NEW ORLEANS — San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has been to Super Bowls before, but never the way he really wanted. He’s the coach of a 49ers team that was a couple of fumbled returns away from a possible NFC title game victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants last season, and back in January 1996, he was the quarterback for an Indianapolis Colts team that lost the AFC title game to the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-16 … and would have won the game if receiver Aaron Bailey could have brought in Harbaugh’s 29-yard Hail Mary pass as the clock ran out.
At the 49ers’ introductory press conference just after the team arrived in New Orleans to prepare for Super Bowl XLVII, Harbaugh said that he’d also been to a few Super Bowls — but only as a fan.
[Morning Rush: Harbaugh brothers not No. 1 sporting siblings]
“Yes, I have attended Super Bowls in the past. For example, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers two years ago [Super Bowl XLV]. I was at the Super Bowl in New Orleans when San Francisco played Denver [XXIV, at the end of the 1989 season], and there might have been one other one along the way. There might have been a couple other ones.”
So, he’s been as close as you can get in every possible way without getting there. Now, after the 49ers trumped the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game despite an early 17-0 deficit, he’s finally here the way he always wanted to be. But as you might expect from a coach who is all business and wouldn’t tell the media anything but, Harbaugh’s focus is on the game against the Baltimore Ravens in a a week’s time. Starting, of course, with second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who helped propel the 49ers to that rarefied place, even with a host of stars around him.
“It’s been a team effort,” Harbaugh said of his players. “I feel like there’s a lot of people that have a lot of fingerprints on this team’s success. Like I said, the team has been focused on the unity of the team and on winning better than any team I’ve ever seen or been around. Really credit that to the men in the locker room. They enjoy each other’s company. They like being around each other and they like competing. They hold themselves to a high standard in terms of that. Colin’s play has been outstanding. He deserves tremendous amount of credit for that. He, like the rest of the guys on the team, are focused on the opportunity to play and win a championship.”
But that opportunity might not exist had Harbaugh not stuck to his decision to play Kaepernick in the wake of Alex Smith’s mid-season concussion, and to keep Kaepernick as the starter even after Smith was healthy. Smith, more a game manager in the traditional sense, played his best for Harbaugh, but no matter how you sliced it, his ceiling was simply lower. Kaepernick has made some rookie mistakes, and that’s what he effectively is based on starting experience, but he’s got a combination of mobility and deep accuracy that has transformed the 49ers’ offense from a ground-based system high on efficiency and now on fireworks to an offense that can do it all.
When the second-year man from Nevada set a single-game rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, that was the ultimate statement regarding Kaepernick’s abilities as a threat on the run. When the Falcons tried to adjust and force Kaepernick to throw, the young quarterback overcame a very week first quarter to do what needed to be done. It’s not easy to impress a coach who was quite a quarterback himself, and is also quote the control freak, but Kaepernick has done just that.
“I shared this with some of our beat writers a week and a half ago, but it’s true — it’s a true story,” Harbaugh said with a smile. “When Colin is running and the stride that he has, the gracefulness with his stride, the ground that he covers, how fast and quick he is reminds me of myself. Then I wake up. But when I dream and have visions of how I run personally, it’s the way Colin runs.”
It’s not a dream anymore. Harbaugh is now in the Super Bowl … the way everybody wants to be.
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