Monday, February 11, 2013

50 Years in Cards: The Future

What is it: 2007 Bowman Draft Picks & Prospects #BDPP14, Travis d'Arnaud

What makes it interesting: The period of time between 1978 and 1982 has been mostly known as the Black Hole of Mets Baseball. There hasn't been much debate about it being the worst era in Mets History. That period of time was so hopeless that the Mets often closed the Upper Deck at Shea Stadium because it just wasn't worth it.

The period of time between 2009 and the present day could rival that era as far as dreariness and hopelessness. The Mets opened a brand new ballpark and immediately fell flat on their faces, as ownership and management bumbled their way through an endless string of injuries and financial issues. They never did close the Promenade Level at Citi Field, although there were multiple occasions where they probably wouldn't have been blamed for doing so (rather than shutter the level completely, they often simply shuttered the concession stands and let fans sit there and starve). I'm restating the obvious, but it's been a difficult few years to be a Mets fan. It's gotten to the point where the high hopes of Opening Day have basically been non-existent; everyone knows that the best the Mets can hope for in 2013 is probably a .500 record and a 4th place finish.

Yet with Spring Training officially underway for 2013 today, I can't help but feel somewhat optimistic about the Mets. Not because of the present, but because of the future. Much like the down years of the late 70s and early 80s gave way to a run of success, it's not outlandish to believe that these Mets are on a similar course. The Mets won't turn any corners in 2013, and I don't think anyone believes otherwise. But a number of calculated trades and high draft picks are beginning to take over the team, and the Mets are banking on them to lead the Mets back to respectability. Travis d'Arnaud is one such prospect. Though the Mets acquired d'Arnaud in a mostly unpopular trade for R.A. Dickey, the motives of the trade couldn't be questioned. The Mets, in 2013, will still be shedding some bad contracts and dead weight. R.A. Dickey, though an undeniable Fan Favorite, was also unfortunately the Mets most marketable commodity: A Cy Young Award winner at the top of his game. The Mets could have kept Dickey, but it wouldn't have done them any good in 2013. Dickey won 20 games in 2012, but that didn't translate to team-wide success. Instead, he helped the Mets by proving himself valuable enough for the Blue Jays to part with d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, another prospect who, though still a couple of years off, also holds a bit of upside.

d'Arnaud, to this point, has only distinguished himself by twice being dealt for Cy Young winners. A 2007 draft pick of the Phillies, d'Arnaud went to Toronto in the Roy Halladay trade in 2010. He's had multiple seasons derailed by injuries, but when healthy, he's managed to hit for both average and power, and proven himself a capable Catcher. This has been enough for to name him the #6 prospect in Baseball. It has been enough for d'Arnaud's arrival in Port St. Lucie to be met with more than just a little fanfare. It's not what may happen this year that has fans excited. It's what's about to happen. It's the feeling that after so many lousy years, the Mets may finally be ready to turn the corner. The era of Jason Bays, Manny Acostas, Pat Mischs and Josh Tholes are done. The era of go-nowhere kids like Jeremy Hefner and Collin McHugh are going. It will be players like d'Arnaud, along with Zach Wheeler, Matt Harvey and Syndergaard who hold the future for the Mets.

Though d'Arnaud may not begin the season with the Mets, he's probably going to be in New York before too long. What happens from there is anyone's guess. But if the calculated gamble Sandy Alderson took in acquiring him pays off, he should be here for quite some time. It may not work, but for now, it's something worth getting a little excited about. Optimism isn't a feeling that's existed for the Mets in several years.

Card back:

Monday, February 4, 2013

Dream On

I talked last week about the tradition of Champions the 49ers had created for themselves in the 1980s and 1990s, and how it's endured through to the next generation of the franchise. The 49ers had a chance to add to that heritage on Sunday night in Super Bowl XLVII, and place themselves alongside the legends of Super Bowls past. But after once again falling far behind their opponent only to charge back in the second half, they came up five yards short of one final miracle, falling to the Baltimore Ravens 34-31.

I don't know, for the non-football audience, if there's an equivalent Mets loss that can compare to this. Maybe Game 6 in Atlanta in 1999 is close, but it's impossible to compare Baseball and Football, and I'm too much of a carcass to attempt to do so. It's taken me this long to be able to form coherent enough thoughts to write out here. To call my feelings about this somber would be an understatement. After spending most of last offseason randomly thinking about their loss to the Giants in the Championship game and what might have been, I've now got to look forward to another offseason, thinking about a close game that came down to a few plays, a few missed opportunities, and a loss that will rankle me for the next several months. Yes, I'll cheer up in a day or two and everything will get back to normal. Yes, I'll also spend a lot of time reflecting on what a great season this was, and the wild ride that took the Niners all the way down to the Super Bowl, but they couldn't bring home that 6th title. The legacy of the 49ers, to have made it to the Super Bowl so many times and always managed to emerge victorious, is now tainted. And that sucks. Many people seem to have the prevailing thought that in many ways, it's better to not make it to the Super Bowl altogether than it is to go there and lose it. A loss in the Super Bowl, constantly the most-watched sporting event of the year, can brand you with a negative label, whether it's earned or not, that you'll constantly have to overcome. I've been through slews of shitty playoff losses, I've seen the Niners hang in and lose by a hair, and I've seen them get smoked. But I've never seen them lose quite like they did last night.

The 49ers came out and appeared ready to exchange punches with the Ravens. They fell behind early, but not so much that it concerned me. They'd been playing from behind every week. Nonetheless, they would have been wise to not let Baltimore get too far ahead. Their defense, even with their deficiencies, was better than Atlanta's. And Joe Flacco came out as strong as I'd expected. To win, the 49ers would have to move the ball and score often. But this appeared to fall apart in the 2nd quarter, when a pair of turnovers spelled instant disaster. First, LaMichael James' fumble, which killed a drive that appeared primed to end in points when he coughed it up struggling for yards in a scene similar to Michael Crabtree's fumble in Atlanta. That ended in a Baltimore touchdown. Then, Colin Kaepernick, who had been scintillating throughout the playoffs, made a rare mistake, tried to do a little too much and overshot Randy Moss and hit Ed Reed instead. That was when I started getting really worried. Kaepernick had just thrown the first Interception ever thrown by a 49ers Quarterback in the Super Bowl and it couldn't have come at a worse time. Baltimore's possession that time ended with a fake Field Goal that probably would have ended with a Touchdown had Patrick Willis not snuffed it out. But Baltimore got their touchdown the next time out courtesy of Jacoby Jones, who basically did an excellent job of making Chris Culliver look like even more of a chump than Culliver had made himself look on the way to a 56-yard score and a 21-6 Ravens lead at the half. Jacoby Jones followed with a haymaker after halftime, running back the opening kickoff 108 yards for another score that, as far as I was concerned, may as well have put the lights out on the game. They had committed far too many mistakes and minor as they may have been, they had begun to add up to disaster.

Down 28-6, the 49ers probably couldn't have been blamed for lying down. But true to the form that got them to this point, they did not. Following the bewildering power outage that did little more than give me time to stew over this mess, the 49ers regrouped, got their asses in gear, and began to fight back. And they fought back fast. Within mere minutes, 28-6 had become 28-23 and all of a sudden everyone was back into this thing. And it was all generated by Colin Kaepernick.

It wasn't so much that Kaepernick played particularly badly in the first half. He may have had moments where he didn't relax, which had been his undoing in certain instances, but I can't recall more than 2 or 3 bad throws out of him all day. He wasn't helped by a number of drops from his receivers. But there's just something about Kaepernick. When he gets the offense going, it appears to energize the entire team. You can see it happening. He hit Crabtree for the 49ers first touchdown and immediately, the 49ers Defense came to life and stopped the Ravens cold, even forcing a fumble from Ray Rice. The touch was back on his passes and the 49ers began ripping through the Baltimore Defense. You can say whatever you want about Kaepernick now, and I suppose people already have. Bill Cowher even went on CBS during the power outage and called for Alex Smith. That wasn't ever going to happen. If there was any Quarterback who could have led the 49ers back into the game, it sure as hell wasn't Alex Smith. Kaepernick had gotten them this far and he damn near brought them all the way back once again. As far as I'm concerned, Colin Kaepernick's performance bordered on Heroic. This team respects and loves him so much that when he kicks it into gear, it feels like the entire team kicks in with him. And that's exactly what happened in the 3rd Quarter Sunday night.

The game from there was the back and forth I'd expected. The 49ers got a Touchdown from Gore and a Field Goal from Akers (who shut everyone up by hitting all 3 Field Goals he attempted) before the Ravens finally responded. But by that point, the 49ers had begun to generate enough on defense to slow down, if not stop completely, the Ravens attack. Now, they were the ones getting the Field Goals. The 4th Quarter began with one for Baltimore, but the 49ers responded by zipping right down the field for another Touchdown, this one from Kaepernick himself on a 15-yard scramble that put the 49ers within a 2-point conversion of tying the game at 31. But the Ravens came on an all-out blitz on the conversion, forcing Kaepernick to throw the ball away.

Baltimore kicked another Field Goal on their final drive, aided by a Pass Interference penalty on Chris Culliver and an offsides call. Little things that hurt. So with the score 34-29, and about 4 minutes to go, the 49ers had one final chance to get the ball into the End Zone, erase the deficit, erase the Ravens and bring home a Title. Colin Kaepernick had done it all to this point, and now here was his Joe Montana moment. As he had all second half, Kaepernick threaded passes with precision. Frank Gore, suddenly energized in the second half, came up with a pair of key runs. The Ravens defense was gassed. It was all coming together, just as I saw Joe Montana do it so many years before. Colin Kaepernick was going to pull off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl History and put his name alongside the NFL's elite...

...They came up five yards short.

There were many questions after the game, and it may be some time before they get answered. The 49ers committed a myriad of mistakes that offset the fact that they out-gained the Ravens by over 100 yards of offense, and offset the fact that Colin Kaepernick threw for over 300 yards, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree caught over 100 yards worth of passes and Frank Gore ran for over 100 yards. When that kind of production happens and you lose, you probably screwed up badly in other places.

The 49ers defense was abysmal through the first half, and when they really needed a stop in the 4th Quarter, they couldn't get it. The problem isn't the players, it's the depth. The 49ers have made it through the season rarely substituting on defense. The guys were just gassed. And without experienced backups, that becomes a liability.

The play calling, both early and late, was terrible. The final series for the 49ers will probably be scrutinized for weeks to try to figure out what they could have done differently to make up those 5 yards that they couldn't get. The final 3 plays were all passing plays. That probably shouldn't have happened. Where was Frank Gore? Gore had run up 110 yards for the game, most of them in the 4th Quarter. The 49ers had particular success running Gore on misdirection plays away from the action, and besides the point, Gore's strength is his ability to weave his way through tacklers. Where was a designed roll out for Kaepernick? Where was Vernon Davis (Bill Barnwell on Grantland noted that this would have been a perfect spot for the same Vernon Post play that won them the Saints game last year), who had been similarly unstoppable? Three consecutive pass plays directed at the same receiver, Michael Crabtree, though perhaps high-percentage, didn't play to Kaepernick's particular strength and also really wasn't the kind of play calling that got the 49ers to that point.

Whether or not Crabtree was the victim of a helmet-to-helmet hit on 3rd down, or held on 4th down is immaterial. Bad officiating and non-calls are a regular occurrence in the NFL. The 49ers were also done in by some penalties that they richly deserved. The referees did a bad job, but the play on 4th down—Crabtree was held by Jimmy Smith—is almost always never called. It wasn't called on NaVorro Bowman in the Championship game, either. My feeling is that the 49ers are less sore losers than simply frustrated from how close they came to winning this game. Or maybe that's just what I'd like to believe. Either way, them's the breaks. I can't get too bent out of shape about it because it shouldn't have come down to that. There's plenty of other things to be bent out of shape about.

For the second season in a row, the 49ers have made a deep playoff run that ended with an excruciating loss. That it's come after so many years of losing is a testament to what Jim Harbaugh has brought to the team—yes, often at the expense of classiness, but the NFL is about winning games, not pleasing the press—and they have the pieces in place for continued success. The 2012 season brought Colin Kaepernick to the forefront as the future of the 49ers at Quarterback. Though he was up and down in his first half-season as a starter, he showed his stuff on the biggest of stages and although last night wasn't his time to shine brightest, he proved he belongs. He's got limitless potential and clearly, he's the future of the 49ers. The remaining core pieces of the team, Gore, Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Delanie Walker, DaShon Goldson and Andy Lee will all be back. Many of them are still young and entering the prime of their careers.

But youth and talent doesn't guarantee continued success. That's the nature of the NFL. That's why I said every Championship season is special and precious and the opportunity to be in the Super Bowl shouldn't ever be taken for granted. The 49ers were perilously close to not even winning the NFC West this season, or being stuck without a 1st round bye. Who's to say that the Seahawks, who were up the Niners' asses all season, don't continue to ascend and prove an even tougher opponent than last year? The St. Louis Rams also improved by leaps and bounds. Outside the division, there's plenty of other teams that can cause plenty of headaches. That doesn't even account for injuries and other teams adjusting to the 49ers style of play. Sometimes, making the Super Bowl is the worst thing that can happen to a team, win or lose. It leads to the assumption that you're probably good enough. The hope is that the 49ers realize that they're only good enough to compete for a Championship. There's still pieces that can be added, particularly for depth, something that's often overlooked.

No, there's nothing to be ashamed about. They just fell behind too far too early and ran out of time. Their defense couldn't account for the buzzsaw that Joe Flacco had become and their play calling lacked variety at a key moment. They were behind 22 points and damn near made it up. The point is, it's a bitch and a half to have come all this way for two years in a row, battle hard through two seasons, overcome a really bitter playoff defeat, stay mostly healthy and make it all the way back, get to the Super Bowl and lose. Last year, the 49ers used their defeat in the Championship Game to rally them all the way back and into the Super Bowl. But 5 yards away from bringing home the ultimate prize, they fell short. And for the second year in a row, I'll have to spend the offseason thinking about what might have been.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bring It Home

It shouldn't be that difficult to figure out who I'm picking to win Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, but the reason for my selection goes deeper than my allegiance. The 49ers and the Ravens appear pretty evenly matched, much moreso than most Super Bowls tend to be.

Usually, when the 49ers have been in the Super Bowl, I've felt fairly confident that the 49ers are going to win the game. Super Bowl XXIX was a pretty good example of this. The 49ers were far and away better than the San Diego Chargers, and the 18 1/2 point spread was indicative of that. Basically, come game day, I felt that there was no earthy way the 49ers wouldn't win, and I was right. The Chargers never posed a serious threat and the 49ers cruised to a 49-26.

This season, I believe the 49ers are a better team than the Ravens, but they're not so much better that the game is a mismatch. Just about everything I've read and seen and heard over the two weeks of hype leading up to the game has proven that although the 49ers are favored by 3 1/2 points, it's really anyone's game.

The Ravens come into this Super Bowl riding an emotional high that's been centered around their retiring superstar Ray Lewis. They've overcome some pretty heavy obstacles to get here. I didn't pick them in any of their 3 playoff games, and they shut me up by winning all 3. Prior to the Wildcard Round, I ridiculed their Quarterback, Joe Flacco, as a wimp, and he's shut me up by playing some of the best Football of his life. They beat the Colts at home pretty convincingly. On the road in Denver, in an impossible situation, they won again thanks to a miracle Touchdown pass from Flacco to Jacoby Jones and their defense's ability to force Peyton Manning into making a key mistake in Overtime. They capped off their journey with another impressive road victory in New England, where they just laid down the hammer on Tom Brady in the second half of the game and coasted home from there. Flacco has proven himself capable of any challenge and unflappable in a difficult situation, and his play is really the reason they've made it to the Super Bowl. He's going to be a major challenge for the 49ers. Ray Rice has played well, but it's been the play of their receivers, specifically Jones and Torrey Smith, and Anquan Boldin, who has really raised his game to another level after a subpar regular season.

They'll be facing a 49ers defense that really got lit up by Matt Ryan and the Falcons in the Championship game, and took a half to really get going against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Their pass rush holds the key to this game. Ever since Justin Smith injured his triceps against New England, it hasn't been the same. Aldon Smith, who set a club record with 19 1/2 sacks this season, hasn't had one since Smith got injured. Though Justin Smith is back, he's clearly not 100%, and it's allowed opposing Quarterbacks to put up some gaudy numbers against them. However, in spite of this, the 49ers have been able to get stops when they absolutely had to. Though they were in a real dogfight in the Green Bay game, they eventually wore down the Packers' offensive line in the 3rd quarter, slowing down Rodgers enough for the offense to put the game out of reach. In Atlanta, they barely laid a hand on Ryan, but come the second half, they forced him into a pair of turnovers, and once they got the lead, they came up with a huge 4th down stop in the closing minutes to seal the victory. Even with their pass rush suffering, guys like NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown raised their game enough to compensate. Patrick Willis, of course, has always been on another level. One huge thing the 49ers have been able to do all season has been that even when they allow a receiver to make a catch, they've usually tackled him right there and prevented a bigger gain.

Though the 49ers have built their reputation on defense these past two years, it's been the offense that has stolen the show in the Playoffs. It's all revolved around Colin Kaepernick, who has proven himself a serious threat no matter what he does with the ball. The Packers tried to muscle up against their running backs, so Kaepernick simply ran around them. The Falcons tried to cut off the edges of the field to prevent him from running, so instead he handed off to Frank Gore and LaMichael James and let them do the damage. And neither of those teams did a very good job of stopping him from throwing the ball, whether it was to Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss or Vernon Davis.

The Ravens defense did a good job against all of their playoff opponents, particularly New England. But all of their opponents had problems running the ball against them, which allowed them to key in on stopping the Quarterback. They haven't faced someone quite as multifaceted as Kaepernick, and the 49ers tandem of Frank Gore and LaMichael James (who has emerged as a star-in-waiting this postseason). The Colts didn't have it with Donald Brown and what's-his-face, the Broncos backs were unimpressive, and they just knocked Stevan Ridley out cold in the Championship. Gore and James will prove a bit more formidable a test. The other problem they have is that, unlike the 49ers, who boast a lot of youth and speed on defense, the Ravens defense is comprised mostly of veterans who are entering the latter stages of their careers. Ray Lewis doesn't have the sideline-to-sideline speed he once had, and if he matches up one-on-one with Vernon Davis, that's going to be a problem. Their pass rush has been spotty, too. The key for the Ravens on defense, much like for the 49ers, will be if they can generate a pass rush against a 49ers Offensive Line that's been great all season. The other key will be if their Linebackers and Secondary can prevent the 49ers from turning the short pass into the big gain. Though the 49ers were able to open up a much more vertical passing game with Kaepernick at the helm than they were with Alex Smith, they still rely on the quick passes and short routes an awful lot.

Special Teams is something else that could rear its ugly head on both sides. The Ravens kick coverage team has had its share of problems. They allowed a pair of kick returns for Touchdowns against Denver. Though Ted Ginn, Jr, hasn't been as explosive as he has been in years past, he's still a threat, and LaMichael James has also performed well returning kickoffs. Jacoby Jones on the Ravens side has been very solid. But the biggest wildcard of the game is David Akers for the 49ers. An elite Kicker for years, Akers has struggled with injuries and inconsistency all season, to the point where he's now a major liability. He missed an eminently makeable Field Goal in Atlanta. His confidence appears completely shot and the 49ers already attempted to bring in another Kicker to compete for the job, but that didn't work. Many have questioned why Akers wasn't cut outright, but the real reason is that most out-of-work Kickers are out of work for a reason: They're not very good. If the game comes down to a Field Goal, that's a sticky situation. If Akers misses a Field Goal early, it calls the way the 49ers play out the rest of the game into question. I have the feeling that the 49ers may go for it on 4th down more than once in this game. The hope is that it won't come down to that. One thing that the 49ers have done well, particularly with Kaepernick at Quarterback, is finishing off their drives with Touchdowns rather than settling for Field Goals.

One intangible thing I've noticed amid the hype-fest is the focus of the two teams. Ever since the 49ers won the Championship, the focus has been on prepping and planning to win the Super Bowl. That seems to be the singular focus across the team, outside of an ill-advised comment from Chris Culliver, and an outrageous statement from Randy Moss that may have been done to draw attention away from his teammates so they can focus and prepare, and onto himself, since he's used to all sorts of media attention anyway. On the other hand, the Ravens appeared to be more interested in junking the Patriots and complaining, be it Flacco talking about next year's Super Bowl in New Jersey, or Bernard Pollard whining about fines, rather than discussing the game, and what's besides the point is that Ray Lewis is the only player anyone seems interested in saying anything about, whether it's good or bad. As a team, their focus has come off really weird. This may be another one of my ridiculous observations, and may mean nothing, but it's something worth noticing.

Putting it all together, I think this is the 49ers game. They have the players that can control the tempo of the game, and the kind of rhythm on both sides of the ball that, when they're working well, can slowly but surely wear down their opponent. This is how they've won in the Playoffs, by wearing down their opponent. Even when they've started slow, they haven't panicked, they stuck to their game plan and remained patient enough for the games to work back into their favor. Two major things that can't be coached, youth and speed, are on their side. Two weeks ago, I said that they played this entire season to get to the Championship game and win, so that they could go forward and win the Super Bowl. The chance is right there for them, and I believe they will go out on Sunday and grab it.
Prediction: 49ers 30, Ravens 23