By the fifth week of the 1972 NFL season, the Miami Dolphins were feeling good. They were 5-0, had the best offense and defense in the NFL, their players were over the sting of losing Super Bowl VI to the Dallas Cowboys and everything seemed to be going according to plan. Until it wasn’t.
Facing the San Diego Chargers at home, Miami quarterback Bob Griese was tackled by defensive lineman Deacon Jones, breaking his right leg and dislocating his ankle. As the cart removed Griese from the field and 38-year-old Earl Morrall jogged on, many felt the Dolphins’ chances of returning to the Super Bowl were long gone. With Griese expected to be out at least two months, how could the Fins survive? Not only did they survive, but they also became the only undefeated Super Bowl champion. (Side note: Despite the undefeated season, and having the best offense and defense in football, the Dolphins were a two-point dog to the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII. Even the bookmakers believed they had no chance.)
Brian Griese, the quarterbacks coach of the 49ers, knows all about this story, having heard the tales from his father. He also knows football is a team sport, and yes, while the quarterback position is vitally important, it is still possible to win a title with a great defense and a solid kicking game. Defense can still win championships and even though the 49ers lost their starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, they can still fulfill their dreams of winning the title. All is not lost.
Now, I am not suggesting that Brock Purdy is the next Morrall. Morrall was 38 and on his sixth NFL team, but he was once a great player. The league MVP in 1968 and two-time Pro Bowler, he understood the game. He understood his strengths and weakness and never attempted to play outside his comfort zone. The Dolphins relied on their run game, threw the ball on average 16 times per game and let their defense win the game. Yes, the rules were more favorable to the defense in 1972, but in 2000 when the Ravens won their Super Bowl, they used the same Dolphins formula. It’s a formula that has stood the test of time in the NFL and has worked recently. Play great defense, don’t turn the ball over, have timely offense and control field position. Do you think the 2016 Broncos were a great offense? No chance. Peyton Manning was a shell of his former greatness and their defense carried the day.
My point is don’t fade the 49ers. And don’t buy the idea of Baker Mayfield saving the day for anyone. Has anyone making that comment watched Mayfield play this season? All year Mayfield never looked like the 2019 version of himself as he had difficulty completing easy passes for the Panthers. Had he played halfway decent, the Panthers might be in first place in the bad NFC South. Instead, the Rams are his next stop.
The 49ers still have wonderful assets on offense. All their skill players are great with the ball in their hands gaining yards after the catch, thus short easy throws can become long gains. They can run the ball on any team and head coach Kyle Shanahan will make the game easy for the quarterback. If they get behind by two scores in the second half, then it will be challenging for them to win, but playing from behind was never their strength even with Garoppolo. They must stay attached to their opponent, and with their defense, they can easily accomplish that goal.
With five games remaining, the 49ers will not catch the Philadelphia Eagles for home-field advantage in the playoffs, as no one will. The 49ers will win at least three of the remaining five on the strength of their defense and host a playoff game. Therefore, the next five games will serve as a blueprint for them to understand what they can expect from Purdy or Josh Johnson and how they must modify their offense to ensure their best players are getting the ball. I know Shanahan’s record without Garoppolo is horrible, but this team with the addition of Christian McCaffrey at running back seems more capable of offsetting deficiencies at quarterback. Time will tell — but I am still all in on the Niners.
Week 13 thoughts
Tom Brady is amazing. With another comeback Monday night, he not only kept the Bucs alive, but has them in control of winning the weak NFC South. I am still not sold on the Bucs — and Monday night was further evidence that they are not a quality team. Had Saints running back Mark Ingram gotten a late first down, instead of running out of bounds untouched, the Saints would have been able to run two more minutes off the clock and potentially kick another field goal. Ingram appeared to have pulled a hamstring and went out of bounds when he clearly could have had the first down. The Bucs were not good Monday night, just really lucky and I am not sure they can continue this lucky streak.
The Bengals are peaking at the right time, and not only is Joe Burrow in the MVP conversation, but their team toughness is also impressive. The Bengals have adopted Burrows’ competitive nature and much like last season when they went on their end-of-the-year run, the offense is protecting the ball. Since committing five turnovers in the opener against the Steelers, the Bengals have given the ball away only seven times. And I don’t expect a letdown against the Browns this week — as the Bengals will want to revenge their Week 8 loss.
The Eagles showed us they can play left-handed and win. Facing a tough Tennessee run defense, the Eagles altered their approach and threw the ball, allowing quarterback Jalen Hurts to shine. Their talented offensive line allows them be flexible with their game plan, and if Hurts throws the ball as well as he did Sunday, the Birds will be a tough team for any NFC team to beat. Other than San Francisco and Dallas, the Eagles’ real competition will come from the AFC.
Baltimore must be realistic with its offensive approach. The Ravens’ passing game, with or without Lamar Jackson, is poorly designed. They rank 27th in passing attempts and 26th in yards. They will need more from their passing game to beat good teams. When the Ravens had the best offense in football in 2019 and Lamar was the MVP, they still ranked 32 in attempts and 27th in yards gained. Over the last three years they have not improved. When will they alter their strategy?
I love Mike Tomlin. Telling that fan “I’m f’ing workin’” was classic. Tomlin’s teams get better and better and even though they are not as talented, he makes them tougher and prepares them for how to win the game each week. They are not flashy or a playoff contender, but no team with playoff aspirations wants to face them now. Watch out, Baltimore.
At what point does Houston trigger a complete do-over? This week they are a 17-point dog to the Cowboys and over the last two seasons there hasn’t been one sign of progress — not one. In his last eight years as a head coach, two in Tampa Bay, five at the University of Illinois and this season, Lovie Smith is 26-73-1. Unlike Tomlin’s team, the Texans have gotten worse as the season has progressed. Can they continue to stay the course? I cannot imagine.
Chargers head coach Brendon Staley is supposed to be a defensive guru. Yet after two seasons we haven’t seen evidence of his defensive acumen. Last year they ranked 29th in points allowed, this year 30th. Last year, 32nd on third down, this year 25th. Last year 23rd in yards allowed and this year 25th. Only his red-zone defense has significantly improved, going from 26th last season to seventh this year. For the record, when Anthony Lynn coached the Chargers, they were 23 in points allowed and 10th in yards. If the Chargers don’t fix this problem, they will waste the talents of QB Justin Herbert. The next two games will determine the Chargers’ season as they face Miami and Tennessee. They close the year heading to Indy and facing the Rams at home before ending the season in Denver. They should win three of the next five and if they can split the next two at home, they can get to 10 wins. With a defense as bad as theirs, none of those next five games will be easy.