Monday, February 4, 2013

Newsletter Extra: Momentum

As you surely know, Sunday's Super Bowl was interrupted early in the third quarter when about half the Superdome's lights went out. The game was delayed for 34 minutes, and from the time the game resumed to the end, the San Francisco 49ers played better than they had prior to that point. For most, this made the loss of lighting a key trigger event in the game. I spent some time on Twitter yesterday pointing out how silly this was -- even over and above the bullshit dump that is "momentum" -- but it's worth spelling it out in greater detail.

The game resumed with the 49ers in a third-and-14 spot at their own 40-yard line. Colin Kaepernick was chased and completed a short pass to Delanie Walker well short of the marker. Down 28-6, facing fourth-and-seven from their own 46, the Niners elected to punt, a pretty bad decision that went largely unnoticed. Andy Lee punted the ball into the end zone, and the Ravens took over at their own 20. Joe Flacco immediately completed a pass to Torrey Smith for a first down.

Full stop.

At this point, both teams' units have been on the field since the delay. The Niners offense ran a give-up play, their punter managed to miss the red zone from his own 30 or so, and their defense allowed an immediate first down. The aftermath of the blackout delay was that the game was going exactly as it had gone from the opening kickoff. Even if momentum existed the way the entire sports-media community insists that it does, it had not moved following the blackout delay.

The Ravens proceeded to run three more plays on this drive, falling short of a first down by about a yard, maybe less, and electing to punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 44. (Again, a bad decision, but cowardly punting is the way the big, strong manly football of the NFL is played.) Sam Koch followed Andy Lee's lead and kicked the ball into the end zone.

Now we're on the third possession, the eighth snap, about two minutes of game time and maybe ten minutes of real time into the post-delay football game. Now is when the game did change. Kaepernick scrambled twice for a total of 20 yards, and the Niners' comeback was on.

Two theories:

1) The game changed when the delay happened and momentum shifted, only it waited until the Niners failed and then the Ravens averaged six yards a play on their drive and executed a bad idea of a punt, to make that clear.

2) The Ravens punting on fourth-and-1 gave the Niners an opportunity, and Kaepernick's two scrambles -- he had one in the entire game to that point -- opened up an element of the offense that made it incredibly hard to defend.

You can listen to a thousand football players and a million sportswriters, but there's an infinitely better argument to be made that the fourth-down punt at midfield was what changed the game, rather than the delay. Here's the thing, though: nothing changed the game. Two good football teams played, and at some moments, one team played better than the other one did.

I find the "momentum" discussion painful because it diminishes the game and the athletes who play it. The desperate need to find reasons for everything that happens and to assign meaning to small streaks of events is disrespectful to the talented men on the field. The difference, the real difference, between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers is measured in tenths of a percent. Play that game 10,000 times and no team will win more than 5100 of them. Outcomes are what they are not because of some mystical force that -- according to its own adherents -- comes and goes unpredictably, but by the effort and execution of absurdly talented men. There's just enough randomness in the form of bounces and officiating -- where NFL refs have a lot more leeway to affect a game than do their MLB counterparts -- so that the entire construct rests shakily, like that couch at grandma's no one will dare sit on.

If you can't appreciate the football game you watched last night on its merits, if you need to parse the events just so to fit a narrative, have at it. But when you do, get it right: the fourth-and-1 punt, not the blackout, was the hinge on which the two teams' play swung.