In between the constant hype of Ray Lewis’ last ride and the Harbowl-SuperBowl is the compelling evidence that two offenses earned their ticket to New Orleans the hard way. Both teams were expected to do well this year, but no one predicted the radical decisions by either Harbaugh to drastically alter their offense midseason without compromising their success or identity.
In my experience as a player, the toughest thing as a team to do in football is win on the road. My best memory of winning on the road by sticking to our guns came in high school during my junior year. My highly regarded North Delta Huskies were on the road against Burnaby Central, a fast team that played mainly a wishbone offense and ran the QB option 80 percent of the time. If you think the read-option is tough for NFL defenses to stop, you should watch high school kids trying to make sense of all the misdirection. The best part is that Central also played their home games at a town stadium, which was a special treat for high school players.
The Huskies’ identity on offense was grounded in the power running game with timely play action. Our QB didn’t run much, but his decision-making was smart, and we rarely turned the ball over. Our backs were powerful downhill runners and we had a stable of three who could carry the rock. In fact, we might have been the only team in football history with tailbacks bigger than our fullback and center.
Skipping ahead to halftime of what proved to be a very physical battle, we were down 14-7. Our coach, a legend in his own right who had put many players into college and had several championships under his belt, always kept our adjustments simple and emphasized execution. That day we waited in the locker room for approximately two minutes in silence before the coaching staff entered. Our HC pointed to a giant stadium garbage drum and said “Hey o-line, that’s you. I’m Burnaby Central”. Then he took two steps, and with one swift kicked he sent the drum across the room where it hit the wall and bounced several times. Next he ordered everyone except for the offensive line out. Five minutes later they emerged, looking scared of their own mortality yet determined to win.
The second half proved to be much the same as the first in terms of pounding the ball back and forth with a few throws mixed in. Our defense held the edges and filled the gaps in the middle. Our offensive line started to pave like they had been threatened with walking home. Burnaby Central was no slouch of a team either; its QB and running backs were highly regarded track athletes in their own right.
With both teams pressing and relying on their strengths, the game went down to the fourth quarter. After Central missed a PAT to go up 20-14, we drove the ball the length of the field, and punched it in with little time left on the clock. Then we nailed the extra point, and our defense held on to emerge with the victory. In a football player’s life, that is the definition of elation. The bus ride home was total mayhem. On a side note, my high school coach’s nephew is the head strength coach for the 49ers, more proof that old school football never dies.
Both quarterbacks in the Super Bowl went through a fairly unconventional path this year, with Colin Kaepernick taking over the reins mid season, and the Ravens promoting Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator late in the year after firing Cam Cameron. Not surprisingly, both quarterbacks have excelled with their coach’s trust thanks to a fine balance of bold change and bold defiance to panic. In other words, going against the grain of common football wisdom is what worked, and the result has been an impressive streak from both offenses that will see a new king crowned at the Super Bowl.
With Kaepernick the 49ers have won big, won from behind, won from in front, won with him running, and won with him throwing. His dynamic abilities were never more impressive than during the come-from-behind victory in Atlanta. during the NFC Championship this past Sunday. Down 17-0 early, most playoff teams would have scrambled into a hurry up to get within striking distance, and in all reality that wouldn’t have been a bad decision. But the 49ers stuck with their plan to pound the ball up the middle and take advantage of play action, eventually wearing the Falcons down (thanks Frank Gore, who continues to make a case for being the most underrated NFL player of the last decade) before airing it out to Vernon Davis with timely strikes.
Davis, the forgotten weapon since Kaepernick took over, reminded everyone in Atlanta reminiscing about Tony Gonzalez’s career that both teams had a great tight end that day, even if Davis hadn’t been used properly all season. Not surprisingly, he turned in yet another playoff performance that saved his club when it needed him most. Somewhere Brandon Jacobs is still playing the victim card. Either way, Jim Harbaugh rocked the boat when the waters were fairly good, and all he has to show for it are back-to-back NFC championship appearances with two different QBs and totally different offenses, and now a trip to the Super Bowl.
In less than 10 games as a starter, Kaepernick has steered the San Fran bulldozer over teams led by the esteemed likes of Super Bowl winners Tom Brady and Drew Brees in their own homes, before disposing of Aaron Rodgers in the first round of the playoffs. That, ladies and men of all kinds, is the definition of a slayer.
For the most part, Joe Flacco’s year was spent out of the limelight (if an NFL QB is ever truly out of the limelight) thanks to the emotionally charged season of Torrey Smith’s tragedy and Ray Lewis’ last voyage. The knocks on Flacco were many, but after the change in play calling and an adjustment period of three straight losses in Weeks 13-15, his offense exploded. By emphasizing his strengths and leaning on his arm, the Ravens allowed Flacco to out play the two greatest passers in recent league history in both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and on the road in the playoffs no less. I present to you the embodiment of stud.
The Ravens receivers proved to be as good a group as any in the league, perhaps not as explosive as the pair in Atlanta, but rounded enough that Flacco could go to either Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, Dennis Pitta, or Ray Rice whenever he needed. Rice’s role as a machine running the ball has been the foundational bedrock of the offense it has been for years, and he allowed the Ravens to open up the field and attack opponents vertically. Much like his brother, John Harbaugh took a huge risk by believing in his players and adjusting the system to emphasize their strengths. Much like Kaepernick, Flacco rewarded his coach with huge wins on the road.
The role of teammates and a fundamentally strong defense can’t be understated in the winning ways of both Baltimore and San Francisco. The primary factors in each team’s journey to the Super Bowl have been the ability to win on the road in harsh environments when coaching staffs trusted players, and relied on their strengths as an offense to pull through when things weren’t going smoothly.
Right now Manning wishes John Fox believed in his offense the way the Harbaughs believe in their players, but it’s too late. If this season has taught us anything about football, it’s that bending but not breaking overcomes conventional wisdom. After all only one team finishes the year as a champion, and that goes against the grain of the other 31 teams every time.
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.