Frank Cooney
Special to The Union

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December 20, 2012
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Commentary: ‘Do you believe in miracles’ an NFC West game that matters in December

Thanks to NBC getting the booby prize in a draw for Week 16 games, perhaps Al Michaels can set things straight Sunday night by reprising his famous line “Do You Believe in Miracles?” This time it won’t be about the USA Olympic Hockey team, but about two teams from the left coast actually playing in an important game.

   Call it the 122 degree West Longitude Bowl, featuring the two teams farthest west in the NFL. That might begin to explain why the league media seems so out of touch with two teams showing the clout to play into February.

   Michaels, a one-time youthful transplant from Brooklyn, is a longtime Californian and certainly will explain how San Francisco and Seattle are indeed two of the best teams in the NFL.

   It is a fact that has been more obvious throughout the season, although largely overlooked while most of the national media does its annual fawning over the usual suspects in the east, affording the usual nods to Dallas, America’s Dream, er, Team; Denver, thanks to Peyton Manning; and nominal mentions for Houston, hard to ignore as the crowned AFC South champion with a 12-2 record.

   San Francisco, at 10-3-1 and already in the playoffs, just won its fifth primetime game of the season, ending Super Bowl champion New England’s four-game winning streak Sunday night in Foxborough, 41-34. Seattle (9-5 and tied for league lead with three straight wins) just posted its second consecutive 50-point outburst, last accomplished by an NFL team in 1950, with a 50-17 destruction of the Buffalo Bills in a game so highly regarded it was banished to Toronto.

   Sounds like a couple of teams television executives should be fighting to get. Not so.

   When networks stated their desires for this week’s flex scheduling, FOX protected the New York Giants (8-6) and Baltimore Ravens (9-5), CBS kept a grip on the Cincinnati Bengals(8-6) and Steelers (7-7). So that left NBC, still tentatively holding the San Diego Chargers (5-9) and New York Jets (6-8). They dropped the Chargers-Jets for a chance to venture into the relatively unexplored NFL region of the Pacific Northwest.

   And, for those who do believe in miracles, perhaps Michaels can describe in his supremely eloquent manner that, despite all the blather, just perhaps the NFL’s best may be in the west this season.

   Thus far the biggest recognized news items on the 49ers and Seahawks this year had the major media all atwitter, literally, with confusion over how these two teams selected their eventual starting quarterbacks. Apparently it boggles the mind to actually select the best candidate on the roster to be the starter.

  In March, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he was delighted to sign veteran free agent quarterback Matt Flynn, who received a $19.5 million, three-year contract, with $10 million guaranteed. The next month the Seahawks drafted short but talented Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson in the third round. By the end of training camp it was obvious that Wilson, already a mature leader with extraordinary athleticism, was the best quarterback in Seattle. In a stroke of seemingly incomprehensible common sense, Carroll made Wilson the starter.

   When he signed on in 2011 as San Francisco 49ers coach, Jim Harbaugh inherited heady, steady, veteran Alex Smith as the starting quarterback. In April of 2011, Harbaugh sent a message that apparently was missed by many when he traded three picks to move up and take Nevada’s extraordinarily athletic quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

   Harbaugh and Smith then worked together in 2011 to guide the 49ers to the NFC Championship game, missing a trip to the Super Bowl in an overtime loss to the Giants thanks to two muffed punt returns.

   As the 2012 season began with Smith the starter, most casual witnesses seemed to miss the fact that Kaepernick was being inserted at unusual times that didn’t fit the current “Wildcat” trend featuring athletic run/pass athletes around the league. He came in to throw bombs to newly acquired wide receiver Randy Moss as well as run options in the red zone. And many seemed to forget complaints from 2011 when Smith managed the talented offense very well, but too often came up short in the red zone as the 49ers settled for an inordinate amount of field goals.

   Few suspected something was percolating when Smith was injured on Nov. 11 and Kaepernick stepped in. Kaepernick’s first start was a dazzling win at Chicago. The die was cast, but Harbaugh played it coy and further confused an apparently easily confused media with comments that bordered on jabberwocky.

   Smith had become the 49ers’ Wally Pipp, that well-liked New York Yankees first basemen in the first quarter of the last century, who even won a home run title. On June 2, 1925, Pipp reportedly arrived at Yankee Stadium and asked for a couple of aspirin. Manager Miller Huggins heard this and told Pipp, “Wally, take the day off. We’ll try that kid Gehrig at first today and get you back there tomorrow.” Tomorrow never came for Pipp as “the kid,” Lou Gehrig, went on to set a long-standing Major League record of 2,130 consecutive games. Pipp was traded to Cincinnati before the 1926 season.

   It is doubtful Kaepernick will play that many games and, in fact, those who still can’t accept his replacing the well-liked Smith keep waiting for Kaepernick to screw up and get the hook in favor of Smith. After all, Smith still rates third among NFL passers and was completing 70 percent of his passes when displaced. Of course, anything is possible and many among the media are still uncomfortable with such an outrageous move, which, allegedly, breeches that so-called unwritten rule that says a player cannot lose his job because of injury.

   Of course it happens all the time, often to less scrutinized positions such as offensive linemen. But lest we forget, there were famous changes that launched the careers of such quarterbacks as Tom Brady and Kurt Warner.

   But even more uncomfortable than the confused media are the defenses who must face Wilson and Kaepernick.

   Wilson has completed 222 of 353 passes (63 percent) for 2,693 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has also run 78 times for 402 yards, including 25 first downs and three touchdowns. In his last six games he has 12 touchdowns and one interception and is 6-0 at home.

   In hostile Foxborough under the glare of another primetime game last Sunday night, Kaepernick threw for four touchdowns against the Patriots -- something Smith never did in any NFL game -- and has completed 101 of 154 passes (68 percent)for 1,289 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has run 53 times for 379 yards, including 17 first downs and five touchdowns, two of those scores from fifty yards out.

   For all the attention, the quarterbacks may not even be the keys to these teams.

   Both have sensational runners, Seattle with Marshawn Lynch (1,379 yards, 10 touchdowns) and San Francisco with Frank Gore (1,118, seven touchdowns). Both teams play smashmouth defense, too, especially San Francisco with perhaps the top inside linebacker tandem in the league with NaVorro Bowman (128 tackles) and annual Pro Bowl selectee Patrick Willis (110 tackles). San Francisco second-year outside linebacker Aldon Smith is tied for the league lead with 19.5 sacks and within reach of Michael Strahan’s season record of 22.5.

   Despite the obvious excellence of football by these teams, they get rare mention in discussions during the 24/7 babble by national media geniuses who seem focused on the invented or self-fulfilling drama involving teams much farther east.

   Meantime, fans can watch the best of the west this Sunday night and, with the help of an enlightened Michaels, perhaps learn that football is indeed played and played well on the so-called other side of the country.

Frank Cooney is the Publisher The Sports Xchange Inc. and can be reached at fcooney@sportsxchange.com


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The Union Updated Jan 4, 2013 10:44AM Published Dec 20, 2012 07:58PM Copyright 2012 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.