Monday, February 4, 2013

Dream On

I talked last week about the tradition of Champions the 49ers had created for themselves in the 1980s and 1990s, and how it's endured through to the next generation of the franchise. The 49ers had a chance to add to that heritage on Sunday night in Super Bowl XLVII, and place themselves alongside the legends of Super Bowls past. But after once again falling far behind their opponent only to charge back in the second half, they came up five yards short of one final miracle, falling to the Baltimore Ravens 34-31.

I don't know, for the non-football audience, if there's an equivalent Mets loss that can compare to this. Maybe Game 6 in Atlanta in 1999 is close, but it's impossible to compare Baseball and Football, and I'm too much of a carcass to attempt to do so. It's taken me this long to be able to form coherent enough thoughts to write out here. To call my feelings about this somber would be an understatement. After spending most of last offseason randomly thinking about their loss to the Giants in the Championship game and what might have been, I've now got to look forward to another offseason, thinking about a close game that came down to a few plays, a few missed opportunities, and a loss that will rankle me for the next several months. Yes, I'll cheer up in a day or two and everything will get back to normal. Yes, I'll also spend a lot of time reflecting on what a great season this was, and the wild ride that took the Niners all the way down to the Super Bowl, but they couldn't bring home that 6th title. The legacy of the 49ers, to have made it to the Super Bowl so many times and always managed to emerge victorious, is now tainted. And that sucks. Many people seem to have the prevailing thought that in many ways, it's better to not make it to the Super Bowl altogether than it is to go there and lose it. A loss in the Super Bowl, constantly the most-watched sporting event of the year, can brand you with a negative label, whether it's earned or not, that you'll constantly have to overcome. I've been through slews of shitty playoff losses, I've seen the Niners hang in and lose by a hair, and I've seen them get smoked. But I've never seen them lose quite like they did last night.

The 49ers came out and appeared ready to exchange punches with the Ravens. They fell behind early, but not so much that it concerned me. They'd been playing from behind every week. Nonetheless, they would have been wise to not let Baltimore get too far ahead. Their defense, even with their deficiencies, was better than Atlanta's. And Joe Flacco came out as strong as I'd expected. To win, the 49ers would have to move the ball and score often. But this appeared to fall apart in the 2nd quarter, when a pair of turnovers spelled instant disaster. First, LaMichael James' fumble, which killed a drive that appeared primed to end in points when he coughed it up struggling for yards in a scene similar to Michael Crabtree's fumble in Atlanta. That ended in a Baltimore touchdown. Then, Colin Kaepernick, who had been scintillating throughout the playoffs, made a rare mistake, tried to do a little too much and overshot Randy Moss and hit Ed Reed instead. That was when I started getting really worried. Kaepernick had just thrown the first Interception ever thrown by a 49ers Quarterback in the Super Bowl and it couldn't have come at a worse time. Baltimore's possession that time ended with a fake Field Goal that probably would have ended with a Touchdown had Patrick Willis not snuffed it out. But Baltimore got their touchdown the next time out courtesy of Jacoby Jones, who basically did an excellent job of making Chris Culliver look like even more of a chump than Culliver had made himself look on the way to a 56-yard score and a 21-6 Ravens lead at the half. Jacoby Jones followed with a haymaker after halftime, running back the opening kickoff 108 yards for another score that, as far as I was concerned, may as well have put the lights out on the game. They had committed far too many mistakes and minor as they may have been, they had begun to add up to disaster.

Down 28-6, the 49ers probably couldn't have been blamed for lying down. But true to the form that got them to this point, they did not. Following the bewildering power outage that did little more than give me time to stew over this mess, the 49ers regrouped, got their asses in gear, and began to fight back. And they fought back fast. Within mere minutes, 28-6 had become 28-23 and all of a sudden everyone was back into this thing. And it was all generated by Colin Kaepernick.

It wasn't so much that Kaepernick played particularly badly in the first half. He may have had moments where he didn't relax, which had been his undoing in certain instances, but I can't recall more than 2 or 3 bad throws out of him all day. He wasn't helped by a number of drops from his receivers. But there's just something about Kaepernick. When he gets the offense going, it appears to energize the entire team. You can see it happening. He hit Crabtree for the 49ers first touchdown and immediately, the 49ers Defense came to life and stopped the Ravens cold, even forcing a fumble from Ray Rice. The touch was back on his passes and the 49ers began ripping through the Baltimore Defense. You can say whatever you want about Kaepernick now, and I suppose people already have. Bill Cowher even went on CBS during the power outage and called for Alex Smith. That wasn't ever going to happen. If there was any Quarterback who could have led the 49ers back into the game, it sure as hell wasn't Alex Smith. Kaepernick had gotten them this far and he damn near brought them all the way back once again. As far as I'm concerned, Colin Kaepernick's performance bordered on Heroic. This team respects and loves him so much that when he kicks it into gear, it feels like the entire team kicks in with him. And that's exactly what happened in the 3rd Quarter Sunday night.

The game from there was the back and forth I'd expected. The 49ers got a Touchdown from Gore and a Field Goal from Akers (who shut everyone up by hitting all 3 Field Goals he attempted) before the Ravens finally responded. But by that point, the 49ers had begun to generate enough on defense to slow down, if not stop completely, the Ravens attack. Now, they were the ones getting the Field Goals. The 4th Quarter began with one for Baltimore, but the 49ers responded by zipping right down the field for another Touchdown, this one from Kaepernick himself on a 15-yard scramble that put the 49ers within a 2-point conversion of tying the game at 31. But the Ravens came on an all-out blitz on the conversion, forcing Kaepernick to throw the ball away.

Baltimore kicked another Field Goal on their final drive, aided by a Pass Interference penalty on Chris Culliver and an offsides call. Little things that hurt. So with the score 34-29, and about 4 minutes to go, the 49ers had one final chance to get the ball into the End Zone, erase the deficit, erase the Ravens and bring home a Title. Colin Kaepernick had done it all to this point, and now here was his Joe Montana moment. As he had all second half, Kaepernick threaded passes with precision. Frank Gore, suddenly energized in the second half, came up with a pair of key runs. The Ravens defense was gassed. It was all coming together, just as I saw Joe Montana do it so many years before. Colin Kaepernick was going to pull off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl History and put his name alongside the NFL's elite...

...They came up five yards short.

There were many questions after the game, and it may be some time before they get answered. The 49ers committed a myriad of mistakes that offset the fact that they out-gained the Ravens by over 100 yards of offense, and offset the fact that Colin Kaepernick threw for over 300 yards, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree caught over 100 yards worth of passes and Frank Gore ran for over 100 yards. When that kind of production happens and you lose, you probably screwed up badly in other places.

The 49ers defense was abysmal through the first half, and when they really needed a stop in the 4th Quarter, they couldn't get it. The problem isn't the players, it's the depth. The 49ers have made it through the season rarely substituting on defense. The guys were just gassed. And without experienced backups, that becomes a liability.

The play calling, both early and late, was terrible. The final series for the 49ers will probably be scrutinized for weeks to try to figure out what they could have done differently to make up those 5 yards that they couldn't get. The final 3 plays were all passing plays. That probably shouldn't have happened. Where was Frank Gore? Gore had run up 110 yards for the game, most of them in the 4th Quarter. The 49ers had particular success running Gore on misdirection plays away from the action, and besides the point, Gore's strength is his ability to weave his way through tacklers. Where was a designed roll out for Kaepernick? Where was Vernon Davis (Bill Barnwell on Grantland noted that this would have been a perfect spot for the same Vernon Post play that won them the Saints game last year), who had been similarly unstoppable? Three consecutive pass plays directed at the same receiver, Michael Crabtree, though perhaps high-percentage, didn't play to Kaepernick's particular strength and also really wasn't the kind of play calling that got the 49ers to that point.

Whether or not Crabtree was the victim of a helmet-to-helmet hit on 3rd down, or held on 4th down is immaterial. Bad officiating and non-calls are a regular occurrence in the NFL. The 49ers were also done in by some penalties that they richly deserved. The referees did a bad job, but the play on 4th down—Crabtree was held by Jimmy Smith—is almost always never called. It wasn't called on NaVorro Bowman in the Championship game, either. My feeling is that the 49ers are less sore losers than simply frustrated from how close they came to winning this game. Or maybe that's just what I'd like to believe. Either way, them's the breaks. I can't get too bent out of shape about it because it shouldn't have come down to that. There's plenty of other things to be bent out of shape about.

For the second season in a row, the 49ers have made a deep playoff run that ended with an excruciating loss. That it's come after so many years of losing is a testament to what Jim Harbaugh has brought to the team—yes, often at the expense of classiness, but the NFL is about winning games, not pleasing the press—and they have the pieces in place for continued success. The 2012 season brought Colin Kaepernick to the forefront as the future of the 49ers at Quarterback. Though he was up and down in his first half-season as a starter, he showed his stuff on the biggest of stages and although last night wasn't his time to shine brightest, he proved he belongs. He's got limitless potential and clearly, he's the future of the 49ers. The remaining core pieces of the team, Gore, Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Delanie Walker, DaShon Goldson and Andy Lee will all be back. Many of them are still young and entering the prime of their careers.

But youth and talent doesn't guarantee continued success. That's the nature of the NFL. That's why I said every Championship season is special and precious and the opportunity to be in the Super Bowl shouldn't ever be taken for granted. The 49ers were perilously close to not even winning the NFC West this season, or being stuck without a 1st round bye. Who's to say that the Seahawks, who were up the Niners' asses all season, don't continue to ascend and prove an even tougher opponent than last year? The St. Louis Rams also improved by leaps and bounds. Outside the division, there's plenty of other teams that can cause plenty of headaches. That doesn't even account for injuries and other teams adjusting to the 49ers style of play. Sometimes, making the Super Bowl is the worst thing that can happen to a team, win or lose. It leads to the assumption that you're probably good enough. The hope is that the 49ers realize that they're only good enough to compete for a Championship. There's still pieces that can be added, particularly for depth, something that's often overlooked.

No, there's nothing to be ashamed about. They just fell behind too far too early and ran out of time. Their defense couldn't account for the buzzsaw that Joe Flacco had become and their play calling lacked variety at a key moment. They were behind 22 points and damn near made it up. The point is, it's a bitch and a half to have come all this way for two years in a row, battle hard through two seasons, overcome a really bitter playoff defeat, stay mostly healthy and make it all the way back, get to the Super Bowl and lose. Last year, the 49ers used their defeat in the Championship Game to rally them all the way back and into the Super Bowl. But 5 yards away from bringing home the ultimate prize, they fell short. And for the second year in a row, I'll have to spend the offseason thinking about what might have been.

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