Along with an excellent finish, Sunday night's Patriots-49ers matchup provided an excellent showcase of both the advantages and drawbacks of building an offense centered around a quarterback tasked with being a "game manager." The game manager vs. playmaker debate was the epicenter of the debate surrounding the 49ers' recent quarterback controversy, and Sunday night's game provided plenty of evidence to support either style of play.
Kaepernick won the 49ers' starting job mid-season largely because he added a big-play dynamic the offense didn't have under former starter Alex Smith. The 49ers advanced all the way to the NFC Championship last year with Smith playing smart football, taking available checkdowns and avoiding risky throws.
Smith's risk-averse style of play wasn't in the 49ers' permanent plans though: in the ofseason, the 49ers made their intentions of eventually becoming a downfield passing team clear by signing receivers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss. With the ascension of Kaepernick to the starting position in November, the transition of the 49ers from a ball-control offense to a big-play attack became complete, and the move's flaws and benefits were both on display Sunday night.
Up 17-3 at the beginning of the third quarter, the 49ers' opening drive of the second half ended prematurely with Kaepernick throwing a deep pick into double coverage in the middle of the end zone. Later in the game, Kaepernick put what should have been the final nail in the Patriots' coffin with almost the exact same pass: a 27-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree in double coverage in the middle of the field that put the 49ers up 31-3.
The results of those two throws illustrates the high-risk, high-reward nature of Kaepernick's style of play. He'll rocket the ball into spots that make big plays, but he can also force the ball in a way that can sometimes lead to turnovers that hurt the offense.
This style of play is a direct contrast to the way the Patriots had to approach the game.
With tight end Rob Gronkowski injured, the Patriots' offense is currently constructed in a manner that requires Brady to run an offense in the hallmark "game manager" style. Brady has proven himself more than capable of attacking downfield, but without Gronkowski the Patriots were unable to create the holes in coverage that their two-tight end sets usually create by moving Gronkowski and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez all over the field. As a result, the Patriots didn't have anyone who could get open deep downfield.
This was most painfully evident when Brady threw a deep interception to Carlos Rogers on a play-action pass in the first quarter. The pass was aimed for Wes Welker, whose quickness is an awkward fit for the role of a downfield receiver because he lacks the long lanky stride that made Randy Moss so dangerous when he was with the Patriots.
Rogers was able to stay in front of Welker the entire play, and Welker was too slow to even have a chance at getting under the ball. Rogers intercepted the ball at San Francisco's 42-yard line and returned it to New England's five-yard line. Two plays later, the 49ers scored a touchdown. That quickly, the Patriots' lack of a downfield attack caused them to be down 14-0 instead of having a chance to tie the game 7-7.
New England coach Bill Belichick adjusted his calls after the Rogers interception showed the 49ers' defense was too fast for the Patriots to attack deep. Belichick's subsequent play-calling lacked quick-strike deep plays, relying instead on short throws that required precise ball placement due to the narrowing of passing windows caused by the offense's inability to stretch the field.
Belichick's play-calling was the correct decision because the Patriots had no other choice and Brady certainly has the skills to make the accurate passes required by such a plan of attack. As fumbles and dropped passes continued to hamper the offense, though, the 49ers built more of a lead and the Patriots had to abandon the one thing they were doing well against the 49ers -- running the ball up the middle.
The Patriots don't have a top rushing attack by any means, but defending runs up the middle has been the 49ers' Achilles heel all year -- San Francisco's three losses to the Vikings, Giants and Rams were direct results of being unable to stop the run game in the middle of the line. As the Patriots fell more and more behind, they had to throw the ball to try and catch up as quickly as possible, which meant they had to keep moving away from the run game that was helping them the most.
Eventually the game became close due to a crossroads in the strengths and weaknesses of each team's style. The Patriots got so far down because their offense relies so much on sustaining long drives, but they started to come back because the 49ers' offense struggled to sustain such drives.
The Patriots' offensive frustrations were eventually eased when they manufactured a big play unconventionally. Down 31-10 at the end of the third quarter, the Patriots brought out tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to fool the 49ers' defense. The Patriots normally use Hoomanawanui for run plays, so he was uncovered when he went downfield and caught a pass from Brady for a 47-yard gain.
Four downs later Brady jumped over his offensive line and narrowed the 49ers' lead to only two touchdowns, with an entire quarter remaining. This allowed the Patriots to get back to running the ball up the middle against the 49ers, which supplemented New England's short passing enough to close the deficit.
Meanwhile, all San Francisco had to do to close out the game was play keep-away and keep the ball out of Brady's hands. With Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork clogging the middle and 49ers running back Frank Gore lacking the quick initial burst to get to the outside against eight-man fronts, San Francisco's path to closing out the game and sustaining drives lay in the hands of Kaepernick's short and intermediate passing.
Kaepernick has been impressive and shown improvement each week he's played, but his short and intermediate passing weren't effective enough to close out the game without a lot of help from his defense. The 49ers responded to the Patriots' touchdown with a three-and-out to which Kaepernick contributed a four-yard pass and one incompletion. The Patriots scored another touchdown, narrowing the deficit to 31-24, and the 49ers answered with yet another three-and-out.
The Patriots tied the game on the following drive, only to be answered by Kaepernick throwing a short (and low) pass to receiver Michael Crabtree, who escaped a whiffed tackle and ran the ball into the end zone to regain the lead. The 49ers' defense then forced the Patriots to punt with four minutes and 40 seconds left in the game, giving Kaepernick and the offense yet another chance to close out the game and keep the ball out of Brady's hands.
Instead, the 49ers' play-calling showed coach Jim Harbaugh still doesn't fully trust Kaepernick to throw the ball in close games unless he absolutely has to. Three straight runs later, the 49ers were punting the ball again. After the Patriots turned the ball over on downs with a little over two minutes left, the 49ers ran the ball three times in a row again, settling for a field goal and sending the ball back to the Patriots yet again.
For a team that was up by 28 points, the 49ers' offense kept failing to close out the win when it came time to make a slow, sustained drive of multiple completed short and intermediate passes. The 49ers still won, but they let the Patriots hang around way longer than a good team up by 28 points should have. With a better "game-managing" quarterback such as Smith, the 49ers could have easily closed the game out and been playing their backups by the middle of the fourth quarter. With Brady playing a conservative, short-passing-based offense, the Patriots chipped away at a huge deficit and almost came away with a win. That's definitely solid evidence in favor of a mistake-free, small-play passer being the best type of quarterback to have.
On the other hand, with Smith under center, the 49ers likely wouldn't even have had such a lead in the first place, as at least three of San Francisco's touchdowns came on gutsy passes Smith likely couldn't have successfully made and wouldn't even have attempted. Also, the Patriots' inability to attack deep downfield is a large part of the reason why they even had such a big deficit to erase at all. Those are both solid reasons one could argue why a quarterback who makes big plays is more valuable.
So which type of quarterback is better? Sunday night's thriller of a game gave plenty of lessons about the two styles, but one thing it didn't give was an answer.