In football, one unwritten rule that coaches generally stick to is the following: when you can see & benefit from your opponents’ weaknesses, you go back to the well. John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, did not live by this rule after the blackout in Super Bowl XXLVII and nearly lost the game as a result.
The most glaring omission from the Raven’s play-calling in the second half was the long ball from Joe Flacco. In the first half, Flacco had aired out a long touchdown and several long completions with the San Francisco 49ers‘ secondary seemingly powerless to stop it. The Ravens’ receivers were getting behind the 49ers’ defenders, and it was allowing Flacco to air the ball out and not have to win the game solely with Ray Rice.
This isn’t necessarily the worst thing, but what made this a problem was that Flacco, the team’s quarterback, didn’t play as big a part as a quarterback in today’s NFL needs to play in his team’s offense.
During the second half of the Super Bowl, this same problem came up again. As the 49ers began to make their comeback, the Ravens engaged in a type of play-calling that a friend of mine refers to as “Tressel Ball.” For clarification, Tressel Ball is an extra-conservative form of play-calling involving running the ball done in a major or championship game that is a step or two down from what the team’s normal offensive play-calling produces.
Instead of continuing to pressure the 49ers’ secondary on possessions, the Ravens gave the ball to Rice and Bernard Pierce in an attempt to run off as much of the remaining time as possible. Under normal circumstances, this may have been a worthwhile strategy, and the lack of a 34-minute blackout could have vindicated it. However, with the blackout and the 49ers immediately going down the field and scoring, a momentum swing was plain as day, and the strategy Harbaugh decided to go with only helped the momentum swing further and further in favor of the 49ers.
If you want a practical reason for why Super Bowl XXLVII went from a blowout to a close struggle, this is it. Had the Ravens come out as aggressive as the 49ers and gone down the field and scored (even if it was just a field-goal), it would have made it much harder for the 49ers to stay in the game. Instead, the Ravens’ play-calling in the second half resulted in the 49ers starting two of their first three possessions post-blackout inside of Ravens territory.
The fact that they ended up outscoring the Ravens 25-6 after the blackout came as no surprise to me. Frankly, the fact that the 49ers didn’t end up completing the comeback and winning came as a surprise. The Ravens were in full self-destruct mode during the second half, but were able to pull themselves back from the edge literally right before it was too late.