We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Josh Levin
To: Daniel Engber, Dan Kois, Barry Petchesky
Some losses are totally meaningless. (For 11 examples, consult the 2011 Washington Redskins game log.) Others, like the Patriots' 45-10 stomping of the Broncos, inflict a pain that's intense but fleeting, the result of an irrefutable beatdown by a superior opponent. A third category—the defeats the Giants piled up during their midseason swoon, for instance—become a part of team lore, the valley before the peak. And then there are the losses in which your team is doomed to forever play the mark in someone else's highlight reel. Depending on where your allegiance lies, these are either known as "classics" or "those times I went catatonic."
During their Super Bowl run two seasons ago, the Saints inflicted that kind of defeat on the Minnesota Vikings. With less than 20 seconds to go in regulation, Brett Favre threw an interception that queered the Vikings' chances to kick an NFC-title-game-winning field goal. "Why do you even ponder passing?" Minnesota radio guy Paul Allen asks in a YouTube video I've watched several dozen times. After a couple of beats, Allen's bewilderment becomes rage: "This is not Detroit, man—this is the Super Bowl!" One lesson here is that there's never a bad time for a gratuitous swipe at Detroit. Another is that there's a zero-sumness to an officially sanctioned Instant Classic NFL Playoff Game. If the winner's on cloud nine, you'll be certain to find the loser in the bottom of one of those trenches where only weird bacteria can survive.
After the 49ers beat the Saints on Saturday, I became that weird bacteria. The Saints made enough great plays in the fourth quarter—Darren Sproles's jitterbugging catch and run; Jimmy Graham's 66-yard touchdown a few minutes later—for a thrilling alternate-universe highlight reel. But when you have a rooting interest, potentially gleeful memories don't stick unless the good guys win. After Vernon Davis pillaged through the New Orleans secondary, the Saints' two late touchdowns became force multipliers. If Drew Brees hadn't led those awesome fourth-quarter drives, then Alex Smith and Vernon Davis couldn't have jackhammered our hearts into quite so many pieces.
Shifting back over to the rational side of my brain, the Saints' loss to the 49ers reveals an essential truth about the modern NFL. As Football Outsiders has shown, pro football offenses are more consistent year over year than defenses—so long as their quarterbacks are healthy, we can be reasonably sure that the Saints, Packers, and Patriots will score plenty of points. But even in this era of unguardable back-shoulder passes, it's still true that—may Tim Tebow strike me down for invoking this chestnut—defense wins championships. This is one source of parity in the NFL: The most dependably excellent teams are the ones who have the best offenses, but those teams are always susceptible to whoever happens to be having a great season, month, or day on the other side of the ball.
When you're up against one of the league's best quarterbacks, the only equalizer is a pocket-busting pass rush. But not all pressure is created equal. Just as the Giants won Super Bowl XLII by pressuring Tom Brady with their front four and dropping everyone else into coverage, this year's Big Blue stopped Aaron Rodgers because the guys up front kept breaking through the Packers' line. Likewise, San Francisco's Justin Smith and Aldon Smith pressured Drew Brees on Saturday without the 49ers sending extra rushers. The Saints, by contrast, blitzed constantly to make up for their relative weakness on the defensive line. With 40 seconds to play and the 49ers inside their own 35 and trailing by a field goal, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams placed eight men at the line of scrimmage at the snap, leaving Vernon Davis to be covered man to man by safety Malcolm Jenkins. Highlights ensued.
Scapegoating is reductive—it ignores the fact, for one, that the 49ers' secondary failed to tackle the Saints' tight end on a remarkably similar play on the previous drive—and ungenerous to the 49ers, who should get credit for performing amazing late-game feats. If the Saints had rushed three and the 49ers had dinked their way to a game-tying field goal, Gregg Williams would've been ripped for that, too. But this is about that time in my internal monologue when I switch back from rational to emotional. Why in God's name are you blitzing there? This is not Detroit, man—these are the 49ers! Keep everyone in front of you. Make Alex Smith dink the ball down the field with 40 seconds left and one timeout. Worst case, you're in overtime with the best offense in the NFL.
In fairness, that's not the worst case—the worst case is that the Saints' bend-but-don't-break defense would've broken anyway. And that, finally, gets me back to Dan's question about whether Alex Smith should've taken a knee on the one-yard line instead of scoring to give the 49ers a 29-24 lead with a shade more than two minutes on the clock. You wrote, Dan, that San Francisco would likely "score the touchdown anyway, and at worst, they'd kick a field goal, leaving the Saints with no timeouts and well under a minute to go." That's not true, though: In the absolute worst case, the 49ers would've fumbled or missed the field goal and lost the game.
Coaches are typically too risk-averse, but that's because they're hyper-conscious of risks that we ignore since we see them as vanishingly small. Jim Harbaugh didn't need to look back very far for an example of things going wrong close to the goal line. On the Saints' first drive, Pierre Thomas lost the ball at the San Francisco two-yard line after 49ers safety Donte Whitner knocked him limp on a helmet-to-helmet hit. Since he made a "football move" after catching the ball, Thomas was not a "defenseless receiver" and Whitner was (correctly) not flagged.
This is another category of risk that we ignore. Here's how Fox's broadcast team narrated a slow-motion replay of Whitner's hit on Thomas:
Daryl Johnston: Donte Whitner with a great break on the ball and a big hit right there, and it is loose.
Kenny Albert: 49ers recover.
That's the analysis in its entirety. Because the hit was legal, the football-is-terrifying-and-dangerous response never got triggered in the announcers' brains. Even after scrutinizing the play in slow motion and high definition, Johnston and Albert either missed or chose to ignore that Pierre Thomas dropped the ball because he was so badly injured that he lost control of his limbs. To the Fox crew—and, really, to most everyone watching the game—this play was notable as a momentum changer for the 49ers. Pierre Thomas never came back in the game. Judging by the commentary, he wasn't really missed. This was someone else's highlight reel, anyway.