Regression schmegression. If the 2012 Niners were supposed to end up looking like a poor man’s version of last year’s squad, a natural place for their drop-off to begin would have been on Sunday, when they had to leave the friendly confines of the NFC West and head to the relative fortress of Green Bay, where an opening-day defeat likely waited. Instead, San Francisco showed up, outplayed the Packers from start to finish, and left with the most impressive win of the young Jim Harbaugh era under their belts. In doing so, they raised serious questions about the Packers and challenged my perception that the Niners wouldn’t be able to sustain their level of play in 2012. Make no mistake: This was every bit a 2011 49ers victory, just one with a higher level of play against superior opposition.
The Niners followed the game plan that was laid out in last year’s blueprint to beat the Packers to a tee. They won the turnover battle by virtue of a key interception from linebacker NaVorro Bowman;1 outside of a Mario Manningham fumble that bounced harmlessly out of bounds, Alex Smith’s offense was never in danger of producing a turnover of their own. The last two teams to make it through a game against the Packers without turning the ball over were the 2011 Chiefs and the 2010 Patriots, the two teams responsible for Green Bay’s last two regular-season defeats.
It was really interesting to see the Niners use Bowman as an every-down linebacker for most of the game and give Patrick Willis passing downs off here and there. Is Bowman really the better player of the two already?
The defense also did a great job of keeping Aaron Rodgers in the pocket and preventing him from improvising with his receivers. Outside of a couple of plays, the San Francisco pass rush was able to contain Rodgers, even if it wasn’t always able to bring him down. Frequently, the threat of an unblocked or underblocked rusher was pressing enough to force Rodgers to throw a short, contested pass with little chance of yards after catch. If it seemed like the Packers’ playbook on Sunday consisted entirely of sight adjustments on five-yard throws to Jermichael Finley, it wasn’t really all that far off. A series of unimaginative play calls didn’t help matters, either. The Packers called designed run plays nine times, each of which went to Cedric Benson. Every single one of those plays was called on first down. The Packers didn’t call for a single draw on second down, nor did they try to throw more frequently on first to throw the Niners off. There’s something to be said for not totally abandoning the run when it’s not working, and the Niners’ run defense is good on every down, but it felt like the Packers sacrificed nine first-down plays to San Francisco for unknown reasons.
The Niners offense also exploited the middle of the Packers defense. Last year, the Packers were weak in the middle because of the absence of star safety Nick Collins; Collins has yet to return to football, but the Packers are also now without underrated inside linebacker Desmond Bishop for the 2012 season, and his absence helped produce plenty of miscommunication on Sunday. The Packers seemed beset by blown coverages throughout the game, particularly over the middle of the field. One such blown coverage led to Randy Moss’s touchdown catch in the first half. It’s hard to argue that anybody in the Green Bay secondary is playing at the same level that they were during the Super Bowl run in 2010, and when that’s combined with a poor pass rush and notable moments of miscommunication, big plays ensue.
Most notably, though, the Niners simply gashed the Packers on the ground with their rushing attack. Last year, while San Francisco’s running game carried the bulk of the offensive load, a series of eight-man fronts prevented Frank Gore & Co. from producing gaudy statistics. That wasn’t a problem on Sunday, as the San Francisco offensive line created innumerable holes for Gore and Kendall Hunter to run through. The pair combined for 153 yards on 25 carries, 16 of which went for four yards or more. Their biggest play of the day was “just” the 23-yard touchdown run by Gore, but they were consistently effective in creating manageable situations for Smith while occasionally ripping off a demoralizing first down. A 16-yard run on second-and-15 by Gore from his own 10-yard line was enough to get San Francisco out of the shadow of its own end zone. With Moss and Manningham playing limited roles in the victory, perhaps the idea behind signing Team M&M was merely to create more running lanes for Gore and Hunter to run through.
For the Packers, questions now arise as to how good their defense really is. For the Niners, though, the big question coming out of their win is whether or not the rushing offense will really be this impressive during the remainder of 2012. If it truly is, it’s going to be close to impossible for anyone to take away a lead from San Francisco this season. And if that’s the case, well, all the regression statistics we’ve referenced might end up being worthless after all. If this Niners team shows up every week for the remainder of the year, they might even top 13 wins. That’s how impressive this performance was.
Weakness of Schedule
In handicapping opening-week performances, remember that strength of schedule and context really do matter in figuring out just how effective the players in question are likely to be going forward. It’s easier to figure out quality of opposition after a few weeks of action have been played, but there are already some good indications lying around.
For example, take Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. On paper, Ryan’s game was brilliant: 23-of-31, 299 yards, four touchdowns (three passing), and just one interception. Kansas City can be a tough place for a visiting quarterback, but the more notable item is that the team was missing linebacker Tamba Hali (suspension) and corner Brandon Flowers (injury), arguably the team’s two best defenders. Naturally, while the Falcons were rumored to be preparing for a more wide-open offense all season, they found a defense without Hali or Flowers to be very amenable to the Matt Ryan League MVP Bandwagon. While Ryan still might have a few big games in him, he doesn’t get to play a defense missing two Pro Bowl–caliber guys every week.
Jake Locker is another. Before Locker was forced out of the game with a shoulder injury, he had put up respectable numbers against the Patriots: 23-of-32, 239 yards, one touchdown, one pick. Remember, though, that Locker spent most of that game playing catchup against the league’s weakest pass defense of a year ago. It looks like Locker will be able to return quickly from his injury, but don’t expect him to have such an easy time accruing stats against the likes of Houston and San Diego in upcoming weeks.
On the other hand, properly recognizing quality of opposition can give us insight into how a team or player might have changed compared to the previous season. This Sunday’s Buccaneers-Panthers game is a perfect example. Last year, the Bucs allowed more rushing touchdowns and the second-most rushing yardage of anyone in football. Fantasy owners who saw that Jonathan Stewart was unable to play this Sunday undoubtedly focused their efforts on getting DeAngelo Williams on game day, but it was mostly for naught. They certainly didn’t get much for it. That much-maligned Buccaneers run defense held Williams, Cam Newton, and their brethren to just 10 yards on 13 carries. If that’s for real, obviously, it might be Tampa Bay’s ticket back into the NFC South race.
Don’t automatically write off Ryan and Locker and fall for the Bucs D because it’s easy to establish their quality of opposition. As with anything related to small samples in football, more snaps means more reliability. We’ll know more about each of them with each passing week.
Thank You for Not Coaching
It’s pretty easy to pick on Browns coach Pat Shurmur this morning, so let’s spare him the cheap jokes and get to the facts. When D’Qwell Jackson picked off Michael Vick and took the return back to the house for a 27-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, the Browns took a 15-10 lead before attempting the conversion. Shurmur sent his kicking team out there and picked up an extra point to go up 16-10. On their final meaningful drive, though, the Eagles scored a touchdown and picked up the deciding score on the extra point, winning 17-16 after Brandon Weeden threw his fourth pick of the day.
This isn’t an egregious decision because it came back to haunt the Browns; it’s a critical failure because Shurmur chose the option that added virtually nothing to his team’s chances of winning.2 Kicking the extra point gave the Browns a 16-10 lead with 14 minutes to go; the only advantage it gave them was having the ability to tie if Philadelphia kicked two field goals. That’s far less likely to occur than the Eagles scoring one touchdown. The value added by a successful two-point conversion is significantly greater, more than enough to justify the risk of going for two. The footballcommentary.com two-point chart suggests that the Browns should have gone for two unless their chances of converting were below 24 percent, a conversion rate that even the league’s worst rushing attack would find attainable.
Brian Burke’s Win Probability model estimates that Cleveland’s chances of winning went from 76 percent to 78 percent by kicking the extra point.
Furthermore, it’s an awful decision because it employs exactly zero foresight. You don’t need to be thinking about win probability models or game theory to realize that going from a five-point lead to a six-point one in the fourth quarter is basically worthless. Coaches have charts that tell them when they should kick or choose to go for a two-pointer, but a second-generation coach like Shurmur should have easy decisions like this instilled in his DNA. There are some two-point decisions that require a closer consideration of the variables than the simple numbers indicate. This wasn’t one of them.
Often, these sorts of scenarios end up being theoretical exercises because, eventually, the game situation after the decision morphs into something totally different, rendering the conversion decision mostly irrelevant in the bigger picture of the game. This was the rare example of a poor coaching decision that seemed ill-advised on the surface and immediately came back to bite the team in question. Situational play-calling tends to be overrated in terms of judging a coach’s total effectiveness, but Shurmur’s decision was so bad that it raises fundamental questions about his core competency.
Fun in Week 1
Sunday also delivered a number of blowouts from teams that should be in or around the playoff picture in 2012. Perhaps it was no surprise to see the Patriots inflict a 21-point defeat upon the Titans, but there were also impressive 20-point victories by the Bears, Jets, and Texans, each of whom have sights set on appearing in the playoffs. Last year, while a blowout Bills victory in Kansas City didn’t augur anything great to come in January for Buffalo, Houston’s 27-point win over the Colts basically announced that change had arrived in the AFC South. That’s the charm of a Week 1 blowout. It’s staking a claim to the new season and daring the rest of your schedule to prove you wrong.
Is that actually what happens, though? Do teams who record a blowout victory in Week 1, like those four teams did this year, often march their way into the playoffs? Well, sorta. Since 1990, 38 of the 64 teams that won in Week 1 with a margin of victory of 20 points or more made the playoffs, which is a 59.4 percent clip. That’s not bad.
Of course, there’s some bias built into that. Teams who win by 20 points or more are frequently really good football teams, and teams with a win up on the opposition are inherently more likely to make the playoffs than those without one, regardless of whether they won by one point or 20. A better question to ask, then, is whether teams who produce a blowout in Week 1 are more likely to make the playoffs than teams who produced blowouts later in the season.
That’s not really the case. Teams who produced these sorts of blowouts in Week 2 made the playoffs 69.7 percent of the time. And teams who produced them in Week 3 made the dance 74.6 percent of the time. So the Week 1 blowout is cool, but it doesn’t really mean anything more than a blowout in any of the other weeks.
A Note of Thanks
I just wanted to finish up with a brief note of thanks to all the people who sent in kind thoughts after I mentioned my unfortunate life incident in Simmons’s column last week. It was really touching, actually; even people who insisted that I was impossibly stupid and bad at my job for saying that their favorite team wasn’t going to do so hot this year managed to sneak in a warm remark or two. I’m still operating at well below 100 percent here (and my 100 percent, as you might know, often isn’t very good to begin with), but things are getting better and I’ll be restoring football coverage to full service this week, with posts on the Triangle from Tuesday through Thursday.