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When Sunday’s Super Bowl ended, the confetti showered down from the Superdome rafters onto the victorious Baltimore Ravens. It is an image that will stay with the San Francisco 49ers all winter. And it is one of the things that makes them a scary team for next season.
All Super Bowl losses are bitter, but this one was particularly so for the 49ers. They fell behind early and appeared hopelessly finished, but fought back and were in position to win the game at the end only to come up five yards short. The memory of the final pass – and the penalty that could have been called – will gnaw at them for a long time.
As much as it hurts today, it will make the 49ers stronger down the road. This is a very young and talented team and the experience it gained in this Super Bowl as well as a sense of mission after coming so close and being denied will make them hard to beat in the 2013 season.
The Ravens talked a lot this season about how last season ended -- with Lee Evans dropping a Joe Flacco pass that could have won the AFC title game in New England. As heartbreaking as it was, it served as motivation for the Ravens this season. Almost every player mentioned it in the days leading up to Super Bowl. It was unfinished business until they finished it Sunday.
Now the 49ers are the ones with unfinished business. We’ll see if it carries them as far as it carried the Ravens this season.
Yes, the 49ers came close a year ago. They lost to the Giants in the NFC final, but they were an upstart team that came out of nowhere. Just being in the playoffs was new and exciting. This time the 49ers knew they were legit. They were favored to win on Sunday and they fell just short. This cut is deeper and hurts more.
The 49ers aren’t riding off into the sunset with Ray Lewis. They will be back, most likely as favorites to repeat as NFC champions. The roster is loaded with young players who are just entering their peak years. Jim Harbaugh will be in his third season as head coach. His system will be that much further along.
The 49ers have only five starters over the age of 30 – receiver Randy Moss (35), center Jonathan Goodwin (34), defensive tackles Isaac Sopoaga (31) and Justin Smith (33) and cornerback Carlos Rogers (31). Moss won’t be back but they have Mario Manningham, the former Giant, and this year’s top draft pick A.J. Jenkins in the wings. Smith is the bigger concern. When he sustained a torn biceps muscle this season, the whole defense suffered. If he can’t come back fully, he will be hard to replace.
Frank Gore is only 29, but he has a lot of miles on those legs. They will have to depend more on the young backs LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter, and while they may not have Gore’s power, they are very explosive.
Receiver Michael Crabtree is only 25 and coming off a breakout season (85 catches, nine touchdowns). Tight end Vernon Davis is 28. The offensive line is the best in the league and should only get better. Guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone are 25. Left tackle Joe Staley is 28. Anthony Davis, the right tackle, is 23.
On defense, the 49ers have four excellent linebackers and Ahmad Brooks is the oldest at 28. Aldon Smith, their leading sacker, is 23. The inside pairing of Patrick Willis (27) and NaVorro Bowman (24) will be in place for years. The secondary is young, aside from Rogers, but could stand improvement. Cornerback Chris Culliver had a brutal Super Bowl.
Of course, the key to the 49ers' future is Colin Kaepernick, the gifted young quarterback who made just his 10th NFL start on Sunday. He was tense and tight early and threw a bad interception to Ed Reed, but once he found his groove in the second half he showed just how good he can be.
Ray Horton, who was defensive coordinator in Arizona this season when the Cardinals lost to the 49ers, told USA Today: “Kaepernick really looks like Steve Young, only from the right side.” It is quite a compliment to be compared to a Hall of Famer after less than a full season on the job.
Most people talk about Kaepernick’s running and, as he demonstrated on his dash to the end zone Sunday, he has great speed. But I’m just as impressed with his passing. He has a very strong arm and can zip a ball through tight windows, but he also has nice touch. He can loft a pass over a defender and feather it into the hands of his receiver, a skill he has refined greatly in just two seasons.
Kaepernick is only 25 and if he continues to develop at his current rate, he will take the 49ers back to the top of the mountain. The thing he needs to learn – and this comes with experience – is executing in the red zone. That was the difference in Sunday’s game. The 49ers were inside the 20 six times and scored only two touchdowns.
The Ravens showed how to play the young quarterback in that situation. They sent an all out blitz and gambled with man coverage behind it. Their strategy – and it worked – was to come hard off the edges, keep Kaepernick in the pocket and force him to get rid of the ball quickly. It is not unlike how teams had success attacking Mike Vick in the red zone.
Kaepernick has to practice making those throws, especially the fades, to take advantage of the one-on-one coverage. But he is so young and so good, it is easy to foresee him throwing that pass to win a Super Bowl – maybe as soon as next year.