Analytics have identified the most efficient methods for NFL teams, but there’s still more than one way to win.
Running the ball and playing great defense can still win big in a pass-first league. The San Francisco 49ers pay Jimmy Garoppolo a lot of money, but he mostly was in Sunday’s game just to hand off. The 49ers bludgeoned the Green Bay Packers 37-20 in an NFC championship win, advancing to face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. The 49ers practically quit passing the ball because the Packers couldn’t stop the run. Raheem Mostert rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns and Garoppolo had just 77 passing yards on eight attempts. San Francisco knew their big early lead was safe thanks to a stifling defense.
When we think of the 49ers’ five Super Bowl-winning teams, they’re defined by Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice. These 49ers don’t need to pass the ball at all to win. Tight end George Kittle, who set a single-season record for receiving yards in 2018, didn’t have one pass thrown his way until about eight minutes remained in the fourth quarter. The 49ers didn’t need to throw him the ball. That was also Garoppolo’s first pass of the second half.
49ers blow out Packers with physical approach
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan becomes part of the first father-son combination to both coach a Super Bowl. Kyle’s father Mike was on hand in Santa Clara on Sunday, and he had to recognize the offensive approach.
Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos teams, and even his one successful Washington Redskins team, were built around the running game. Mike Shanahan turned multiple no-names at running back into stars.
For the Broncos it was unheralded options like Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns or Olandis Gary cranking out 1,000-yard seasons. For Kyle’s 49ers, it was Mostert against the Packers. Mostert, who was undrafted out of Purdue and spent some time with six other teams before finding a home in San Francisco, had 160 yards and three touchdowns by halftime. His fourth touchdown in the third quarter erased any doubt about Sunday’s outcome. Mostert set a 49ers postseason record for rushing yards before the third quarter was done. He’s the first player to rush for four touchdowns in a conference championship game. His 220 yards are the second-most in a playoff game in NFL history, behind Eric Dickerson’s 248 yards against the Dallas Cowboys at the end of the 1985 season.
Mostert’s performance was reminiscent of the time Davis ran through the Packers for 157 yards in Super Bowl XXXII, leading to Mike Shanahan’s first Super Bowl ring as head coach.
49ers like to run the ball
A lot of time was spent talking about the old-school approach of a conference championship team, but it was all about Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans. The 49ers were the throwback team on Sunday.
Garoppolo didn’t even throw his fifth pass of the game until a little before the two-minute warning of the first half. To start the second quarter, the 49ers had 11 straight runs (a pass in that stretch didn’t officially count due to a defensive penalty). It’s not like this was unusual for the 49ers. Against the Vikings, the 49ers called 12 straight runs.
The 49ers finished second in the NFL in rushing attempts and yards, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens and their record-setting quarterback Lamar Jackson. Garoppolo didn’t boost the 49ers’ rushing numbers; he had 62 yards on 46 attempts this season. The 49ers led the NFL in rushing touchdowns. Part of those numbers were due to the 49ers having a lot of leads and shifting to the ground game to close out wins. But they’re also superb using the run game as a foundation of the offense.
Maybe it’s because Garoppolo is a big name or we just associate the 49ers with flashy offense, but San Francisco isn’t often associated with a style that isn’t en vogue in 2020. The rest of the league is passing the ball. The 49ers paid top dollar for a fullback in free agency and on Sunday had their record-setting tight end blocking like a sixth offensive lineman. It worked.
There’s not one way to win in the NFL. The AFC champion Chiefs do it with a high-flying offense led by prolific quarterback Patrick Mahomes, hoping the defense can get enough stops to outscore their opponent. The 49ers have a much different mindset. Both approaches led to the same place: Super Bowl LIV.
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