about how he’ll perform on the biggest stage though. They still question his inexperience. I don’t. Here’s why.

The Boise State game. The Monday Nighter against the Bears. Rebounding from an early pick-six against the Packers in the Divisional Round. Coming back from a 17-point deficit verse the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. This kid doesn’t get flustered. He doesn’t succumb to outside pressures. He’s got that “it” factor that the great ones always seem to have. This isn’t a “flavor of the month” opinion about this kid either. I’ve seen him do it. I know he’s a difference-maker capable of winning games and making plays. If the 49ers win this one, it will be because of Kaepernick not in spite of him. He’ll show up.

Interesting Sidenote #2: Michael Vick has had three 50+ yard runs in his 10-year career. Three in 10 seasons. Kaepernick has three in his last SEVEN GAMES!

Prediction

This really is one of the most intriguing Super Bowl matchups I can ever remember. Sure, it takes some digging to get into the plot lines beyond the HarBowl but this is setting up to be one for the ages. Two brothers competing for the Lombardi Trophy. Two strong-armed quarterbacks leading varied attacks. Two stingy defenses anchored by dominating linebacking corps. Playmakers in all three phases. This game could really come down to a small handful of plays. A missed tackle here, a blown assignment there and we could have our winner.

Offensively, I think the 49ers are the better team. Their offensive line is arguably the best in football. They pave the way for the most versatile and lethal ground assault in the entire league. Kaepernick and the read-option will be tough to stop for this Ravens squad and if that portion of the Niners offense gets untracked, it could steamroll Baltimore’s title chances.

I also like the 49ers defense. They have as many difference makers on that side of the ball as the Ravens do only their players are younger and more athletic. MLB Patrick WIllis and his cohort in crime, Navarro Bowman are probably the two best players at that position in all of football. Hard to argue against the talent level of this bunch. Throw in Aldon Smith – the explosive pass-rusher, Justin Smith – the relentless one and a few hard-hitting safeties and this group goes from good to great.

Baltimore isn’t totally outclassed though. Flacco is having a brilliant post-season run, RB Ray Rice is an elite talent and the Ravens receiving corps has been playing out of their collective minds. Throw in the Lewis retirement tour and we have a group that is emotionally charged in the hopes of sending their legendary leader out on top.

The hidden yardage found in special teams will be crucial. Missed tackles and avoiding the big mistake will also be paramount. In the end though, as much as I love the Ray Lewis story and believe in the emotional side of football, I just feel as though the 49ers are far too varied in their offensive scheme to be stopped. They can run out of traditional sets. They can terrorize you with the read-option. They have weapons in the backfield, at TE and on the perimeter. Their play-action game is lethal and their young QB – despite his inexperience – is a “gamer” capable of big things.

The Ravens are the emotional favorite. The 49ers have the talent. In one of the greatest games of the Super Bowl era…

The 49ers Win:  28-27

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