Drama of the highest order
I like the NFL but I don't love it. My indifference, though, is clearly not shared by most. Of the 10 most-watched TV shows in the United States last year, nine were NFL games. Business is very good and the one weekend a year when I can actually put all the negatives I feel about the NFL aside and become just another football fool is during the divisional play-offs. Two games on Saturday, two games on Sunday. Win or go home. Chances are that at least one of the four divisional play-off games will be of some interest. But something of epic proportions? That's asking too much.
I can think of only a few sporting events that were truly epic where the level of the participants was so ridiculously high and the drama so acute that nothing else in the world existed for that moment. Recent epics include Rafael Nadal against Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final and the US versus Canada in the gold medal hockey final at the 2010 Winter Olympics. For days after you would still be shaking your head and asking, did I really see that? And when you acknowledge that you actually did see it you also convince yourself that you will never, ever see that kind of drama again. That way you can be joyfully surprised when you do.
The San Francisco 49ers have been somewhat insignificant for a large part of their 64-year history. They were occasionally good, yet never great. But from 1980 to 1995 all that changed. The 49ers won five Super Bowls during that span and were a regular fixture in the post-season while spawning one of the greatest coaches of all time in Bill Walsh and one of the greatest quarterbacks ever in Joe Montana. Walsh came to the 49ers after a successful tenure about 40 minutes south of San Francisco at brainy Stanford University. He was a visionary and innovator more on par with Leonardo da Vinci than Vince Lombardi who brought changes to the passing game as well as changes to the coaching game.
Thanks to his Stanford pedigree and affection for the wines of Napa Valley, as well as a string of Super Bowl victories, he was basically deified in the San Francisco bay area where they like to think of themselves as similarly enlightened. But what 49er fans actually were, was spoiled rotten. Five Super Bowl titles in 15 years? Pure gluttony and the laws of karma say someone will have to pay. Over the past 10 years that bill came due and the 49ers have been an afterthought, rarely playing a meaningful game.
Walsh's legacy was besmirched by the likes of former Chicago Bears' stalwart Mike Singletary, an earnest and honorable man who was ferociously intense as a player and from all indications the same as a coach. He always looked like his head was about to explode. Not a San Francisco guy. However, his successor Jim Harbaugh just might be. Four days after leading Stanford to an Orange Bowl victory last year, Harbaugh was named the head coach of the 49ers, naturally evoking memories of the last coach to make that transition. Playing in a weak conference the rejuvenated 49ers had their best record in 15 years to earn a home play-off game. Unlike the offensive wizard Walsh, Harbaugh's team were doing it through a stingy defence, the top ranked unit in the conference, and they needed every ounce of that resolve in their play-off game against the New Orleans Saints led by Drew Brees, who had just set a record for most passing yards in a season.
High-octane offence meets stingy defence, throw in a gorgeously ripe January day in scenic San Francisco and all the elements are in place for some good theatre. When the 49ers raced out to a 17-0 lead behind their vaunted defence early in the second half, it seemed that not even Brees could salvage this one. But he is Drew Brees. With four minutes left in the game he throws a 44-yard touchdown pass to cap a Saints comeback and put them up 24-23. Two minutes later, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith rushes in for a 28-yard touchdown to go up 29-24. Pandemonium. But before anyone can exhale, here comes Brees and another touchdown with 90 seconds left. This has to be over now. Down three points the 49ers are looking for a field goal to tie and, miraculously, get themselves in position to do just that. But with 15 seconds to go they try one last chance at a risky game-winning touchdown pass and at the nine-second mark it's caught by Vernon Davis. When Davis emerges from the mob that swallowed him up he's, wait, crying? Like a baby, bawling all over the place this hulking behemoth and this is a football game? Of course, it is San Francisco.
'You realise there were four touchdowns in the last four minutes of the game,' my friend asks me. 'No,' I say blankly. In fact, I had no idea of place or time and that can only mean one thing: epic. We will never, ever see a game like this again. That just how an epic works.