With Kaepernick at helm, 49ers still a 'team of grinders'

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With Kaepernick at helm, 49ers still a 'team of grinders'

BOX SCORE

Colin Kaepernick faked an inside handoff, broke left on an option run and kept running, and running, and running, and he didn’t stop until he had obscured the events of Sunday’s 49ers-Dolphins game.

Not the result, of course. His 50-yard touchdown run with 2:10 to play was the coda in San Francisco’s 27-13 victory, one which advanced them one game closer to Atlanta in the National Football Conference, kept them at arm’s length from the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West, and in general did them no appreciable harm.

On the other hand, it didn’t make anyone feel appreciably better about them, either. This game wasn’t meant to reveal much about the longer term. It was meant to be what Jim Harbaugh said it was.

“These are really hard games to play,” Harbaugh said. And it showed.

Miami is not a good team, but it plays hard, and it defends the run well. Indeed, until Kaepernick sprung himself free for the spread-covering score, the 49ers were averaging a desultory 3.9 yards per carry, and converted only 1 of 9 third downs. In fact, they had the ball for only 55 offensive plays, and are tied for last in the league in that arcane statistic.

In other words, they do not have an easy time impressing people with their overall offense. They have their moments – the Kaepernick run, Frank Gore’s catch-break-five-tackles-and-run, Michael Crabtree’s 25-yard reception to set up the 49ers’ go-ahead field goal at the end of the half – but for the most part, they are under Kaepernick what they were under Alex Smith.

A team of grinders. Grinders do not wow casual fans.

Grinders also do not beat the New England Patriots in Foxborough, so Sunday’s game really didn’t help anyone more fully understand the way next Sunday night’s game will play out. 49ers-Patriots is the game that will tell us just how Super-Bowl-able the 49ers actually are in the Kaepernick Era.

But they don’t let you play games out of order, at least not without the benefit of more universes than the one in which we dwell, so we take what we are given and try to make sense of it.

Kaepernick did grind the 49ers through 10 possessions, of which only two were three-and-outs. He missed only five of 23 passes, threw neither a touchdown nor an interception, and other than a fumble on the game’s fourth play (that was recovered by tackle Anthony Davis) and four sacks, he did your standard credible quarterback’s job.

Again, a lot like Alex Smith’s standard credible quarterback’s job.

And we don’t bring that up to try to fan the dying embers of a quarterback controversy that died three weeks ago. We bring it up only to remind you that the 49ers are at their very essence a flash-free football team. They do not spice the game with exotica, nor do they win the day for fantasy leaguers. That is not who they are offensively – not through 31 games of the Harbaugh dynasty, anyway.

And since that is what Miami strives to be once its roster gets a few more miles on it, Sunday’s game did not promise a lot of entertainment. So when it did not deliver a lot of entertainment, few were surprised.

You want the game explained? Okay. Donte Whitner took down Reggie Bush with a full-on Cael Sanderson one-armed amateur wrestling takedown in the third quarter. Bush got up and gestured that he was too mighty to be hurt, Whitner got up and swaggered like he knew better, and they were both right. Only Whitner was righter, because the 49ers were up 13-3 at the time and were never threatened thereafter.

This was, put bluntly, a game the 49ers had to get through without mishap, blunder or injury. They succeeded at all three, and Kaepernick’s moment made it look slightly more one-sided than it was. In the style-points era of 49er football, this would have been a disappointing afternoon. These days, it is (and God help us for going this way) only what it is.

But New England in Foxborough . . . ahh, that will give us more of a lead-in to January. The Patriots are real, they amass points in vast bins, and they want you to try and score with them. The 49ers are their polar opposite. Styles, as they say, make fights.

“We’re going to be able to see where we are as a defense,” Whitner said. “We understand who’s going to have to win that football game, and we think it’s going to be the defense. And they understand that their offense is going to try and control the ball and get some big plays and put some points on the board. And we can’t allow that, so we’ll be ready.”

This game didn’t have much style. So it wasn’t much of a fight. It didn’t have to be. Next week’s does.

A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun

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AP

A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun

I’m liking this 2017 so far. Then again, after 2016, nearly any year would be an improvement.

Just this last weekend we got a flat-earth scandal that turned into a mock-up about media self-importance and fake news (yay Kyrie Irving and his impish sense of satire!).

We got the overblown Russell-Hates-Kevin narrative, and the faux Russell-Secretly-Loves-Kevin counternarrative, all because we are stunningly attracted to meaningless and utterly contrived drama (yay our ability to B.S. ourselves!).

We got the NBA All-Star Game ripped for having no defense even though last year’s game was, if anything, worse (yay short attention span!).

We got the Boogie Cousins trade and the national revulsion of all the thought processes the Sacramento Kings put into this perpetually rolling disaster (yay making Boogie and Vivek Ranadive household names!).

And now we got the Great Sutton United Pie-Fixing Scandal. Yeah, pie-fixing. Hell never felt so fun.

So here’s the deal. Sutton United, a very small fry in English soccer, got to the fifth round of the FA Cup, a competition in which all the clubs in England are commingled and play each other until one team remains. The big clubs almost always win, so any time a small club goes deep, it’s a big deal.

Anyway, Sutton went deeper in the competition than nearly anyone in the last century, a charming development given that it is such a small club that it had a stadium caretaker, goalie coach and backup goalie all in one massive fellow, a 46-year-old guy named Wayne Shaw. Shaw became the globular embodiment of the entire Sutton Experience, a jolly lark for everyone involved and especially when he ate a pie on the bench in the final minutes of Sutton’s Cup-exiting loss to Arsenal.

And now he’s been eased into resigning his jobs with the club, because – and this is so very British – there were betting shops taking action on whether he would in fact eat a pie on the bench, and he either did or did not tip off his pals that he was going to chow down on television.

He did eat the pie. His pals collected on their bets. The sport’s governing body opened an investigation into market manipulation by gambling – which is hilarious given that no fewer than 10 gambling establishments have advertising deals with English soccer clubs. Shaw was invited to quit to kill the story, and he took the hint.

Hey, dreams die all the time. But it’s still pie-fixing. Let that rattle around your head for a minute. Pie-fixing. Not match-fixing. Not point-shaving. Pie-fixing.

Now how can you not love this year?

Sure, it sucks for Shaw, but it serves as a series of cautionary tales for athletes around the world.

* Gambling is everywhere, and every time you inch toward it, you dance on the third rail.

* If you want to help your friends, give them cash.

* This is a horribly delicious way to lose your gig.

* And finally, fun in the 21st century isn’t ever truly fun because someone in a suit and a snugly-placed stick is going to make sure you pay full retail for that fun.

But it is nice to know that something that has never happened before is now part of our year. Pie-fixing is a thing now, as silly in its way as Irving’s flat-earth narrative was. And as we steer away from normal games as being too run-of-the-mill-fuddy-duddy entertainment, we have replaced them with sideshows.

Or do you forget how many people complained Saturday and Sunday that the dunk contest wasn’t interesting enough? How stupid is that?

Lots. Lots of stupid. But against pie-tin-shaped planets and pies turned into betting coups, how can it possibly compare?

We chase a lot of idiotic narratives in our sporting lives. The great What Will The Patriots Do To Roger Goodell story died like the old dog it was. We still try to flog Warriors-Thunder as a rivalry in search of better TV ratings when all the obvious evidence is that it is no such thing unless you think a couple that broke up nine months ago is still a solid story. We have Bachelor fantasy leagues, for God’s sake.

This would leave most normal folks in despair, thus matching their everyday experiences, but yin meets yang, and every time it looks like we are all barrel-rolling into the sun, we get Irving, and then we get Wayne Shaw.

In short, 2017 is going to be fun of grand surprises for us all. I look forward to the day President Trump tries to fete the Patriots and only gets to Skype with Bob Kraft and the equipment guys who midwifed DeflateGate, and Mark Davis in Las Vegas, just to see if he can get a P.F. Chang’s into the Bellagio.

Why not? This is sport’s year-long tribute to sketch comedy, and evidently everyone is signing on enthusiastically to replace lessons of morality and honor and equality and dignity and sportsmanship with slackened jaws and belly laughs.

So yay sports! Or as it is clearly becoming, A Night At The Improv.
 

Patriots win one for the ages, but where does it rank?

Patriots win one for the ages, but where does it rank?

The price of watching Roger Goodell being booed back to the Bronze Age is a subtle but real one, and one that people will feel very dearly soon enough.

The last great cathartic Super Bowl is now done, with the New England Patriots winning the brilliant and decisive battle to be sports’ new evil empire. In doing so, it rendered Goodell a permanent and risible punch line in National Football League history, the mall cop who wanted the death penalty for littering, and in the words of the song “got what he wanted but he lost what he had.”

True, $40 million a year can make the dissolution of your public persona a reasonably decent tradeoff, but we lost the argument about who won his windmill tilt with the Patriots. It’s done, and he is now permanently and irrevocably a figure of ridicule.

But that’s not the only debating point America lost Sunday night, and while you wouldn’t think it given how much time we are willing to shouting at each other, quality arguments are not easily replaced.

We have almost surely lost the mindless debate about the best quarterback ever, because there is nothing anyone can bring up that the words “Tom Brady” cannot rebut except calling his own plays, and since that is no longer allowed in football, it is a silly asterisk to apply.

We have almost surely lost the equally silly shouter about the best coach ever. Bill Belichick is defiantly not fun, but he has built, improved and bronzed an organizational model that is slowly swallowing the rest of the sport. That and five trophies makes him the equal if not better of the short list of Paul Brown, George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh and Tom Landry.

Plus, Belichick locked up the most absurd response to a question in coaching history Monday when he said, “As great as today feels . . . we're five weeks behind the other teams for the 2017 season.” Even allowing for Gregg Popovich in-game interviews, the so-grim-he-could-make-a-robot-cry worship-the-process response has now become a cliché. If 2017 prep was so important, he should have skipped yesterday’s game, and he definitely should have chosen not to waste so much time on the trophy stand after the game when training camp drills needed to be scheduled.

Oh, and DeflateGate died. Dead. No zombie possibilities here.

We do have a meatheaded argument ahead of us about which championship in the last year is the best, which can be settled here.

1. Leicester City, because 5,000-1 is 5,000-1, and the whole world understands that. Plus, there was invaluable three-month buildup that engaged non-soccer fans.

2. Chicago Cubs, because 108 years is 108 years.

3. New England Patriots, because . . . well, I don’t have to explain it unless you have no useful memory span. “Down 25 In The Third Quarter” is the new “Down 3-1.”

4. Cleveland Cavaliers, because they slayed the first unbeatable Warrior team by coming from 3-1 down, and even as a silver medalist, it will always be an internet meme, which is what passes for memorable in our decrepit culture.

5. (tie) Villanova basketball and Clemson football in a tie, because they were essentially the same great game.

7. The Pittsburgh Penguins, because the Stanley Cup Final was devoid of drama or high moments, and only 14:53 of overtime. Feh.

But everything else is settled, and this Super Bowl will not be topped for a long time. Our current cycle of absurd championships is almost surely going to end soon, because “Down 3-1” has happened twice in eight months (three times, if you count Warriors over Thunder), and the bar has now been placed well beyond reasonable clearing.

Indeed, the only thing left is for a championship team to spontaneously combust on the award stand. But if they do so and ignite Roger Goodell along the way, that would be an ending America would cheerfully endorse.

But that also isn’t an argument any more, and yes, that includes Gary Bettman.