The 49ers and Saints will share a field Saturday afternoon in San Francisco, but they aren’t playing the same game.
The Saints have evolved into the 21st century video game version of a football team. They are an extension of their quarterback. Drew Brees holds the controller, and the entire team is built around his skills.
Saints coach Sean Payton prizes continuity and smarts from his offensive players. He doesn’t just look for the best players; he looks for the best players that fit with Brees. Payton wants receivers that know exactly what Brees thinks when he sees certain coverages. Forget 40 times; the Saints value running backs that can catch, block, and line up in a variety of formations. Pierre Thomas isn’t the most skilled runner in the league, but he will never have to buy a beer again in New Orleans because he’s a great Brees sidekick.
New Orleans throws the ball in any game situation, any down and distance. They rank second in the NFL in pass attempts and 20th in rushing attempts despite mostly playing with the lead. They always attack, assuming that no lead or record is safe until the game ends. It’s a game that would be unrecognizable to Vince Lombardi.
Even the Saints defense is built around Brees. While New Orleans spends huge money on Brees’ offensive linemen, the team saves under the cap with an opportunistic defense. New Orleans knows it’s impossible to build a complete team in the salary cap era, so they really don’t try. This is the old Colts model. The job of the Saints defense is to be aggressive and opportunistic to set up Brees.
The Saints will give up points, but their job is to make a few big plays. It’s like the Arena League. If the defense can just get a few stops, the offense should do the rest.
While the Saints are PlayStation 3, the 49ers are playing Atari.
The quarterback in San Francisco is almost incidental. Alex Smith is just a cog in the greater machine. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh arrived from Stanford, took a look at his roster, and played to its strengths. San Francisco won 13 games and earned the NFC’s No. 2 seed by turning back the clock to the 1970’s.
San Francisco is built around defense first, and the running game second. Harbaugh views football as a disciplined war of attrition. He knows that his team will win most weeks if they avoid mistakes and dominate in the trenches. Simple.
The 49ers talk about balance on offense, but balance in 2011 means running the ball like crazy. They play it safe. Alex Smith threw for the fewest interceptions-per-pass of any quarterback in the league.
Harbaugh still shows off some modern flourishes within the framework of San Francisco’s smashmouth style. His formations and creativity with extra blockers in the running game looks more like a college running attack. He makes defenses prepare for a lot, and he will call a handful of “shot plays” designed to give Smith simple reads for potential big gainers on offense. The defense is also difficult to prepare for because they are so talented and fundamentally sound.
In an era where coaches are often too stuck in their prescribed system, Harbaugh puts his players in positions to succeed. He could coach a more modern offense, but it wouldn’t suit his roster. Sean Payton could stop throwing so aggressively, but wouldn’t make sense for a team led by Drew Brees. Neither man is worried about convention, which is a good thing. Great coaching is above all adaptable.
The Saints are favored in San Francisco. This is largely because football fans are easily impressed with flashy numbers. The Saints look like a team built to win in 2012. Or 2022. If New Orleans does win, they might face Green Bay and New England next. Those are two more elite teams where quarterbacks rule all and defense is a rumor.
The 49ers aren’t just trying to win a playoff game Saturday for a starved, once-proud franchise.
They are fighting to prove that their style of football can work in any era.
Players with the most to gain this weekend
1. Eli Manning, Giants: They say you can’t improve pocket presence, but Manning has come a long way in his career at handling pressure. He’s great delivering passes with players in his face. A huge upset in Green Bay would help cement Manning as one of the game’s very best quarterbacks during a career year.
2. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and Frank Gore, 49ers: Smith and Gore are two of the most underrated players of the last decade. They are looking for their first playoff win. So is Willis. He is the very best at his position and is on his way to a Hall of Fame-type career, but too many people have barely seen him play.
3. Brian Cushing, Texans: Perhaps people will notice who the best inside linebacker on the field is Sunday in Baltimore. Cushing is the emotional leader of a still-overlooked Texans defense.
4. Robert Meachem and Marques Colston, Saints: The soon-to-be free agent wideouts for the Saints can make some money with a big playoff run.
5. Ryan Grant, Packers: He represents all the injured Packers from a year ago that only could watch their team win it all. Grant has possibly played his way into another year in Green Bay with a strong finish to the season.
6. Tim Tebow, Broncos: The guy needs more attention.