Special Teams Win Championships: How the 49ers Tied the St. Louis Rams

Ryan BalbiContributor INovember 13, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 7:  The San Francisco 49ers line up for a kickoff against the Buffalo Bills on October 7, 2012 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  The 49ers won 45-3.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Sunday’s game between the reigning NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Rams wasn’t supposed to be close.

The 49ers went into the game with the lead in the division. The Rams were sitting at the bottom of the NFC West. The 49ers went to the NFC Championship Game a season ago, and the Rams ended with the second-worst record in football. San Francisco’s defense is one of the best in the league. Their offense has seen improvements in the offensive line, receiver and at quarterback, and even the run game has gotten better this year. This game should have been a blowout, but it wasn’t. It was a tie! How could the 49ers only manage a draw against the Rams?

The answer is special teams. Let it be known that special teams win championships.

49er fans are not going to want to hear this. A year ago, the 49ers looked like one of the best teams in football. They had arguably the best defense (depending on which stats you decide to evaluate), they had an offense that did enough and they had arguably the best special teams in football. Andy Lee and David Akers were All-Pro kickers. Blake Costanzo was the heart and soul of a very strong coverage unit. Brian Jennings is the 49ers' longest tenured player and one of the best long snappers in the league.  No 49er will forget the value of Ted Ginn Jr. as a return man. San Francisco got the opportunity to host the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants. It was special teams that ultimately decided the game. Two errors by Ginn’s replacement, Kyle Williams, led to a Giants victory and a trip for the visitors to the Super Bowl.

On Sunday, we saw the biggest difference between this year's 49ers and last year's team. It was special teams. David Akers missed a field goal that would have won the game for the Niners in overtime, something he didn’t do last year. The Rams also succeeded in converting two fake punts. The second fake came on the Rams final drive of regulation, which resulted in a touchdown and a Rams lead. There were other struggles for the 49ers in the game, but the special teams made critical errors. 

Special teams play a bigger role than fans, players and coaches want to admit. They are crucial to the team’s success. Great punters and returners determine field position. Kickers score points. Coverage units have to be strong, or you risk giving your opponent a short field.  The 49ers' special teams cost them a trip to the Super Bowl and a victory on Sunday. The team made decisions in the offseason to let Costanzo and other special teamers go. They might look back now and realize they made a mistake. A team that can succeed in all three areas of football is a team that can win championships. Without quality special teams, you risk losing what your offense and defense worked so hard to accomplish.