As the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers prepare to meet in Super Bowl XLVII, we preview the National Football League’s annual crowning moment from the bleachers of Barbaria – that emotive sanctuary in all of us where the primitive aspects of human nature rule supreme. This year’s edition features stark contrasts between the old and new, some of which transcend the exalted purview of professional sports.
The Ravens are an older team with a more conventional style of play. Their trigger-man, Joe Flacco, is a traditional drop-back quarterback who likes to stay in the pocket and throw the ball deep down field. Their strategy is to setup these quick-strike pass plays by using a strong running game to draw the defense in close to the line of scrimmage. The younger 49ers, on the other hand, are the poster child for a new revolution in offensive football – the so-called zone-read option or pistol offense. This strategy requires that rare type of quarterback who is exceptional at both passing and running. If properly executed, it gives the offense several different options to run or pass on every play, and generates a lot of confusion in the defense.
The head coaches of the two teams happen to be related. The Ravens’ John Harbaugh is the older brother of 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh. This is the first time in Super Bowl history that the opposing head coaches were siblings. They last faced off against each other during the 2011 NFL season with John’s Ravens defeating Jim’s 49ers 16-6 in a Thursday night game in Baltimore.
Another old versus new deliberation surrounding the Super Bowl this year is the NFL’s increasing focus on head trauma and concussions. League officials have finally recognized the long-term risk to players’ health associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and are fundamentally changing the rules of the game in response (see: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/sports/concussion-watch/nfl-concussions-the-2012-13-season-in-review/). Gone are the days of leather helmets, minimal padding, and vicious tactics. If the commercially-mighty NFL is to survive into the future, it will have to reduce the violence and serious injuries inherent in the sport. Ironically, the evolution of professional football (better equipment, better medical services, and bigger, stronger, faster players) has directly led to the higher-energy collisions responsible for the increase in concussive traumas. If you watch old film of NFL games played in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, you’ll see how different blocking and tackling techniques have changed.
For a closing point about the role sports – and particularly football – in our culture, let’s return to Barbaria. Regardless of our intellectual achievements and societal progress, we human beings still possess those barbaric traits of our ancestors. Deep inside us, the instincts for predation and malevolent tribalism persist. Football is both a metaphor and an acceptable cultural outlet for our primeval heritage. It is the modern equivalent of the gladiatorial arena where victors are immortalized and the beaten are ignominiously vanquished. We root, we cheer, we shout and scream in raucous joy or bitter anguish. We are viscerally invested in our chosen heroes, and passionately feel what they feel. And for far too many of us, we see this world of sport in the same diffuse light as reality. It is undoubtedly the old versus the new.
Prediction: 49ers – 27, Ravens – 20.
So much for my prediction. 49ers looked anxious and tight, especially early on, and that led to mistakes on crucial 3rd downs and scoring opportunities. I guess everyone cannot play “within oneself” like the Niners of yesteryear. Joe Montana truly was “cool.” Ravens executed better and deserved to win. Congrats!