Tuesday, February 5, 2013
NEW ORLEANS — In the grim aftermath of Super Bowl XLVII, Colin Kaepernick made a promise and Frank Gore made it, too.
They said the 49ers weren’t done with Super Bowls, and they had the right and maybe even the responsibility to make that kind of pledge Sunday night.
Because this whole 49ers season was a promise, wasn’t it?
Not just about the 2012 season or Super Bowl XLVII, but about the next several years, and maybe the next era of Super Bowls.
That’s where this has to be headed, even if the 49ers feel like they left a title on the table this season.
Unless this unravels under the weight of frustration, because of dramatic injury, or because of some other football bane, the 49ers are young enough and smart enough to compete for many more championships.
And, with Kaepernick growing into excellence and the 49ers defense maintaining it, they should win a few of them, too.
The 49ers were the rightful favorites on Sunday but lost 34-31 to Baltimore after a slew of early 49ers’ mistakes, an incredible comeback, and then failure in the final minutes.
Coach Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick and the rest did not fulfill their apparent destiny this time; they had every opportunity, and they came up short for now, just as they came up short against the New York Giants a round earlier last season.
(And yes, this means the 49ers have had their seasons ended by the eventual champions the last two years.)
But Harbaugh, Kaepernick, Gore & Co. should have several more chances together.
They were built to have many chances, all stemming from Kaepernick, who started his 10th NFL game Sunday and almost fashioned the greatest comeback victory in Super Bowl history.
Las Vegas agrees. The odds for next season are already up and the 49ers are the second favorites to win Super Bowl XLVIII, behind only the Denver Broncos and tied with the New England Patriots.
That doesn’t mean the 49ers are guaranteed of anything next season, especially if the hangover from this defeat lingers.
Sunday proved that they could use some upgrades in the secondary and at wide receiver—and this season’s draft class has so far been a complete non-starter, a huge falloff from general manager Trent Baalke’s great 2010 and 2011 classes.
But this franchise is set up with several crucial elements for long-term contention, from the coach to the quarterback to the defense to the new stadium to the vast talent level.
The current model: The New England Patriots, with coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady, constant cash flow from a great stadium, and a roster that is reloaded every draft.
The classic model: The 1981-1994 49ers five-title dynasty, with Bill Walsh (and then George Seifert), Joe Montana (and then Steve Young), and Eddie DeBartolo Jr.’s determination to win.
Take it for what it’s worth, but there’s a clear echo here:
Walsh won Super Bowl XVI in his third 49ers season, when he’d just turned 50.
Harbaugh will turn 50 next December, in his third 49ers season.
Back in 1981, Walsh was leaning on a young QB named Joe Montana, who was 25 at the beginning of the 1981 season and entered it with just eight career NFL starts.
Now, Harbaugh has staked the franchise on Kaepernick, who will be 25 at the beginning of next season and has 10 career starts.
It goes beyond the quarterback. The 49ers’ defensive pillars, except for 33-year-old Justin Smith, are all just entering their prime years. It’s the same situation for the 49ers’ crunching offensive line.
But the straight line to multiple Super Bowl appearances always leads from the quarterback.
Basically, if you get to the big game with a young quarterback with a high growth trajectory, you have a good chance of repeat trips and possibly repeat titles.
The era-ending Super Bowl teams usually carry one, or more, of these markings:
—An older or declining quarterback such as Arizona’s Kurt Warner four years ago, Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb eight years ago or the Raiders’ Rich Gannon 10 years ago. None of those teams have been close since.
—An aging talent base, such as Indianapolis three years ago (despite having Peyton Manning), Miami 28 years ago (despite having Dan Marino in his prime) and many teams in between.
—A coach who didn’t seem destined to win it all, such as Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt, Indianapolis’ Jim Caldwell and the Raiders’ Bill Callahan.
The 49ers have that young defense, and they have Harbaugh, who didn’t have his greatest game Sunday but who clearly has shoved the 49ers onto this path.
And they have Kaepernick, who replaced Alex Smith because Harbaugh believed Kaepernick was probably the better player now and absolutely the better player for the future.
That’s the promise. They let one get away Sunday, which only makes the promise most urgent for 2013.