The NFL’s annual rush to scrutinize the Super Bowl teams and draw conclusions from their rosters will soon begin to focus on the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.
The surface study of these Super teams would offer an easily understandable strategy for getting to the Super Bowl:
Simply hire a coach named Harbaugh.
But as the Harbaugh family is tapped of coaching brothers and most NFL teams are sticking with their own coaches for the time being, a more involved study is necessary to decipher the latest formula for NFL success.
Hint: The formula isn’t obvious because the Ravens and 49ers don’t specialize in any one philosophy or approach.
Both teams do simply collect good players — a lot of them — and they’re sprinkled throughout the roster.
“There’s a lot. I could go on talking about the talent that we have around here,” San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree said. “On the tight ends, running backs, you have to remember we have three people injured that played a major part in our offense. But I would say that with all of these weapons, I don’t think that you can go wrong.
“That’s the bottom line: You have to have as many playmakers as you can.”
Maybe that’s it. Add good players everywhere and overcome the opposition with quantity as well as quality.
Obviously the past’s ideas on how to succeed, drawn from championship teams of 2004-2011, aren’t applying to these to teams.
Unlike past years when the Saints, Colts and Patriots brought a great pocket quarterback and perhaps the NFL’s most proficient passing game to the Super Bowl — sometimes at the expense of running the football — the Ravens and 49ers are shifting that paradigm.
Both the Ravens and 49ers run the football first and pass second.
Baltimore brings a drop-backer passer to the game. But Joe Flacco’s not exactly prolific, having thrown only 22 touchdowns during a regular season in which Drew Brees led the NFL with 43. San Francisco brought a running quarterback of all things to this game. And while Colin Kaepernick adds an intriguing dimension with the pistol offense, he only threw 10 touchdowns after he took over as the starter.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady, Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers are not in this game. So the idea of needing an elite quarterback to win the Super Bowl might not be totally right.
(Yes, my hair is about to catch on fire from this thought).
Defensively, these teams also are bucking the trend set by the New York Giants on how to win championships with defense. The Giants convinced experts the best way to win a championship was to field an extraordinary pass-rush.
The 49ers really have only one accomplished pass-rusher and the Ravens are in the big game even though their best pass-rusher Terrell Suggs spent much of the season injured. The Dolphins, believe it or not, had more sacks than either team.
So what does the 2012 success of the Ravens and 49ers suggest?
The Ravens run the ball behind a zone blocking scheme, the 49ers go with a more physical man blocking approach.
That alone might suggest these teams share little in common. But look closer. It’s not a coincidence both will decide the 47th Super Bowl.
“I don’t think it’s coincidence,” San Francisco safety Donte Whitner said. “I think that when you play the game the way we play the game and the way that the Baltimore Ravens play the game, good things happen for you.
“We play an old school style of football. We play a physical style of football. Stop the run, and then we get after you in the pass game and get pass rushers. That’s how you win football games. It’s won up front, really, with the offensive and defensive line, and really with us affecting quarterbacks. So, it’s no coincidence.”
Whitner is suggesting a return to 1990-era run-first approach by teams built from the inside out (offensive and defensive lines first and then the playmakers) is the way to do it now.
(Now my head is exploding).
This coming at a time the NFL is relying more on the passing game. This at a time wide receivers have become more precious commodities, quarterbacks must be great passers, and many running backs have become secondary players.
But the 49ers, with Frank Gore leading a running game that features quarterback Kaepernick as a primary threat, and the Ravens, with Ray Rice at running back, have ground games that, ahem, fly in the face of today’s pass-first offenses.
The 49ers boasted the NFL’s fourth-leading rushing attack in 2012. The Ravens had the No. 11 rushing attack, compared to their No. 15 pass ranking.
“It’s been really special to see what a lot of running backs have done this year,” Rice said. “ I think every running back came out with a chip on their shoulder this year because everybody was saying our value as a player on the field was going down.
“I’m satisfied where I’m at, but look at what Adrian Peterson did after knee surgery and his ACL. You look at what guys around the league are doing. Running backs are still very important to their teams.”
That doesn’t mean the passing game is not important in Baltimore and San Francisco. Both teams have invested heavily in being able to pass the ball efficiently.
The Ravens invested a first-round pick on quarterback Joe Flacco, a second-round pick for deep-threat Torrey Smith and traded for Anquan Boldin.
On defense the 49ers run a classic 3-4 front while the Ravens have actually gone to more of a 4-3 look. That suggests there is more than one way to succeed.
But regardless of the look, both show multiple fronts.
Both move players around so the offense cannot absolutely determine where key pass rushers such as Suggs and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith will line up.
“This year, we’re moving around a bunch and using two defensive ends quite a bit instead of just having the 3-4 with one big end and one small end,” Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata said. “It’s been more of a mix this year. Right now, it’s probably the hot thing to do, but once the offenses figure it out, the defenses will probably move back to the 4-3.”
Something both the Ravens and 49ers enjoy is good play from their safeties. They both get good production from their tight ends. They both have solid offensive lines although those were built in entirely different fashion.
So what does all this say about the Ravens and 49ers?
“It says the team with the most talent and best coaching usually survive and get here,” Baltimore receiver Torrey Smith said. “They’re very talented. I think we’re very talented. So it shouldn’t surprise people we’re here.”