In one of my early years covering the NFL, I remember Giants GM George Young telling me why free agency wouldn’t work in pro football. Chemistry in football is different than, say, in baseball. A guard or wide receiver changing teams would take a couple years to become familiar enough with an offense to play at his peak—as opposed to a second baseman or a right fielder, who could be plugged in and play at his normal level on day one.
Anquan Boldin didn’t arrive in San Francisco as a free agent, but it’s basically the same thing. He moved in a trade when the Ravens were on the verge of cutting him last spring, and the 49ers were the beneficiary of a cap crunch in Baltimore. After watching the coaches’ video of Boldin’s first game with San Francisco, I’m more amazed than I was Sunday night, when I’d been able to see only a few plays in the Niners’ win over Green Bay because of my NBC duties, and when I only knew the stat line: 12 catches, 208 yards, one touchdown. Impressive, I thought—especially considering it was Boldin’s first game in a new offense with a new quarterback.
But watching the tape, and getting the exact numbers from Pro Football Focus about where Boldin lined up, makes Seattle’s job more daunting Sunday night in the game of the weekend. I’d hoped to see Richard Sherman vs. Boldin for much of the game Sunday night, two guys at the top of their game. But that’s not the way it’s lining up.
“They line him up in different places,’’ Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor told me from the Seattle practice facility in suburban Renton, “to throw teams off. Overall, they do a great job of disguising the plays they run.’’
That was on display against Green Bay, Boldin played 64 snaps. Looking at the distribution of where he played, and where he caught the most throws from Colin Kaepernick:
This is San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s specialty. He’s becoming the Bill Belichick of NFL offenses—no two gameplans ever look the same. After the Niners won the NFC title game in Atlanta with running threat Kaepernick limited to one designed run all game, Roman told me: “Sometimes as a play-caller, the intent is to deceive. We’re not very much into stats around here. We play reality football. We don’t play fantasy football.”
So expect to see lots of changeups from Boldin Sunday night against the aggressive Seattle secondary. Which is fine with Chancellor. He thinks Vernon Davis or Kyle Williams could be just as troublesome Sunday night, and he doesn’t much care. Chancellor said: “The way we play ball here, we don’t prepare for one guy. They play good as a team. As far as our gameplan, we plan for the whole offense, and everyone we’ve seen on tape there is capable of making plays. You have to remember they want to pound the ball and establish their running game. They’re a downhill running team. You have to wrap their legs up. They run a lot of cross routes, seams. We want to take care of the deep routes and get them to run the checkdowns.’’
On a play early in the third quarter against Green Bay, you could see the faith Kaepernick has in Boldin already. Boldin came out of a bunch formation in the right slot, and as he flowed up the right seam, he was bracketed in coverage by cornerback Sam Shields and safety Jerron McMillian. Kaepernick let it fly anyway—and coming over the top when the ball was in the air was another safety, M.D. Jennings. In the middle of this scrum, Boldin plucked the ball out of the air and took big hits but held on. Gain of 22. That’s the kind of throw Peyton Manning made to Marvin Harrison after they’d been together for six or eight years—when each knew exactly what the other was thinking. Kaepernick and Boldin, obviously, are comfortable enough now that the quarterback trusts that, at worst, Boldin will at least make sure the ball isn’t picked off.
“The guy’s a fierce competitor,’’ said Chancellor. “Physical receiver, good hands, and whether he’s covered or not, he’s still a threat to get the ball.”
I know what I’ll be watching Sunday night—and what I hope my NBC associates, Sunday night producer Fred Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff, have lots of isolated shots on during the best game of Week 2.
About Last Night …
New England 13, N.Y. Jets 10. Possessions: 31. Punts: 20. The game: gruesome. There are 74 frustrating points to make, but one stuck out as the clock struck midnight and this game was put out of its misery. The Pats led 13-10 with three minutes to go, and had 3rd-and-5 at their 36-yard line. Everyone knew what was coming—a pass to Julian Edelman, the only receiver Tom Brady trusted at this point of a bizarre game. Edelman started wide left and went into motion toward the formation, and at the snap of the ball tried to rub off one of his receivers across the middle. And so who covered him? A linebacker, Demario Davis. A linebacker. I don’t care what the excuse is. Edelman should have been doubled wherever he went on the field, and at least one of the cover men should have been a cornerback. Instead, it was a gain of nine, and Brady was able to run the clock down to 56 seconds before the Jets got the ball back. What a waste. Not that Geno Smith would have been able to do anything with the ball, but it would have been much better for him to have the ball at his 20 with 2:35 to go, than at his 29 with 56 seconds to go.