No team in Superbowl history had ever come back from a deficit larger than 10 points. Colin Kaepernick, down 22 points after a 109 yard kickoff return by the Ravens, picked up his helmet and went to work. After a number of harrowing throws and runs along with a stout defense, he had finally brought them within 5 points with the ball in their hands at the Ravens 7 yard line. This was it, history in the making. 2 yard run. 2nd and 5. Incomplete. 3rd and 5. Incomplete. 4th and 5. Incomplete. Turnover. And just like that, it was over.
If the last 6 weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the Niners need some changes. What was once considered one of the best defenses in the league has looked anything but in the last 6 weeks. Our pass rush is pathetic, opposing quarterbacks have more time in the pocket than lint in my jeans, and our secondary has more holes than a Michael Bay movie. Rushing only four players means that even with 7 in coverage, QBs will find a way. Flacco looked like Big Ben, avoiding any pressure just long enough to find an open Boldin down the field several times. Whitner and Goldson misplayed almost every deep ball in the game, and for someone so homophobic, Culliver sure didn’t seem to mind putting his hands on other dudes. And the offense had some great spurts sure, but what about the first half? Maybe it was good for Kaepernick to lose this. You can’t expect a guy to win a Super Bowl in his first 10 games and still stay humble. This will help him grow, and who knows, maybe in-
Wait a minute. There are a lot of high running emotions after that loss, and I’ve heard a lot of strong statements about what could have been improved or done better the whole season to help us win the Superbowl. Some stupider than others. But that’s not actually important. With 2:39 left in the game, the 49ers had a 53% chance of winning the game. The first time, all game, the Niners had over a 50% chance of winning (according to www.advancednflstats.com). They had 4 chances from the 7 yardline, with the game and infamy on the line. And the only thing that matters is that with the ball in their hands they didn’t score a touchdown.
If the 49ers had scored on any of the 4 chances they had, we probably would not be having this conversation (the Niners would still have to make a 2 point conversion to be up by 3, and the Ravens would get the ball back with 2 minutes left and 3 timeouts. We can’t say what would happen either way, but still. This is my article so deal with it). We wouldn’t be talking about Culliver’s ballerina act against Jacoby Jones, Aldon Smith’s no-show, or our special teams meltdown. Instead we would be talking about Kaepernick taking over the second half, Crabtree’s beautiful hands, and our defense’s 2nd half shutdown of the Ravens. All of these stories were true, regardless of who won the game.
What is crucial to note from this is that we as fans cannot overreact about this loss. It was painful, disappointing, enraging, sad, and a number of other emotions, but that was determinant on the outcome of 4 offensive plays out of over 1000 on the season, nothing more. Even if the Niners had won, certain offseason moves would be required to bolster our chances next year, but those decisions should be made independent of this most recent outcome. A team can only change the probability of success, not guarantee an outcome.
The 2012 49ers just wrapped up the most interesting regular season in team history. Not the best, or the most conventionally impressive, but the most interesting. Somehow even more than the Troy Smith era, which is hard to believe, because any time you can see a grown man make another grown man cry on television, it’s quality entertainment. No, most interesting because the Niners established themselves as a team built on a foundation of incredible defense, giving rise to the possibility of an extraordinary offensive force.
The 2011 49ers defense was one for the ages by a lot of metrics, and everyone knew the 2012 Niners would regress closer to the norm. The 2011 team allowed just 14.3 points/game, good for 2nd in the league, compared to 17.1 this year. The run game gave up only 77 yards per game, up this year to 95 a game. Perhaps most impressively, the Niners last year forced a league high number of turnovers last year which has fallen drastically to the norm this year. Looks like Carlos Rogers could have used some of Orlando Jones’ glue from The Replacements.
And yet the 2012 defense this year was the best in 49ers history. The basis of this analysis comes from a system called Simple Rating System, or SRS. The SRS is a simple weighted number that assigns point values to teams for that year, where an average team has a rating of 0. I’ll keep it short. The formula is:
SRS = MoV + SoS = OSRS + DSRS (to read more about it, check out www.pro-football-reference.com)
This year the Niners had a 10.2 SRS, 3rd best in the league. The 2011 DSRS (this means the average number of points the Niners defense allowed per week below the league average, adjusted for the quality of opponent) was 6.6. This year’s was 6.7. The 2011 defense had better statistics in almost every category. They even gave up 44 few points than this year’s defense. Doesn’t make sense, until you factor in SoS (strength of schedule, or quality of opponent). The 2012 49ers team had the best opponents of any 49ers team since 1975. Which means, when adjusted for the quality of a team’s opponents, this defense was historic. The 6.7 is the highest rating in 49ers team history, ever.
Great teams don’t require great defenses. The league has turned into a passing league, and some of the best teams have horrible defenses. Even the Montana and Young teams didn’t have great defenses. But what great defenses do give a team are opportunities, and quite a few of them at that.
The 49ers have used that to their advantage all season. They had the 2nd ranked defense, giving up only 17.1 points per game, and the 11th ranked offense, scoring 24.8 points per game. Their offensive abilities were nothing to gush over, but given ample opportunities they played well, almost always being able to build an early lead. A great defense with an above average offense leads to good things and just like last year the Niners were set to make a run into the playoffs off that strength.
That all unexpectedly changed in the playoffs, but not as anyone could have guessed. Many argue that this actually started in the second half against the Patriots when they lost Justin Smith. And there is some validity to those arguments that explain why opposing quarterbacks went 1998 Vikings on our defense. When we lost Justin, Aldon became less effective (read: more useless than a half eaten ham sandwich) and we couldn’t pressure the quarterback. When we couldn’t pressure the quarterback while only rushing 4, opposing quarterbacks had all the time in the world. The Niners went from allowing 200 pass yards per game in the season to 313 per game in the playoffs.
In the first half alone of every playoff game, the Niners on average gave up 22 points. That’s 5 more points in the first half than they normally give up over a whole game! While giving up 22 points, the Niners only scored on average 14.6 points in the first half of playoff games, roughly on pace with their normal season line. It was clear the offense struggled to find their groove in the last two games with no time on the field. But then something weird happens. In the second half of each game, the Niners on average outscored their opponents 20 to 7.6. Somehow, in the second half of games, the Niners defense turned into the stingiest defense in the league, better than their normal season average. All this without Justin Smith at full speed and quarterbacks given time in the pocket. The average total score ends up being 34.6 – 29.6. If those averages happened in the season, it would give them the 2nd best offense (.2 points behind the Patriots) and the worst defense in the league.
For all we attribute to the offense scoring well in the second half, you have to attribute just as much to our defense which initially put us in that hole. As earlier mentioned, great defenses give offenses opportunities. And the Niners needed every single one. At the end of the day, it took every ounce of talent from a historically great defense to give us the chances we needed to score, and it was actually our high octane offense that let us down.
Statistics are an interesting thing, especially probability, because of what they imply. Over a course of several samples, probability can tell you what is most likely to happen on a whole. Rarely, in the long run, does the eventual outcome vary from the probabilistic outcome because that probability is measured from several past data points that best predict future success. If you know “X” has an 80% chance of happening and run the test 100 times, you’ll get X very close to 80 times. Yet something interesting happens when taken on a small scale. If you do that experiment once, there is an 80% chance “X” will result. But the result has only two outcomes, either it will happen or it won’t. It’s doesn’t 80% happen on one try. The result is 100% or 0%. Probability tells you what is likely to happen, but on a sample of one there can only be one outcome.
Which leads us back to 1st and goal on the 7, down 5. In the redzone on the year, the Niners scored a touchdown 54.69% of the time. Probability says the Niners would have scored. What does that number really tell us though? To this point in the playoffs, the Niners scored a touchdown in the redzone 9 out of 13 times, or 69% of the time. With such a potent offense in the postseason, victory looked like a sure thing. But clearly a closer look into the numbers is warranted.
Of the 9 redzone touchdowns the Niners scored in the postseason, 7 were on the ground. That doesn’t seem very significant until you look at the man running the show, Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is extraordinary in almost every facet of his game. He is accurate, has a quick release, and has a strong arm. His ability to make throws down the field is a huge reason the Niners were able to come back from those first half deficits. That’s not even mentioning his running ability, and his 181 yards against the Packers – most by a QB in NFL history – testify to that claim. The one hole in Kaepernick’s game is his inability to score touchdowns throwing the ball in the redzone.
And the Ravens, even on their heels for the last 2 quarters, knew it.
On the season in the redzone, Kaepernick’s passer rating was 80.3. Inside the 10 yard line, it was 61.1. The whole year Kaepernick struggled mightily completing passes to receivers in the redzone, completing under half his attempts. The Niners were still able to score touchdowns decently well on a whole with a solid run game and run-option game, as Kaepernick had 7 rushing touchdowns from within the 20. For most of the second half the Ravens just couldn’t stop Kaepernick. Even though every statistic suggested the Niners were going to score a touchdown on the drive and most likely win the game, the Ravens took away the middle by stuffing the line and forced Kaep to throw, increasing their probability of success as best they could. The Ravens, knowing his weakness, exploited it for the 3 most important passes of the game. Because regardless of the probability of scoring, it either happens or it doesn’t. And it didn’t. Give the Ravens credit for that.
As with anything in life, you can only try to increase the probability of success. And that starts with learning and adapting appropriately. Kaepernick is a great story of that, because no matter what mistakes he makes, he learns from them. After every interception he threw this year, soon after he scored a touchdown. Against the Saints, Kaepernick was picked off at the end of the 2nd quarter. He threw a TD to Gore at the start of the 3rd. Against the Patriots, Kaep threw a pick in the 3rd. After a Gore TD, Kaep then threw for one to Crabtree. Against the Packers, after throwing a pick Kaep rushed for a TD the drive after. He learns and comes back better.
This is the most critical asset in any football player. Failure will happen. It is an absolute certainty. All you can do is work your hardest to decrease the chances of failure and increase the chances of success. Because in each instance, and each play, you don’t know which one it will be. But it will for sure be one of the two. That’s the beauty of football over any other sport. Everything matters more. There’s fewer games, fewer plays, and fewer situational opportunities. The playoffs are Game 7 every game.
More than wishing for those 3 throws back, Kaepernick wishes he had just one more. Because next time, he’ll only need one.