I’ve never been a man who cries much. Not that I find anything wrong with doing so; I simply don’t usually get emotional enough. However, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears two Sundays ago when my beloved New England Patriots fell to the Baltimore Ravens. Another year, another Super Bowl dream crushed. Is that eight seasons in a row now?
But enough of my pity party, because the general mood toward football at University of California, Santa Barbara over these past few days has been electric. That’s because the San Francisco 49ers have finally reached the Super Bowl, ending a drought that dates back to 1994. Even more exciting is the fact that head coach Jim Harbaugh will be taking on his brother, John Harbaugh, who is the Ravens’ head coach. Call it the Bro Bowl, the Super-Baugh or whatever you wish. It’s going to be one brutal game.
Besides long-time fandom, there are more reasons to be excited about the Niners’ playoff appearance. The 49ers are a storied franchise, one of the pillars of the NFL, with five Super Bowl wins (tied for second all-time) and some of the greatest players of all time: Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, and so on. To see them back on top of the league is a welcoming sight. However, the most exciting part of the team’s recent success isn’t just their reclamation of the football throne; it is the way in which they are changing how football is played.
The NFL of the present is a high-flying, high-powered offensive league. Quarterbacks and receivers are the main playmakers, with explosive downfield throws and gravity defying catches being the order of the day. Defenses aren’t the prime concern; if the offense were good enough, all of the points in the world scored against the team wouldn’t matter. Think the Saints, Lions, and Packers. This, however, is anything but characteristic of 49ers football. Head coach Jim Harbaugh entered the league two years ago, leaving his job as the head coach at Stanford (where he coached none other than the number one draft pick of last year and possible Offensive Rookie of the Year, Andrew Luck). He brought to the Niners exactly what the organization used to thrive on: discipline, and some good old-fashioned football.
Professional football several decades ago didn’t look anything like it does today. In the past, the game was all about running the football and putting up a strong defensive showing. While my Patriots are all about Tom Brady slinging the ball to a cadre of receivers, Jim Harbaugh assembled one of the strongest defenses in the league. In 2011, they did not allow a rushing touchdown until the penultimate week of the regular season, and created a hard-hitting, powerful offense that focused on a tough ground attack by running back Frank Gore and the elevated play of the previously mediocre quarterback Alex Smith. This season, when Smith was lost mid-game to a concussion, backup Colin Kaepernick took the stage and has yet to relinquish the position. A debatably more dynamic and athletic player overall, he now leads the team with a similar offense, and his running ability is now another weapon. Other teams are taking notice, too, with the Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, and Carolina Panthers all employing similar tactics.
After no playoff appearances from 2002-2010, the 49ers are the team to beat in the NFL. The discipline and talent that have evolved under Jim Harbaugh are almost unbelievable. The Niners don’t beat teams by relying on their offense to score phenomenal amounts of points before their opponents can react. They physically outmatch the other team on both sides of the ball, and the points come naturally. When you combine the league’s third-ranked overall defense, fourth-ranked rushing attack, and eleventh-ranked overall offense, you don’t just get a dangerous team. You get a Super Bowl winner.
The Ravens are an excellent team, as terrible as those words taste. They have the skills to go toe-to-toe with the 49ers, and nothing is a given at this point. Both teams know they can be champions, but someone has to win this game. Before last year, I had always liked the 49ers. I was never an ardent supporter, but I rooted for them when appropriate and liked to see them win. However, after seeing the way in which they have reinvented themselves and made their decade-long slump just a memory, I am completely sold on them, and can see myself as a lifelong fan. With the Patriots out, there is no other team I would rather see take out the Ravens and hold up the Lombardi Trophy this Sunday.
Now go ruffle some feathers, 49ers.
Photo Credit: Football Schedule