Wednesday, January 25, 2012

So Close

It hit me after the second Kyle Williams turnover that Ted Ginn Junior might have been the MVP of the NFC Championship game loss to the New York Giants. After all, if Ginn hadn't been unavailable because of a knee injury, Williams would not have been returning punts, and who knows what the outcome would have been?

It's highly unfortunate for Williams that he has to live with the knowledge that he, more than anyone else or anything else, cost the 49ers the game. But the fact remains that Ginn is a better player, and the Niners would have been better off if he had been able to play, even without the turnovers. Ginn was third in the NFL this season in kick returns, averaging 27.6 per. And he was fourth in punt returns, averaging 12.3 He also was fourth on the Niners in receptions, with 33, averaging 11.6 a catch.

Interestingly, Ginn was the MVP of the 49ers first game of the season, when he returned a kick 102 yards for a TD late in the 4th quarter against Seattle, and then returned a punt 55 yards for another TD 59 seconds later, clinching a 33-17 win.

If not Ginn, it was the 49er defense. Ranked number one in the NFL against the run, allowing an average of just 77 yards per game, the defense was such a threat against the run that in the playoffs, the Saints' Drew Brees and the Giants' Eli Manning combined for an astonishing 121 passes. That's unheard of. Completely.

The Niners' D was on the field for 58% of the game against the Giants, who ran 93 plays, compared with the NFL average per team of 69. The Niners sacked Manning six times, and hit him seven times, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Giants had eight possessions in the second half and overtime, and punted six times. The other two possessions followed the Kyle Williams' turnovers, deep in 49ers territory, resulting in the Giants only 10 points after halftime.

The Niners hadn't had a special teams turnover until the NFC title game. They led the NFL in turnover differential during the season at +28, and in fewest turnovers allowed, with 10.

They came oh-so-close to forcing three Giants' turnovers, but two seemingly inevitable interceptions didn't come to pass when the Niner defensive backs ran into each other, late in the game. And an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble, at the Giants 21, with barely two minutes left in regulation, recovered by the 49ers, was negated by a quick whistle.

The Niner offense, meantime, couldn't measure up to its defense. The Niners were 1-for-13 on third-down conversions, and the only one they converted was a meaningless 29-yard pass on the final play of the fourth quarter. Their final three possessions of the fourth quarter and overtime (other than that meaningless first down) were three-and-out.

And given that Alex Smith completed only one pass to a wide receiver, for three yards (compared with 16 completions to NY receivers), I couldn't help but wonder more than once, couldn't Braylan Edwards have helped, if the Niners hadn't released him, before their regular season finale at St. Louis? Even then, I wondered, why release him then? What if they needed him in the playoffs? Turned out they did, after the injury to Ted Ginn Junior.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fiesta Bowl Epilogue

Watching the Fiesta Bowl was akin to enjoying a fabulous piece of Kobe beef, only to suddenly regurgitate at the end of the meal because of some unexpected cause of indigestion.

Fourth-ranked Stanford never trailed through four quarters against third-ranked Oklahoma State, and yet failed to win the game, eventually losing 41-38 in overtime.

The Cardinal led led 14-0, but the Cowboys tied it at 14. Stanford led 21-14, 28-21, 31-24 and 38-31, but OSU came back to tie it three more times. And then Stanford had the ball for one final drive, 80 yards from the endzone, with two-and-a-half minutes remaining. What a perfect, storybook scenario for quarterback Andrew Luck. Certainly, most Cardinal fans, including head coach David Shaw, envisioned Luck leading Stanford down the field, climaxing one of his best collegiate games ever with one final drive, giving Stanford the Fiesta Bowl win. What could have been better than that?

Sure enough, Luck completed five straight passes, for 50 yards, sandwiched around one running play, resulting in a first down at the OSU 25, with 52 seconds remaining. What could possibly go wrong? Luck was 15-f0r-15 in Stanford's five touchdown drives. He threw only four incompletions all night, and none since the second quarter. He hadn't thrown an interception in the red zone all season. But it was at this point that Coach Shaw took the ball out of Luck's hands, and instead give it to his freshman kicker Jordan Williamson. Two running plays got eight yards, and then Shaw let the clock run down to the final three seconds before calling a timeout.

If you were watching on TV, you may have noticed Williamson sitting on the sideline before the timeout, head down, eyes closed, probably trying to calm his nerves. Then he took the field for a 35-yard field goal attempt, but before he got the chance to kick it, the Cowboys called time out. Williamson again closed his eyes. He breathed deeply again. And then came the indigestion. Williamson badly hooked the kick. And then he missed a 43-yard attempt in overtime, after missing a 41-yarder in the first quarter, before booting a kickoff out of bounds early in the fourth quarter. Keep in mind that Williamson suffered a torn groin muscle in late October, missed three games, returned for the Cal and Notre Dame games, kicking a 35-yarder, but missing his other two kicks, from 33 and 49 yards.

He was hardly on a roll heading into the Fiesta Bowl. By contrast, Andrew Luck was money. He nearly won the Heisman Trophy. He will probably be the first pick in the NFL Draft in April. He is the guy that Shaw has often called the greatest college quarterback he's ever seen. And yet, with the game on the line--the biggest bowl game Stanford had played since the back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1971 and '72--Shaw felt Stanford had its best chance of winning the game with a hardly invincible freshman kicker, from 35 yards out, with Andrew Luck watching from the sideline. I just don't understand it.

Please don't get me wrong. I think David Shaw is a great coach. I love the job he did in his first season with Stanford. I think he was the perfect choice to succeed Jim Harbaugh. I like him personally very much. He has been great with KCBS, giving us one-on-one interviews every Tuesday during the season, and giving us very thoughtful answers in the process. It's just that with this one particular decision, I think he made a grave mistake, and I'm far from alone in that thought. Furthermore, I think if he left the ball in Luck's hands, and if Luck failed to get the win, it would have been far easier for everyone associated with Stanford to live with. Go with your best, and let the chips fall where they may. Again, this wasn't a chip shot field goal attempt. And this wasn't a collegiate-version of David Akers doing the kicking. At least not yet.

After the game, Shaw insisted his strategy was sound. He said Stanford's strength was its running game, as evidenced by the team's 243 yards rushing. He's right, although let's not forget that Luck finished a remarkable 27-of-31 for 347 yards, and did not throw a single interception in the red zone all season. But if you want to stick with the running game, at least go for the first down on 3rd-and-two, instead of letting the clock run down to the final three seconds. You've averaged nearly five yards a carry all evening. Get a first down, then use at least a couple of more plays to get closer. Do that, and that poor freshman kicker might be looking at a 20 or 25-yarder than a 35-yarder. That would have done wonders for his confidence.

By contrast, after Williamson's third and final miss, to begin the overtime, when OSU had a second-and-10 at the Stanford 25, head coach Mike Gundy went for the jugular. His quarterback Brandon Weeden hit Colton Chelf over the middle for 24 yards, and that decided the game.

Again, I have nothing but respect and admiration for David Shaw, both for the human being he is, and for the head coach he has become. I just think he should have left the ball in Andrew Luck's hands, with a win in sight, at the end of regulation. I've seen too many last-second field goal attempts go awry, particularly that middle-distance kick. But I haven't seen many college quarterbacks like Andrew Luck.