How would a victory against the Baltimore Ravens changed the trajectory of the franchise?
The San Francisco 49ers had a perfect 5-0 record in the Super Bowl going into the 2012 season. The Niners were a dominant squad in 2012 and ran through the NFC to set up a showdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.
Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach before the 2011 season. No one expected the 49ers to become one of the best teams in the league so early in his tenure, but with some elite pieces in place, San Francisco went 13-3 in 2011. The Niners came up just short in the NFC Championship game against the New York Giants, thanks to a player who shall not be named.
Quarterback Alex Smith turned the corner under Harbaugh and looked set to be the leader of the team for the foreseeable future. Smith led the team to a 6-2 start going into their bye week in 2012 before suffering a concussion in the second quarter of the Week 10 matchup against the Rams. Colin Kaepernick replaced Smith, and that game wound up finishing tied at 24-24.
Kaepernick made his first career start against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 246 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions, leading the 49ers to a 32-7 win and never looked back.
Smith was cleared to play the following week in New Orleans, but Harbaugh said he was going with the hot hand, and Kaepernick never gave up his job as the starter, despite an ugly 16-13 Week 12 loss to the Rams.
The 49ers started the game slowly and made Joe Flacco and Jacoby Jones look like they were Hall of Famers. The Ravens led 21-6 going into the third quarter when Jones took the opening kickoff 108 yards, extending the Baltimore lead to 22 with the PAT.
On San Francisco’s next possession, the power went out in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, delaying play for 34 minutes.
It’s unknown what Harbaugh said to the players, but they came out like gangbusters after the stoppage and dominated. They just couldn’t get over the hump. After a 15-yard Kaepernick TD run to cut the Ravens’ lead to 31-29, the 49ers failed on the two-point convert. Baltimore added a field goal to extend the lead to five, setting up the Niners’ infamous final drive.
Following big plays by Michael Crabtree and Frank Gore, San Francisco was set up on the Ravens’ 7-yard line. A two-yard run by LaMichael James on first-down was the only gain they had on four plays. Harbaugh called a timeout as the play clock was ticking down just as it looked like Kaepernick was setting up for a designed QB run. Two incompletions on fades to Crabtree all but ended the Niners’ hopes of completing the comeback.
It was never quite the same after the Super Bowl loss. The friction between Harbaugh, general manager Trent Baalke, and owner Jed York started boiling over. The 49ers made the NFC Championship game the following season, but it seemed inevitable that Harbaugh’s contract wouldn’t be renewed after the 2014 season. Injuries, drama, and inconsistencies plagued the Niners in Harbaugh’s final year as the team sputtered to an 8-8 record.
Looking back at the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens, it’s tough not to think about what would have happened if the 49ers had won that game? Most likely, York would have rewarded Harbaugh with a contract extension for winning a championship, despite Harbaugh not thinking of York as a “man.”
It would have been fascinating to see how many years the marriage would have worked with all of the tension between the head coach and management, but if Harbaugh stuck around for a few more seasons, who knows how 2015 through 2017 would have gone.
Losing Harbaugh hurt at the time. He went 44-19-1 over four seasons and led the team to three consecutive NFC Championship games. Most franchises would have locked their coach into a new deal, but that didn’t happen between Harbaugh and York.
If the Niners won that Super Bowl, do you think Harbaugh would have gotten an extension? How do you think the franchise would be different now?