Offensive units are often given the lion's share of credit for their team's overall success. The days when play calls consisted of running the ball often and throwing only when necessary, are long gone. Offenses have evolved; the passing game has become the integral part in a team's success, and has been utilized to an extent not previously seen. This season 20 quarterbacks passed for over 3,000 yards, and three passed for over 5,000. Those numbers are astonishing in comparison to quarterback statistics of 20 years ago. In 1991, there were only eleven quarterbacks who grossed 3,000+ yards passing, and only one cracked the 4,000 yard mark. The style of play has changed dramatically over the past two decades, and it's clear that the league's transition to a pass-first is complete. Football traditionalists may have an issue with this, but the media undoubtedly appreciate the transition to a high powered, pass-happy league as it produces plays riddled with excitement. The media, like NFL Network and ESPN have become so engulfed in their perpetual analysis of the high-flying pass attacks that they seem to have forgotten the true winning formula.
The recipe for success in the NFL consists of more than just a high scoring offense. Though less talked about and less heralded, the defensive and special teams units are equally vital to achieving victory. Green Bay and New Orleans are prime examples of this. Both the Saints and the Packers have elite quarterbacks who racked up enormous statistics, and where did that get them this season? It earned those teams a spot on their couch watching the remainder of the playoffs from the confines of their own homes, rather than participating in them. Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers quarterbacked two of the most prolific and widely praised offenses in the NFL, yet their passing abilities got their teams no further than the divisional round of the playoffs. The Packers and Saints neglect for playing a complete game, which not only relies on their offense, but defense and special teams as well, was their downfall. Offense, defense and special teams are all aspects that are equally crucial aspects in the game of football, though the latter of the three is often overlooked.
The victorious ways of the San Francisco 49ers have come as a shock to many. Despite boasting just the 11th ranked offense in terms of scoring, which is pedestrian in comparison to those of Green Bay and New Orleans, the 49ers are now a mere sixty minutes away from punching their ticket to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
An imperative element to the 49ers success, one which has been largely discounted, is their special teams unit. In 2011, kicker David Akers arguably had his best year in the league. Throughout the season the offensive unit of the San Francisco 49ers faced some issues, particularly in the 'red zone'. Akers consistently bailed out the sputtering offense of the 49ers, by salvaging drives that stalled at inopportune times. Despite playing eight games at Candlestick Park, which is known for its swirling winds, Akers put up historic numbers this season. He set an NFL record for the most field goals made in one season with 44. David Akers shattered Jerry Rice's single season point total of 138, and earned himself a spot in the 49ers' record books as the player to score the most points in one season, with an astounding 166. Davis Akers' accomplishments have not gone unnoticed, as he was selected as the starting kicker for the NFC in the Pro Bowl and made the Associated Press' All Pro team. The reliable left leg of David Akers has proven to be an essential component to the continued success of the 49ers.
Another leg, aside from Akers', has contributed extensively to the 49ers' success. Andy Lee, the 49ers punter, possesses the unique ability to change the field position with just one kick. Opposing offenses are often relegated to starting deep within their own territory which vastly reduces their chances of scoring, as a result of booming punts off of Andy Lee's right foot. When going up against explosive offensive units, the role of the punter, though not widely heralded, is tremendously important. Lee, like Akers, is getting recognition for his outstanding year kicking the ball. He will be headed to Hawaii and will be the starting punter on NFC Pro Bowl team, and too has been voted to the All Pro team.
The impact of the kick and punt coverage teams was no more evident than in last week's win over the New Orleans Saints. Containing the explosive kick/punt returner Darren Sproles all throughout the game was a victory for the 49ers coverage units, though it was not their largest contribution. The kick coverage team, nicknamed "Tony Montana squad" (named after the song by Future that is played at Candlestick Park prior to kickoffs) proved their worth against the Saints. In the biggest game of the year, the coverage team forced and recovered two New Orleans fumbles. Accounting for two of the team's five takeaways, the kick coverage squad is largely to thank for the 49ers advancement to the NFC Championship game.
San Francisco's progression deep into the playoffs can be attributed to the fact that they are truly a complete football squad. They do not possess an overpowering offense, rather one that simply gets the job done. They have a stout defense that consistently denies their opposition from scoring. Lastly, their special teams unit has played at a high level all throughout the year. A San Francisco 49er win is one that combines a high level of play from all three aspects of the game. Not the offense, defense or special teams units have singularly won the game for the 49ers; rather it's the complete effort of all three working together in correlation, which has time and again resulted in the 49ers emerging victorious.
The next time you witness immaculate kickoff coverage, a David Akers kick sail through the uprights or a thunderous Andy Lee punt sent deep within the oppositions' territory, keep in mind that such plays have contributed monumentally to the success of the 2011 San Francisco 49ers.