The most compelling divisional playoff matchup features the Saints and the 49ers. Two 13-3 teams, two division winners. One expected, the other a surprise. The game is fascinating and significant because it transcends this singular moment in the 2011 season. In a very real sense it reflects the evolution of NFL football over the last 3-4 decades.
1978 was the turning point. It was the year in which the rules were changed to encourage more passing, and more points. The quarterback became the focal point. Offense gradually shifted from a running foundation to a passing foundation. What we saw in 2011, with 3 quarterbacks throwing for more than 5000 yards in a single season, was merely the culmination of this transition. It is now accepted that the NFL is a passing league, driven by high level quarterbacks who routinely throw 35-40 times a game, and often more.
The Saints exemplify this line of thinking. It starts with Drew Brees, but the progression has advanced much further. It highlights multiple personnel packages and formations (unheard of 20-30 years ago), creative utilization of an athletic tight in the passing game (Don Coryell was the first to do that with Kellen Winslow in 1979) and quick tempo and no huddle offense regardless of game situation. It’s fast break football orchestrated by the most important player on the field, the quarterback.
This is now the acknowledged way to compete, and win championships in the NFL. Top quarterbacks playing consistently well. Weapons all over the field, attacking from different positions. A selective running game that eats up yards. The ability to score 40 any given game, no matter the quality of the opponent. The quarterback, and the offense, compensate for, and camouflage defensive inconsistencies. It’s a belief that offense now drives championship football in this new wave NFL.
Then there are the 49ers. Their model in 2011: old school football. The running game, defense, special teams, turnover ratio. They are physical, efficient and relentless. It’s directly out of the 1970’s guide to winning in the NFL. The 49ers ran the ball more than any team in the NFC. Frank Gore and Kendell Hunter totaled almost 400 rushes and 1700 yards. Defensively, they allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league, only 77 per game. Run the ball. Stop the run. Defense wins championships. Football platitudes as sturdy as any through the decades, and ones many still grasp very strongly.
The 2011 Alex Smith fit this model beautifully. He attempted the fewest overall passes of any quarterback who started 16 games. The 49ers profile, and its consistent week-to-week execution, did not demand Smith throw more. He threw just 5 interceptions. No starting quarterback had fewer. It was a major reason the 49ers led the league in turnover differential with +28. And turnover differential is always one of the most important contributors to winning games.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Smith threw only 17 touchdown passes, the lowest number of any quarterback who started 16 games. (Brees led the NFL with 46). Even more telling in this era of passing was this statistic: Smith threw for less than 200 yards in 9 games. He was never asked, nor required based on game situation, to make throw-after-throw-after-throw to win. Smith was a puzzle piece on a complete team, and it can easily be argued that no coach did a better job than Jim Harbaugh balancing his offense, defense and special teams in a winning formula.
It’s why no game this weekend is more intriguing. It’s a battle for supremacy between the old and the new. The 1970s 49ers versus the new age Saints. One team built on enduring principles of football over many successful years, the other team prototypical of the changes that have evolved over time. One team with a complementary quarterback, the other with a lead quarterback. It’s a battle of history versus modernity for the right to play in the NFC Championship.