The National Football League is one of the strongest entities in North America, and like all strong things that survive, they evolve. Even internally, we have the 32 NFL teams that are all fighting for the same exact thing - a Super Bowl Championship. Since its inception, the sport of football has grown and adapted to the times and evolved to the product we have today.
More recently than ever, the evolution of the game has seemed to be more geared towards making the NFL a passing league. Every team is more concerned about procuring a franchise quarterback for the next ten years, while running backs are now disposable and interchangeable. Defenses also receive less attention by the teams who are confident they can put up 40 points a game.
For every Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, there are a handful of Colt McCoy's, Matt Leinart's and Mark Sanchez's. There is no exact science to obtaining a Hall of Fame-caliber passer, or everyone would have one.
And while players like Brady, Rodgers and Brees are not going out of style, I do believe their team's philosophies are.
In 2011, Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers laid a new foundation for how to win football games. It comes with valuing all three phases of the game, (offense, defense & special teams), equally - something the Patriots, Packers and Saints do not (the Saints being more balanced than the other two). For this reason, barring a strong draft outside their team philosophy, none of them will be the Super Bowl Champions of the 2012 season.
I believe a well-rounded football team is the key to championships and dynasties. For the 49ers historically, their offense was widely applauded for bringing home 5 Lombardi Trophies, but for those who remember, their defenses were pretty commendable too.
The playoffs last season gave us a sneak preview to the new era of football rolling in. Both the Packers and Saints were eliminated; two heavy favorites to be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl that year. They were both eliminated by teams that played simplistic offense, but sound defense and special teams. And the Patriots got physically handled by the one of those same teams when they snuck past the Baltimore Ravens into the Super Bowl.
In 2011, the New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers led the NFL in total offense, in that order. They were the only three teams in the entire league to average 30+ points per game. What the head coaches of these teams seem to be forgetting is that football still needs to be played when their quarterbacks aren't on the field, and big-plays can happen in that period of time.
Harbaugh makes sure his 49ers are prepared for all three phases of the game, because he doesn't have a superstar gun-slinging quarterback. This may prove to be a blessing in disguise. The defense, the special teams and the run game all play intricate parts to bringing home a win every week. But for teams like New England, if Tom Brady has a bad day, the whole team has a bad day. If a defense is keyed in on removing what Brady is doing, they have nothing else to lean on at that point.
If Alex Smith is having a rough outing, there's Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Bruce Miller to get things going on the ground; even Ted Ginn Jr. contributes in that respect and now Brandon Jacobs. The 49ers have flow, creativity and a non-flinching game face that enables them to contend in every game.
If the 49ers offense as a whole can't seem to get going, the defense will continue to give them chances and maybe even put some points on the board themselves. This goes for the special teams as well, who have playmaking return men and arguably the best punter and kicker in the NFL in Andy Lee and David Akers. So whether it's points or field position, the 49ers are the best in the business at complementing their offense with great defense and special teams performance.
As I mentioned, the blessing in disguise: the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers have become complacent in their approach to offense. They sit very comfortably knowing who they have behind center. But for the teams who aren't blessed with these great passers, they have compensated by building strong all-around teams. I mention the Texans as the new power in the AFC, as I believe they will be if they stay healthy and add a wide receiver in the draft like they are expected to, they will overtake New England for supremacy in that conference.
But like the 49ers, the Texans have a strong run game, playmaking pass catchers, great overall defense and pretty capable special teams. And for quite a while, the 49ers offense suffered through hard times while the team added players to the defense. Through free agency, they've found starters in guys like Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner. And the 49ers have scored big-time in the draft with players like Patrick Willis, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Dashon Goldson.
By having to compensate for terrible quarterback production, the defense and special teams became acclimated to contributing more than the norm. When the quarterback production in San Francisco went from terrible to good in 2011, the 49ers finished with a 14-4 full season record. They ended in the NFC Championship after being 6-10 the year prior, simply by playing technique-based football in all three phases of the game.
The Niners had a small kick from the offense that they hadn't before, and it paid dividends because the defense and special teams was still overcompensating with great play.
While the Patriots, Packers and Saints will continue to have strong regular season records against the majority of mediocre teams, when the playoffs roll around, they will once again be outmatched by complete football teams. In 2012, the 49ers play the Patriots, Packers and Saints and I predict a 2-1 if not 3-0 record against that trio.
The 49ers had the 26th-ranked overall offense last year and proved to be the better team than the top three offenses with Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks. And it is because they are not one-dimensional, and take every phase of the game at it's value. I believe the 49ers are leading the new wave of strength teams on the rise.
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