Much Ado About Nothing?
Minicamps have finished up and NFL teams are breaking for the final time before meeting for training camps in late July. That means the media will look for any sound byte, quote out of context, or any tweet to publish a story. Look no further than the 49ers-Rams tiff of last week.
Former St. Louis safety and new 49er Craig Dahl made comments last week that explicitly pointed to the Niners tipping plays against the Rams last season. The new Niner told CSNBayArea.com the Rams “had a few tips off of film that we were able to differentiate between run and pass early.” It’s an interesting claim to make in public, and sure to go over badly with his former teammates. But, let’s take a closer look at this perceived jab at his former club.
St. Louis played the Niners as tough as anyone in the league last season, tying them in San Francisco in Week 10 and later beating them at home in Week 13. Additionally, they had to be disappointed in their tie after an illegal-formation penalty negated an 80-yard pass play that would have set up a game-winning score in overtime.
However, during the second quarter of that Week 10 game, Colin Kaepernick was forced into action after a Jo-Lonn Dunbar hit concussed Alex Smith. The rest, as they say, is history. However, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman unquestionably brought their second-year quarterback along slowly. Behind a dominant offensive line and running game, Kaepernick averaged 27 passes per game across 10 starts. Prorated out to a 16 game season, Kaepernick would have had 435 pass attempts. That would have ranked 24th in the NFL last season.
So, it makes some sense that the Niners would have had some very simple personnel formations and packages against the Rams during last season’s games. A smart defensive coach like Jeff Fisher and his gang of assistants identified San Francisco's tells and used them to their advantage. The NFL is very competitive and any way you can legally get a leg up — and in some cases, illegally — you do it.
And it goes both ways. The 49ers were aware of the mistakes they made and signed Dahl to get a little advanced scouting on what the Rams knew about San Francisco’s scheme. An even bigger addition during this offseason was Eric Mangini. His role as offensive consultant will be to point out potential issues that the Niners have with tipping plays through their personnel groupings.
Unfortunately, Dahl’s comments didn’t sit well with the Rams. Of course, there was only one Ram who could respond.
Cortland Finnegan is known as a pest on the field. It's not surprising he fired back at Dahl after the comments. Remember when he goaded the usually calm Andre Johnson into a full-on fist fight during a game in 2010? Or, how about just this last season when Finnegan forced Redskins receiver Josh Morgan into a boneheaded, unsportsmanlike penalty which saw Washington lose the game? Finnegan knows exactly what he's doing. Agitating the opposition on and off the field is second nature to him.
He took to Twitter this time, saying of Dahl: “We know how you play, thanks for the tips, we know who to attack early and often.” Yet, sadly for Finnegan, Dahl will unlikely be on the field in important situations.
Dahl was signed early by the Niners in the free agency period in March, but only received $5.25 million over three years, with just $800,000 in guaranteed money. The 49ers likely looked at him as a contingency plan if they didn’t get the safety they were targeting in the draft. However, they traded up and selected Louisiana State’s Eric Reid. Dahl may see time in San Francisco’s dime defense as a center-field free safety, but unless Reid struggles in his rookie season, Dahl’s role will not be very extensive.
Additionally, Harbaugh, Roman and Mangini will be very judicious with the offense, especially without Michael Crabtree. Kaepernick is undoubtedly more comfortable in the offense, so the kid gloves will come off. But San Francisco’s only real downfield threat is Vernon Davis, and Kaepernick’s big arm will limited with just a few deep shots per game. Simply put, the 49ers tipping plays last year against the Rams will have no effect on their play-calling.
This alleged spat between the NFC West foes has more to do with upping the stakes in the division. Between the 49ers, Seahawks, and Rams, there will be a ton of physical play and the NFC West has the look of the toughest division in football. Dahl made a mistake making his comments public, and Finnegan fired back to up the ante. Both coaches are smart enough to not let these remarks mar preparations for the season. That doesn't mean there will be any love lost between these two teams. Yet, we knew that already. Carry on with the offseason.