How Bad Play-Calling Cost the San Francisco 49ers the Super Bowl
Did the refs get the call right? Was it defensive holding? Was it a good no-call?
People will debate that for weeks. No matter how you look at it, it was bad play-calling at the end of the game that led to the San Francisco 49ers' 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.
Throughout the entire second half, the Niners were nearly unstoppable. Watching them cruise up and down the field and assault a worn-out Baltimore Ravens defense with great play-calling had 49ers fans jumping for joy.
With just under three minutes left and the 49ers inside the 10-yard line, the almighty San Francisco machine was about to put the finishing touches on the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.
Then, as quickly as that moment came, it passed thanks to awful play-calling.
1st-and-Goal: LaMichael James Up the Middle
On 1st-and-goal, the Niners ran the ball up the middle with backup running back LaMichael James.
With Frank Gore on the sidelines catching his breath after ripping off a long run on the previous play, Greg Roman figured James' fresh legs would give the 49ers some sort of spark.
The result? A poorly designed play that led a small running back directly into a wall of big, hungry Ravens defenders.
Here are the key problems with this call on 1st-and-goal:
1. With Frank Gore clearly gassed, how do you bring in LaMichael James and not run some sort of option or counter play?
James isn't Gore. He's not going to carry the ball up the gut and back a defense up. He's just not that type of runner.
Your only hope for James to break through up the middle is that he finds some sort of crease and slips through it for a big gain. But when you're that close to the end zone, you have to understand as a play-caller that the Ravens are going to clog up those lanes by any means necessary.
2. The lack of creativity was shocking.
James needs open space to inflict maximum damage.
The read-option was working wonders, so why not plug James in for that situation and take a chance?
Sure, the Niners ran the ball out of their diamond formation, but there was no zone-read element to complement it. It was a generic "pound the rock up the middle" play.
Had they gotten James the ball using a more creative approach (like they did versus the Falcons in the NFC title game), the outcome could have been different.
All in all, this first call was just dreadful. And it became a sign of things to come for the rest of the drive.
2nd-and-Goal: Sprint Right Option
Roman seemed to give up on the run after James was stuffed on 1st-and-goal. Even with Gore back on the field, the second play called on that final drive was a pass play.
Taking the snap from the shotgun, Colin Kaepernick rolled out to his right and tried to execute a classic 49ers play: the sprint right option. Roman dialed up the same play that gave us "The Catch" all those years back in hopes his offense would have similar success.
The result this time? Kaepernick bootlegged right and found nobody open and zero room to run. That led him to force a ball to Michael Crabtree that was broken up with relative ease.
Look, the play itself is a wonderfully designed one. But when you have been pounding the Ravens on the ground all drive long, why would you not give Gore a chance to run?
If not Gore, then at least give Kaepernick a chance to find his own space to run.
By calling a sprint right option, you are giving the defense an advantage in such close quarters. They know where the play is going, and they will attack that side with pressure and intense coverage.
If Roman was going to call a pass play, call it out of the Pistol. That way the defense is automatically forced to think run, giving Kaepernick a chance to make a throw in a big situation.
3rd-and-Goal: Under Center Pass to the Flat
On 3rd-and-goal, it was clear the 49ers were in dire straits. They needed some sort of yardage to give them any shot at winning the Super Bowl.
With the Ravens set on defending the pass, Roman reached into his playbook and decided on calling an under center pass to Crabtree in the flat.
Already having a tough time executing on third downs up to that point (2-of-8 before that play), the 49ers should have realized they would need to call something more creative to give a struggling offense a chance.
Instead, they snapped the ball and fired a quick outlet pass to Crabtree in the flat, which was broken up with ease by the Ravens defense.
The 49ers had just run a sprint right option attempting to find a crease on the right side of the field through the air. And guess what? It didn't work.
Why Roman called such a similar play right after that is baffling.
Knowing this was going to be four-down territory, why not give Gore a chance to collect some yards by either calling a draw play, using the read-option or just pounding the rock out of the jumbo formation?
Calling an under center, quick-release pass on 3rd-and-goal is inexcusable in any game. Especially in the Super Bowl.
4th-and-Goal: Lob Pass to Michael Crabtree
With the game on the line and the play-calling in shambles, the 49ers dialed up a lob pass to Crabtree on 4th-and-goal.
A classic red-zone play, the lob to Crabtree wasn't a terrible call. But location and timing doomed the play from the start.
All game long, the 49ers were having success throwing down the middle of the field. So much, in fact, that not once did Kaepernick sit back and unleash a back-shoulder toss to any of his receivers on the sideline or in the end zone.
When you sit back and throw a lob to a receiver in the corner of the end zone, it's a tough throw to make. When you throw that same pass on 4th-and-goal in the Super Bowl, it's an almost impossible throw to make.
When Kaepernick released the ball, you could tell that he was not confident in making that kind of toss. Especially to the right side of the field—the same side that had been shut down on the previous two plays.
Defensive holding or not, a lob to Crabtree with the game on the line is a tough call to make when your quarterback is inexperienced making those types of throws.