It is the week of the second International Series game and two top flight American Football teams are here to do battle, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Francisco 49ers. So let's take a closer look at one of the teams on display, the San Francisco 49ers. If it's ok with you I'd like to take you back to early February. It's the Super Bowl between the Ravens and the 49ers, there is less than twi minutes left and young QB Colin Kaepernick has the ball in his hands on a 4th and Goal with a chance to win the game. As the ball heads to the end zone, intended target Michael Crabtree, is caught up with the cornerback Jimmy Smith and the play ends. At this point I get a message from friend and fellow Gridiron Gentleman Charlie, who is absolutely gutted. The message I sent back was simple:
IT'S YOURS NEXT YEAR
So I thought what better time to have a look at this Niners team than when I have them literally less than 15 miles away preparing for their International Series game with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
I guess what I am trying to do with this post is a couple of things. Firstly if you have a passing interest in the NFL and find yourself bored after the Sunday Afternoon Premier League game and are wondering what to watch next, then hopefully this will give you some information about a team that shows exactly what the NFL is all about at the moment. Secondly I think this team is exceptionally talented and really wanted a chance to go in depth with some of the pieces on this team and why they're so special.
Anyway let's take a look at a team that has been historically great and could be set to dominate the League, if they can get over a few minor issues.
'It fires me up; it fires me up a lot'.
Let's start with Jim Harbaugh, the head coach who has changed everything in this Niners team. The first thing to understand about Jim Harbaugh is he lives, breathes, sleeps American Football and it is very much in his blood. Jim's dad Jack was a player and coach himself for a number of university teams achieving mixed success. Jim's brother is also a head coach; in fact John was on the opposite touchline to Jim in the Super Bowl as the Ravens head coach. Jim also cut his teeth as a QB for the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts before trying his hand at coaching. It was in his tenure at Stanford that Jim Harbaugh became a household name in the sport as he turned Andrew Luck into one of the top college prospects in the league earning him the Niners head coach job after fellow ex-Bear, Mike Singletary was dismissed. The change was almost instant. Consistently struggling former first round pick Alex Smith (see Chiefs post), was turned around into a safe decent passer. Confidence swept throughout a team that desperately needed a spark and the team instantly improved. I know what you're saying at this point, ' why should I be interested in a head coach?' Well that's simple. He's a wild card. I'll give you an example. In a game in 2011 a simple handshake at the end of a game between the Niners and the Lions very nearly ended with a fist fight, simply because of the intensity of Harbaugh's handshake that Schwartz thought was 'disrespectful'. Whether it's his post-game bawling of his family motto 'who's got it better than us? Nooo-body' or the mad flailing nature of his side-line mannerisms, Harbaugh demands your attention. So what about the rest of the team?
The Pistol Offence
The game has changed a ridiculous amount over the last few years and it is in part because of the 49ers. When Alex Smith went down injured, the Niners put in Colin Kaepernick who excelled as part of the Niners' pistol offence. I could talk about the merits of the Pistol all day, but in basic terms what it meant was he had flexibility to use Kaepernick's entire skill set. Whether it be making plays through the air, running or handing off to a running back, Kaepernick would have a chance to make the decision at the line based on what he saw from the defence. It is however not without its flaws. It requires making quick decisions and as such sometimes a defence can force him to make some bad throws. He also becomes very susceptible to injury as defences can force him out of his pocket and make plays with his feet. However so far it's worked pretty well and that is in no small part thanks to the pieces he has round him. In front he has one of the best O-lines in the game giving him plenty of time to decide what he wants to do. To either side he has some dynamic Receivers/ Tight End Options in Michael Crabtree (injured for the Wembley game I'm afraid), former Super Bowl winner for the Ravens Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis who once was banished to the Locker Room by Mike Singletary for some questionable behaviour, but now is a valuable team leader. Finally behind him he has dependable Running Back Frank Gore, who has the ability to bust pretty much any O-line. All in all this is an exciting Offence to watch, making quick short yardage plays and occasionally breaking off a deeper play, everything moves exceptionally fast and generally a lot of points are scored. But that's not to say the Defence can't hold its own.
When you have a run heavy offence like the Niners, it is important to have a defence that can make big stops, which is exactly what this Niners team have. The strength of this team relies heavily on two players making big plays. Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who play pretty much every snap as exceptionally versatile Middle Linebackers. With these lynchpins in the centre the Niners Defence pretty much falls into place. Fearsome tackler Justin Smith and resurgent Nose Tackle Glenn Dorsey lead the front line and the Secondary includes the possible Rookie of the year Eric Reid and Donte Whitner, who wants to change his Surname to 'Hitner' to be in line with his apparent playing style. But it's not been all smiles for this Defence. Aldon Smith was set for huge things this season until he crashed his car whilst driving under the influence. This was almost immediately followed by two people claiming that at a house party they had been shot by the Outside Linebacker, now he is suspended indefinitely so he can attend Rehab and face Felony charges. Has this affected the Niners though? No, luckily depth at the Outside Linebacker position has meant they haven't missed a beat with Ahmad Brooks stepping up in a big bad way. All in all they are solid and a lot of fun to watch, keeping Offences to low points tallies giving their Offence excellent field position.
So that's the San Francisco 49ers. The team that will be clear favourites to take this game against a below par Jags team set for the worst record in the league. I hope you enjoyed this and more importantly I hope you watch the game on both Sky and Channel 4 at 6pm and join us helping this sport grow.