So much for modernity. Just when the NFL was all about the new epochal passing game and the impossibility of winning big without the franchise quarterback, here come the San Francisco 49ers, who might as well be wearing black metal cleats, whose highlights belong on jerky, grainy old film, and who, God knows, must eat rare beefsteak for breakfast. The moral to them, with their bandaged-handed quarterback and their toss sweeps, is that football is still a hitting game and still a game won as much by the unglamorous men as the glamorous.
Matt LaFleur is a forward-thinking play caller with the Green Bay Packers, but he learned Saturday night that it’s not good enough to coach two-thirds of a team if you don’t want to get heartbroken in the snow at home. You better attend to the special teams, too, in all of their role-playing particularities and tedium, or you will get rolled. Because the margins of victory are thin at the divisional playoff stage, and in this case, they produced an overwhelming, game-killing shift.
Aaron Rodgers, nobody has ever spun the ball with more ease and know-it-all chill than him, but ultimately those MVP qualities were useless against the sheer passion play of the 49ers’ defense, which turned iced-over Lambeau Field into a shoulder-driving, spit-flying display of old-time hockey.
“It was a mature type of game today,” Jimmy Garoppolo said afterward. Is that what you called it, that stalemate in the driving snow at Lambeau Field, 13-10? It wasn’t just a mature football game; it was damn near from another century. The 49ers were simply tremendous in what used to be known as “all phases of the game,” and it’s a good thing they were, that Coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t listen to the geniuses who decided the pass was all that mattered.
The 49ers had everything — everything except that guy, the quarterback you’re supposed to need so badly to win anything big. Garoppolo, with his sore shoulder and his torn, wrapped-up thumb, was as maddeningly inconsistent as he always is, with moments of appalling bad judgment and errancy — just 6 for 13 with 76 yards and an interception by the third quarter, plus two or three other near-picks — but he had an emotional steadiness that mattered just as much for the 49ers in the final minute, a willingness to keep coming back for more and hazard another throw despite flinching pressure. The 49ers had a strange faith in him, which he ratified by connecting with George Kittle and Deebo Samuel for 12 and 14 yards to help set up the game-winning 45-yard field goal by Robbie Gould.
“There was a calmness,” Garoppolo said later. “We realized it was just going to be that kind of game.”
Yes, that kind of game. The kind of game that left men hobbling off the field with “stingers” and exhaling long plumes of white frost as the snow blew sideways. The kind of game that turned on game-saving defensive stands and the valiant charge of defensive lineman Jordan Willis to overwhelm Green Bay’s punting unit so Talanoa Hufanga could carry the blocked ball into the end zone with less than five minutes left, the 49ers’ only touchdown. The kind of game that turned on just a few fundamentals and desperate efforts. Among them was that third-down call on the final drive.
It was third down and seven yards to go, to be precise, and the 49ers were still out of field goal range on that icing field. Which is when Shanahan told Garoppolo to stick the ball in Samuel’s stomach and let him cut back against the grain. Nine yards. And now they were inside the 30 with under a minute to go.
Which reminded you just how much the running game still matters after all. And of something Los Angeles Chargers Coach Brandon Staley, known as one of the game’s great young innovators, said about it earlier this season.
“There’s a physicality to the game that’s real, right?” Staley said. "If you’re just a passing team, there’s a physical element to the game that the defense doesn’t have to respect. And that’s the truth. Because the data will tell you that you don’t need a run game to play pass. You don’t need that. But what the running game does for you, it brings a physical dimension to the football game. And what the running game does that the passing game does not is the running game forces the defense to play blocks and to tackle. That happens on a run play — you must play blocks and you must tackle. In the passing game, those things don’t need to happen, right? You don’t have to play as many blocks. And you may not have to tackle, based on incomplete or not. So what the running game does is it really challenges your physicality, and that’s why I think the run game is important to a quarterback. It’s because it’s going to allow him literally to have more space to operate when you do throw the football.”
Let’s just say that there was a lot of blocking and tackling in this game, and let that be a lesson to the airy innovators.
Another lesson for the rest of league is that, well, it turns out Kyle Shanahan can coach any kind of team, in any kind of way. And he apparently has a hell of an eye for assistant coaches, too, judging by the jobs defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and special teams coordinator Richard Hightower did. In the past three weeks the 49ers have won three straight must-have games on the road, beating the Los Angeles Rams, the Dallas Cowboys and the Packers in consecutive order. Against the Rams they had to come from 17 points down to win in overtime just to make the playoffs at all. And they never led against the Packers until Gould’s kick sailed through the uprights with no time left.
Shanahan’s reputation up to this point has been all about offensive ingenuity. But he must be reconsidered in light of the past few weeks. The 49ers are in the NFC championship game, where they’ll visit the Rams, for the second time in three years. They’re a team of serious, heavyweight substance and rare completeness. Oh, and they have one more thing, another old-fashioned quality. “The fight in this team is ridiculous,” Garoppolo said.