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Not doing a squirrel dance.

Not doing a squirrel dance.

Last year, I wrote about how rare and impressive it was to see Ray Lewis and London Fletcher still playing at high levels. Lewis did not have a great 2012 season, but managed to walk away from the game as a defending Super Bowl champ. Fletcher was even better, and was named a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.

Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value system goes back to 1950. Only five times since then has an inside linebacker recorded 10 points of AV at age 36 or older: London Fletcher and Sam Mills are each responsible for two of them, with Bill Pellington (’64 Colts) rounding out the group.

Fletcher has never missed a game in his career, a remarkable accomplishment for the 15-year veteran. Consider that only three linebackers have appeared in more games than Fletcher (240): Bill Romanowski (243), Junior Seau (268), and Clay Matthews, Jr. (278). And all three of those players were outside linebackers, giving Fletcher more games than any inside linebacker in NFL history.

Which is pretty incredible for a player who received no awards or postseason recognition until turning 34. If all you knew about Fletcher was his performance from age 34+, you would assume he was a first ballot Hall of Famer. In 2009, he made his first Pro Bowl, and Fletcher was sent again in 2010 and 2011. The last two years, he’s been a second-team All-Pro, giving him some recognition in each of the last four years. Fletcher is on the short list (with Mills and Lewis) for the title of most successful inside linebacker from age 34+.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Patrick Willis, who has now made the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons. The only other defensive players to do that: Derrick Thomas, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene, Dick Butkus, and Merlin Olsen. That’s mighty fine company, but it’s hard to find any flaws in Willis’ game. Not a fan of Pro Bowls? Since 1970, Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, and Willis are the only defensive players with five first-team All-Pro honors in their first six seasons.
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Super Bowl XLVII Preview

Before we get to my preview, I feel the need to point you to some excellent Super Bowl previews I saw this week:

The Ravens can stop the zone read, but at what cost?

In Colin Kaepernick’s nine starts, the 49ers have averaged 159 rushing yards per game on 4.9 yards per rush and have rushed for 14 touchdowns; at the same time, they’ve averaged 8.1 ANY/A through the air. That makes them close to unstoppable, much like the Seahawks when Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch were dominating defenses over that same stretch.

The Packers could not stop the Pistol offense.

The Packers chose to let Kaepernick beat them on the ground. He did.

For San Francisco, their dominance starts up front, and their offensive line needs only sustained success to rival what the lines of the ’90s Cowboys or ’00 Chiefs delivered. According to Pro Football Focus, left tackle Joe Staley is the best tackle in the league, while right tackle Anthony Davis is the second best run-blocking tackle in the league (behind only Staley). PFF ranks both Mike Iupati and Alex Boone as top-five guards in the league, and places both of them in the top three when it comes to run blocking. Center Jonathan Goodwin also ranks as an above-average center, and the 34-year-old veteran is more than capable of anchoring a line filled with Pro Bowl caliber players. As if that wasn’t enough, Vernon Davis is one of the top two-way tight ends in the league, while TE/H-Back/FB Delanie Walker and FB Bruce Miller provide excellent support in the run game.

Without any schematic advantage, the 49ers have enough talented beef up front to have a dominate running game. But add in what Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have been able to do with the Pistol formation and the zone read, and you have a running game that borders on unstoppable.

We saw that against the Packers, as Colin Kaepernick broke the single-game rushing record by a quarterback. The beauty of the zone read is that it gives the offense an extra blocker, an advantage the 49ers didn’t need. After the Packers were shredded by Kaepernick, the Falcons focused on containing the quarterback. Take a look at the photograph below, courtesy of Ben Muth of Football Outsiders.
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Not doing a squirrel dance.

Not doing a squirrel dance.

On Sunday, I looked at how the football legacies of certain Ravens would be affected by a win in Super Bowl XLVII; today I will do the same for the 49ers. And the best place to start is with the only surefire Hall of Famer on the team.

Randy Moss turns 36 in a couple of weeks, and he’s caught just 56 passes over the last three years. Super Bowl XLVII may not be his final game, but it probably will be Moss’ last chance to give us one final “Randy Moss” moment. Moss will one day be in the Hall of Fame, despite the fact that he rubbed many fans, sportswriters, teammates, coaches, owners, and a few referees the wrong way. But Moss is a six-time Pro Bowler, a four-time first-team AP All-Pro, and ranks 9th in career receptions, 3rd in career receiving yards, and 2nd in career receiving touchdowns. He’s had 64 100-yard games in his career, second only to Jerry Rice. He’s produced despite a relatively unstable quarterback situation for much of his career (admittedly, some of this was due to Moss): over one-third of his career receiving yards came from Daunte Culpepper, and no other single quarterback was responsible for even twenty percent of his yards. When he finally got a HOF-caliber quarterback, Moss broke the single-season record for receiving touchdowns in a season. But even before New England and Tom Brady, Moss had established himself as one of the greatest receivers in NFL history. If the 49ers win on Sunday, he’ll be like a modern Lance Alworth, who won a forgettable ring with the Dallas Cowboys in 1971.

It’s fitting that Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis are in the Super Bowl together. Willis was only 11 years old when Lewis entered the NFL, and Willis has modeled his game and his uniform number after Lewis. And in turn, if any linebacker has resembled Lewis over the last decade, it’s Willis, and there will be a figurative passing of the torch on Sunday. Even if he isn’t the next Ray Lewis, Willis has paved his own path towards Canton: he has been a first-team All-Pro choice by the Associated Press in five of his first six seasons. Lawrence Taylor, Eric Dickerson, Jerry Rice, Gale Sayers, and Reggie White are the only other NFL players since 1960 to be selected as a first-team AP All-Pro five or more times in their first six seasons. Absent a serious injury or a shocking career turn, Willis will one day be a Hall of Famer himself, but it sure can’t hurt to add a Lombardi Trophy to the resume.
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