Heartbreaker in New Orleans

23:38 Sun 03 Feb 2013. Updated: 00:41 04 Feb 2013
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When I moved to Ireland from the US as a kid, I had never gone to a football game. I don’t really remember watching any football on television either, and was mostly aware of the sport via playing it—the two-hand touch version—on the street[1]. As a result of this, I had no defined pro football allegiance[2].

I was still attracted to the game as a spectator, and was able to see short snippets of it on Channel Four, a British television station that did a weekly hour-long highlight show covering the NFL. In the absence of regional holds on my loyalty, I gravitated towards teams for stylistic reasons. This was the MontanaRice era, and I completely fell for the precision passing attack of the San Francisco 49ers. They’ve been my favorite football team since.

It wasn’t hard to be a 49ers fan at that time. Being a football fan at all was tougher, since access to games was so limited, but the 49ers were powerhouses, on target for an unprecedented three Super Bowl titles in a row before Leonard Marshall took Joe Montana out of the NFC Championship[3]. They weren’t quite as dominant in the 1990s, but were still perennial contenders.

That was true until I moved to the Bay Area. After I arrived, there were some brief periods of life when Steve Mariucci coached them, but after he left they were terrible. Terrible for a long time, and I had given up on their returning to relevance for years, as the organization seemed to need a massive overhaul.

Then they hired Jim Harbaugh, who has apparently performed miracles, bringing them incredibly close to a Super Bowl in his first year and to a Super Bowl this year. He may well be the most valuable coach in the league.

In a twist that has generated staggering amounts of media coverage, the opposing coach in today’s Super Bowl was his older brother, John Harbaugh, who is also highly respected. The Baltimore Ravens weren’t as good as the 49ers during the regular season, but peaked at the right time, and squeaked past the Denver Broncos[4] before dominating the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. Nevertheless, The 49ers entered the Super Bowl as favorites.

They got the ball first, and now, in the aftermath, their first series, indeed their first play, feels emblematic of the whole game: they got 15 yards on a great pass play, but had it called back because they lined up in an illegal formation. One of the best-coached teams in the league starting the Super Bowl in an illegal formation seemed like a bad omen. They couldn’t do anything else on that possession. The Ravens, on the other hand, took the ball and scored a touchdown. Then they did it again. And again, while San Francisco stuttered whenever they seemed to get rolling, and mustered nothing but two field goals, entering halftime trailing 6–21.

Baltimore received to start the second half, and Jacoby Jones returned the kickoff 109 yards[5] to put the Baltimore Ravens up 28–6. The greatest deficit any team had ever come back from in a Super Bowl was 10, and the 49ers were down 22 and were clearly reeling. Their young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, seemed skittish and daunted by the occasion; their offensive line, considered by many to be the best in the league, couldn’t open anything up for the running game; and their defense, also considered very strong, couldn’t seem to either corral Joe Flacco or prevent the Ravens receivers from catching deep balls.

Then the lights went out.

That’s not a metaphor. I mean that literally. The stadium lighting in the Superdome went out, and the game was stopped. They didn’t resume play for 34 minutes.

When they did, at first it seemed nothing had changed. The 49ers couldn’t convert on 3rd-and-13, and punted. But the defense held, and San Francisco got the ball back. Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree, and two Ravens bounced off him before he ran into the end zone for the first 49er touchdown of the game. 28–13.

The defense held again, forcing a 3-and-out from the Ravens, and then the 49er offense drove down the field and Frank Gore ran it in from six yards. 28–20. With 4:59 left in the third quarter.

After a Ray Rice fumble, the Baltimore defense reappeared, holding the 49ers to a field goal. 28–23. With 3:10 left in the third quarter.

Baltimore’s offense showed up again at this point, driving down the field and threatening, but the 49er defense forced them to settle for a field goal, making it 31–23 with 12:54 remaining.

The 49ers replied right away, with Kaepernick making a 15-yard scramble into the end zone to cap off the drive. The two-point conversion failed, however, so it was 31–29 with 9:57 remaining.

Baltimore ate plenty of clock on their next drive but again settled for a field goal to make it 34–29 with 4:19 left in the game.

At this point, it looked like San Francisco would come all the way back. They moved rapidly down the field, with a Frank Gore 33-yard run bringing them 1st-and-goal at the Baltimore 7-yard line.

But they couldn’t close the deal. From there, they got two yards on a run, then threw three straight incomplete passes. The last one involved a highly questionable non-call, with the Ravens defender impeding Crabtree in the end zone, but in any case, they couldn’t move the ball at all from there, and that was their best chance at the game.

Because of a wasted timeout much earlier in the second half, used when Kaepernick was unclear on the play call, they couldn’t stop the clock the one more time that would have given them at least a shot at the end zone, and the Ravens did the clever thing, taking as much time as possible and then letting the 49ers push their punter out of the end zone for a safety, making the score 34–31 but leaving San Francisco too little time on the clock to do anything.

As a longtime 49ers fan watching their first Super Bowl appearance since my arrival in the Bay Area, this was rather painful. The first half was horrendous, but while it was upsetting to see them seemingly fail to show up at all, it ended up being much worse to have my hopes raised and then dashed. I still can’t really believe that they didn’t score from the five. That wouldn’t have guaranteed a win, but it would have been crushing for the Ravens. They were so close to an amazing comeback, and being that close and failing hurts.

I walked along Mission after the game, and the streets were quiet. There was a heavy police presence, out to stop the mayhem that followed the two recent Giants World Series victories, but they didn’t seem necessary. The other people on the streets were subdued, morose like me, probably still wondering how that Gore run wasn’t followed quickly thereafter by a touchdown. Wild jubilation had been gathering, building, during that last drive, but then it dissipated, replaced by letdown and failure, twin spirits that walked Mission Street with me and the other hollow-eyed fans.

As with every sporting event of this kind, the question is obvious: if I am going to be so affected by striving and failure, should that striving and failure not at least be my own, rather than that of strangers? The rational response to that is clear, but the emotional calculus required to answer it remains unknown to me.

[1] In contrast, I distinctly remember Italy winning the World Cup and the resultant loud celebrations in my neighborhood.

[2] Unlike my baseball allegiance. Also, I don’t really have any college football allegiance, which makes the ongoing ridiculousness of the NCAA/BCS system slightly less painful to witness.

[3] I remember that as the turning point in the game, rather than the later Roger Craig fumble—perhaps out of Joe Montana fandom, but also perhaps because I was awake for the Marshall hit but not for the Craig fumble, as the time difference made watching the whole game rather challenging.

[4] Because the Broncos didn’t seem to consider covering a deep pass when that was more or less the only way the Ravens could keep the game alive.

[5] A Super Bowl and NFL record, and one that realistically cannot be broken, given that there was hardly any room left in the end zone when Jones caught the ball.

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