The 2000 Ravens were not your typical Super Bowl championship team. They did not have a Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. Instead they had Trent Dilfer, the former first round pick that never met expectations. Does this situation sound familiar to current NFL fans?
What they did have, was what is considered one of the greatest NFL defenses of all time. What made their defense different from other defenses though, was that it was based on stopping the run and not the pass. Does it sound familiar to anyone on the west coast?
It also helped that they had a fifth-ranked rushing offense. OK, it should sound familiar by now.
The field general of the 2000 Ravens defense was none other than Ray Lewis. Fast forward 11 years and Ray Lewis is still leading the Ravens defense. He is 36 though, and has stated that this could be his last year playing. Because Lewis is nearing the end of the tunnel, many have asked who will succeed him. Lewis answered the question himself.
When asked by a reporter which linebacker reminded him the most of himself, Ray Lewis's answer was the 49ers own Patrick Willis. Patrick Willis is certainly qualified to be Lewis's successor. In his rookie year, Willis led the league in tackling and won defensive rookie of the year.
He has also won the award for NFL's best linebacker two years in a row and has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons. The only other 49er to do that is the Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott.
When evaluating Patrick Willis, it is almost impossible to find any weaknesses. He has perfect tackling form, his athleticism allows him to hold his own in coverage and he has shown flashes of pass rushing skills. Simply put, the 49ers have their version of Ray Lewis.
Like the 2000 Ravens defense, the 49ers have been historic against the run. They have yet to allow a 100 yard rusher for 28 straight games and haven't given up a rushing touchdown this season. And it's not like the 49ers run defense has had to stop slouches. They held LeSean McCoy, who was leading the NFL in yards per carry, to 18 yards.
The 49ers defense hasn't been perfect though. The defense ranks 22nd against the pass and with the exception of Carlos Rogers, the secondary is not very talented. The 49ers do not have a version of the Hall of Famer Ron Woodson, who played for the Ravens in 2000, in their safety unit.
The Ravens also had a pair of cornerbacks, Chris McAlister and Duane Starks, that combined for 10 interceptions in 2000. The cornerbacks playing across from Carlos Rogers have struggled.
That Ravens pass defense wasn't perfect either though. In fact it didn't even rank in the top five that year. However, with a defense that focused on stopping the run and broke the record for fewest rushing yards allowed in a season, it didn't need to be. The same applies to the 49ers pass defense.
Allowing few yards on the ground can put the opposing offense in a position of third and long situations. A third and long situation is much easier for the secondary to defend then a third and short. Especially with the 49ers promising rookie Aldon Smith and the rest of the 49ers fearsome pass rush breathing down the quarterbacks neck.
If the 49ers run defense maintains it's success, and the secondary can avoid giving up the deep ball on those long third downs, the defense can be good enough to take the 49ers deep in the post-season. Much like the Ravens defense did in 2000.
In 2000, the Ravens rush offense was also responsible for that Super Bowl trip. That Ravens offense ranked fifth in the league and the rookie Jamal Lewis rushed for over 1,300 yards. The 49ers rush offense through six games is ranked sixth and Frank Gore is on pace for more then 1,300 yards.
The Ravens also had Priest Holmes in the backfield to keep Lewis fresh. The 49ers have a backup by the name of Kendall Hunter that has shown he is capable of sharing carries with Gore. Lastly like the offense of the 2000 Ravens, the 49ers offense has depended on the running game.
Any offense that depends on the running game lacks excitement, and the 49ers offense has lacked just that in six games. But just because an offense is lackluster doesn't mean it isn't efficient. Even though the Ravens relied on their running game, they still ranked 14th in the league in points.
And despite being boring at times, the 49ers offense has been efficient and is ranked ninth in scoring. Any time you score a lot of points and have an elite defense to defend those points, you can guarantee yourself a victory.
An offense that depends on the running game gives the quarterback fewer responsibilities. Instead of being asked to throw the ball over 30 times, he's just asked to convert the occasional third down and not turn the ball over. They have a title for this kind of quarterback and it's called a 'game manager.' The 2000 Ravens had a 'game manager' in Trent Dilfer. And this 49ers team has one in Alex Smith.
As mentioned previously, Trent Dilfer was a top 10 draft pick that never met expectations. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had given up on Trent Dilfer and let him sign with the Baltimore Ravens. He initially was brought in to back up Tony Banks. However approaching the middle of the season the Ravens lost two straight games and the offense had gone four weeks without scoring an offensive touchdown. This prompted coach Brian Billick to bench Tony Banks in favor of Trent Dilfer.
Trent Dilfer didn't have an MVP season in 2000. In fact his quarterback rating was only 77. And he only threw for over 1,500 yards in 11 games, with the Raven pass offense being ranked 22nd. But he would break the Ravens touchdown-less streak and brought stability to the quarterback position. He also fulfilled his role as a game manager by minimizing the turnovers, only throwing 11 picks.
As a result, the Ravens would go on to win seven straight games to end the season. The Ravens carried this momentum into the playoffs and went on to the Super Bowl. And despite having arguably the worse quarterback to ever play in a Super Bowl, the Ravens won in an impressive fashion.
At the end of last season few thought Alex Smith would be back with the 49ers. He was a free agent and had been benched multiple times during the 2010 season. And like Trent Dilfer, he was a former top 10 pick that failed to meet expectations. But then the NFL went into lockout mode and the 49ers were left with few options for a replacement. Realizing this, Harbaugh and the 49ers made a one year offer to Alex Smith. Smith initially declined, but after meeting with Harbaugh he decided to sign.
Smith saw that for once in his career he'd have a head coach that knew how to run an offense. He also saw the signing as his last chance to prove to the 49ers that he wasn't a bust. And through six games, Alex Smith has made the most out of his last chance.
Alex Smith is not having an MVP season by any means. He's on pace to throw for only 2,500 yards, and the 49ers pass offense ranks 31st. But Smith has only thrown two interceptions and has been clutch when the 49ers have needed him to be.
Against the Eagles, Smith rallied the 49ers offense to come back from a 20 point deficit. Smith did not start off well against the Lions, missing open receivers and throwing an interception. But Smith showed mental toughness when his team was losing by four points with less then six minutes left.
Given such conditions, the 49ers needed Smith to get the offense in the red zone and he did just that. Three plays later though, it was fourth and goal and there was only two minutes left. The 49ers had to score a touchdown to have any chance of winning. Despite this difficult conversion Smith threw a touchdown pass to Delanie Walker, and the 49ers would go on to give the Lions their first loss.
The old Alex Smith would not have converted that fourth and goal. But the old Alex Smith also played on different 49er teams. Smith never played under an offensive minded coach. Smith has never played on a 49ers team with this good of a defense. And lastly, the old Alex Smith was burdened with heavy expectations of the first overall pick.
All the 49ers expect out of Alex Smith this year is to be a 'game manager.' Because of all of these differences Alex Smith has brought stability to a position that hasn't been stable since Jeff Garcia.
At 5-1 the 49ers have something special brewing. But because the 49ers are an unconventional contender many are still hesitant to consider the 49ers a Super Bowl contender.
Many of those same critics said the same about the unconventional 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Not much has changed in the league since 2000. It is still a passing league and the defense is still expected to stop the pass, not the run, first.
If the Baltimore Ravens were able to win the Super Bowl under those same conditions, why can't the 49ers?