If you sat open-mouthed when Alex Smith made that touchdown run, read this.
Phenomenal finish. One of the best ends of a game of all time, with an embattled quarterback and formerly banished-from-the-sidelines tight end making the throw and catch of their lives, and the Saints fighting back, and so many big plays happening so fast you couldn't keep track of them. But the play I'll never forget is that weird Alex Smith bootleg called by offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Why call that play then, with so many things that could go wrong? Why do it on 3rd-and-8 with 2:18 left in the game (in the season, quite possibly), at the New Orleans 28-yard line ... what causes a team to take such a risk as the Niners did?
"The Saints had been blitzing us all day,'' left tackle Joe Staley told me Sunday, still a little hoarse from Saturday's craziness. "So there was probably a 50-50 chance they blitz here, and if they blitz off the side we're going to run, to the left, then it's a crappy play.''
A crappy play that could push David Akers to a missable field goal. Fifty yards, maybe, if Smith is tackled for a loss.
"Who knows why,'' said Staley, "but they brought a blitz from the right. So the play we called was perfect for the blitz they put on. Alex was basically running away from it. The receiver [in motion from the left], Kyle Williams, did a good job sealing off the defensive end, and my job was to pull around the end for the alley defender [the lone safety on the second level of the play] so I could block him. We had this play up for the Giants game a few weeks ago, and Alex ran it to, I think, the two-yard line. Then we didn't have it [in any gameplan] for the rest of the year, until this week.
"Pretty amazing we called that play, and the Saints gave us exactly what we needed.''
Staley, from the snap, sprinted out to his left, out of the traffic jam at the line of scrimmage. Smith was three steps behind him, and it's to Staley's credit that he was fast enough to stay ahead of Smith as he ran down the left sideline. If Smith could stay tight-roped along the sideline, the only man between him and the goal line was safety Isa Abdul-Quddus. Could Staley take him out, or would Abdul-Quddus be deft enough to avoid him and push Smith out of bounds?
"We practice cut blocks,'' Staley said. "There's a technique for it. You dive for the upfield [leg] and just make sure you get a piece of him.''
Staley dove at the 12-, rolling toward Abdul-Quddus' legs. At the 10-, Staley's torso hit both of them, and the safety went down like the headpin nailed by a bowling ball.
"I assumed I was in front of Alex, but it's not like you can look around to find out exactly where he is,'' Staley said. "But when I was on the ground, I heard the roar of the crowd and I figured something good happened. It's pretty funny this play happens now, right when all the Tim Tebow stuff is happening. When we'd watch Tebow in college, we'd say, 'Alex was Tebow before Tebow.' You know, Alex was coached by Urban Meyer, and then Tebow was, and they did a lot of the same things.''
It's the block of Staley's life, and he knows it. A textbook cut block in the open field, the kind coaches will show their linemen and tight ends and backs and wideouts and say, "This is how to block downfield.'' For linemen, a thing of beauty.
"Pretty special,'' Staley said. "You just play to do your job the best you can on every play, because you don't know when the big play is coming. You don't know which play's the big play. All the work we do as a team, and to know your season can come down to that one play. Pretty amazing.''
Then it wasn't over. Smith got the ball one last time, inside the two-minute warning, and had to take the Niners 85 yards to save their season. It wasn't supposed to be that way, but it was, and that just makes the story better. Alex Smith wasn't supposed to be able to be clutch. He wasn't supposed to even be the quarterback of the Niners now. The fact that he was still around, and the Niners were counting on him to save the year ... his teammates loved it.
"We just appreciate him as a man,'' Staley said. "Never one time has he thrown anyone under the bus, even though he's got a new coordinator or different offense every year. And it's so fitting Alex went toe to toe with Drew Brees, in a playoff game, and no one gave him a chance, and the game comes down to Alex against Brees in his first playoff game, and he makes that run, and then he makes that touchdown throw to Vernon Davis, right on the money. It's just fantastic. It happened the way it should have.''
After the game, Staley found Smith. He hugged him. "You deserve this,'' Staley told Smith. They both knew he did.
The Patriot way.
Found myself looking out at the Patriots' dismantling of Denver thinking:
1. No one uses two tight ends like the Patriots. Gronkowski blocks and catches, and the uber-athletic Hernandez has the moves of a wide receiver. Two tight ends, 261 total yards, four touchdowns. In one game.
2. No one moves a struggling first-round corner to deep safety in the middle of the season, but that's what the Patriots did. That's where Devin McCourty played most of Saturday night.
3. No one plays with a fired Oakland practice-squad safety, Sterling Moore, at cornerback in the playoffs, or backup wideout Julian Edelman, at nickel back, in the playoffs. The Patriots do. Every time I looked up Saturday night, Moore was on an island with Demaryius Thomas or Eddie Royal. A safety in Oakland, not good enough to stay on their practice squad last September, on the street in October. Now Moore's playing 36 snaps at corner (according to the charting of ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss) in a divisional playoff game.
Bill Belichick's a mad scientist. He knew his defense had to change when it was getting strafed so badly in midseason, and he changed it, drastically. Who knows if it works another eight quarters. But 10 seasons after he used a bunch of middle-class free agents to help New England win its first Super Bowl, Belichick is scotch-taping another run together with Tom Brady playing at his peak, and a bunch of complementary pieces on the chess board. Should be fun to watch.
Now for some full disclosure.
Weird harmonic convergence of sorts in the last couple of weeks. Let me explain.
My agent for television negotiations is a lawyer from California named Marvin Demoff, who has represented many high-profile players and coaches over the years. His son, Kevin Demoff, is the executive vice president of football operations and chief operations officer of the St. Louis Rams. I've known Kevin, through Marvin, since he was in college.
Marvin Demoff is also the agent for Jeff Fisher, who is in the process of agreeing to terms on a contract to coach the Rams. Last week, Fisher was torn between the Rams and the Dolphins when making a final decision about where he wanted to coach in 2011 and beyond, and he chose the Rams, and I'm sure many people in the football business, and fans smart enough to see what was going on, thought: Of course Fisher went to St. Louis. Marvin Demoff is taking care of his son.
If you feel I'm incapable of being straight down the middle in covering the Fisher story, I understand. I wouldn't try to convince you otherwise. Just know that I'm trying to be balanced about it; you'll be the judge whether I am or not.
The larger story, though, seems to me to be the inference I've heard in some circles that the fix was in with Fisher and the two Demoffs. I spoke to Fisher last night about it. I'm not asking you to believe that this would be reported the same way if it were the Washington Post investigating whether this was an inside job. But I thought the best way to look into whether the Demoffs had compromised the process was to ask Fisher a couple of boilerplate questions. Here they are, with his responses:
Q: Did you ever feel Marvin Demoff was trying to move you toward St. Louis, in any way?
Fisher: "Under no circumstances at any time. I have 100 percent conviction on that. This was my decision, and Marvin assisted me. I was the one who decided. No one pushed me anywhere.''
Q: How did you decide?
Fisher: "From day one, when I began this process after the season, I felt Miami and St. Louis were my best options. I did my research. I looked at every team that had an opening. I looked at the personnel on each team, I looked at the owners, I looked at the cap situations, and I narrowed it to two. Not Marvin. Me. Marvin didn't push me. I am convinced he was completely objective.''
Fisher went on to say at the start of the process he was interested in a team that had a good owner and good quarterback, and he felt St. Louis had the best combination of both.
My interpretation, which I stated higher in this column, is that the fact that the Dolphins wanted to keep their GM-with-the-roster-power structure in place was a factor in Fisher choosing the Rams. Not the major factor, but a factor at the end that played into Fisher picking St. Louis.
Finally, the future of You-Know-Who.
The Tim Tebow story was fun while it lasted. But now what? I don't subscribe to the school of thought that Tebow can't succeed as a full-time NFL quarterback. We don't know that for sure. I'm like John Elway in this regard: I'd like to see Tebow have one full offseason, and team minicamps and training camp, working with the first unit for the first full offseason of his three in the NFL.
Denver should backstop Tebow with a second- or third-round prospect and either Brady Quinn or an option type of quarterback like Tebow, in the event of an in-game injury; that way the Broncos won't have to revolutionize their offense in the middle of a game. Finally, this: Denver cannot enter the 2012 season with the same predictable play-calling, with that inside handoff or Tebow sprinting into an option. It limits the offense way too much.
The reality of Tebow's 2011 season is he had some great moments and eight wins. But he also plateaued. He simply has to be more accurate to have a chance to be a long-term NFL quarterback. Check out the first five quarterback starts of the season, with Kyle Orton playing, and the last five starts, all by Tebow.
This is a critical offseason for Tebow. There's no question he'll put in the work. The only question is this: Is he physically capable of training his arm and his head to be a significantly more accurate passer? If so, he'll have a long career. But accuracy doesn't often increase significantly in NFL quarterbacks. It can get better, but most often the improvements come in small doses. We shall see.
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