Lets pump the brakes on the groupthink about there being just one way to beat the NFL
The Kansas City Star
NEW ORLEANS — The first rule of today’s NFL is that if you don’t have a franchise quarterback, you’re not really trying. Or, at least, that’s what we’ve all been going on the last few years.
We probably should’ve seen this as silly last year, when two crucial special teams turnovers — not Alex Smith — beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship game but, well, by then the narrative was running wild. Some have even taken to mental gymnastics to now squeeze Joe Flacco into the so-called “elite quarterback” category, even if that’s silly.
But this isn’t about quarterbacks. Part of the NFL’s full-on shift into passing has been a correlating shift in positional values. If passing is more important, so to are cornerbacks, pass rushers, etc. And by extension, that means positions less involved in the passing game are less important — for our purposes today, we’re talking about linebackers, and specifically inside linebackers.
But much like Flacco’s leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl has forced people to reevaluate things, so too should the makeup of each team’s defense. Both are built in large part around linebackers.
In Baltimore, you know the heart and soul of that team is Ray Lewis. He is not nearly the player he once was — Pro Football Focus’ ratings had him 33rd among 53 inside linebackers from a 3-4 system — but to watch the Ravens is to know what the two-time defensive player of the year means to them.
Dannell Ellerbe, Lewis’ opposite inside linebacker, has been strong this year. He made 92 tackles with 4.5 sacks in 13 games (seven starts) this year, and it was his interception of Tom Brady that took all doubt from the AFC championship game.
Also, Ravens coach John Harbaugh talks all the time of how so much of what they do defensively is predicated on the versatility and ability of five-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs^ and Courtney Upshaw. Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan would be stars for many teams.
^ I love Suggs as a player. And, for some reason, I still can’t get this silliness from my mind when I watch him.
The 49ers’ linebackers were even better this season. Three of the four made the Pro Bowl, in fact, including the rare fact that Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman took up both inside linebacker spots in Hawaii. Aldon Smith, of course, had 19.5 sacks and is one of the game’s brightest pass rushers. Ahmad Brooks is vastly underrated, with the size and strength to move blockers and change games.
Look, I’m not saying linebackers are the new key to winning in the NFL — though, with Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston that would be a good thing for the Chiefs. I’m not even saying this is a trend we’ll be talking about much into the future.
All I’m saying is that with a few prerequisites — good coach, good quarterback, health, etc. — there is more than one way to fill in the rest. This Super Bowl is a small reminder of that, and this is my attempt not to forget it.