Just getting to a Super Bowl is hard, so the taste of defeat after losing one can be lasting.
The 49ers’ trek to Super Bowl XLVII started in July, then continued through six months of the preseason and regular season, with ups and downs, injuries and disappointments and one of the boldest moves ever made by a coach, the benching of a successful starting quarterback for a raw second-year player with loads of promise but little experience.
Now the process begins all over again.
There’s no guarantee the Niners will reach Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey a year from now. Even great teams are upset in the do-or-die playoffs, and injuries can take their toll at any time.
But the 49ers who lost 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens Sunday night in New Orleans appear to be a team that will be in the mix for the NFL’s championship for several years.
As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler wrote after the game: “Something special has been happening with the San Francisco professional football team. Sunday was a Mount Everest of a speed bump, but the 49ers are for real. Have been since Jim Harbaugh arrived before last season, and show no sign that that will change anytime soon.”
- The 49ers now have Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, who in just 10 NFL starts has proven to be one of the NFL’s most dynamic playmakers.
- The offensive line, one of the NFL’s best, is young and getting better. A good offensive line and an outstanding quarterback? That’s a great combination.
- Because the 49ers advanced all the way to the Super Bowl, Harbaugh is likely to retain most of his key coordinators and assistants. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive chief Vic Fangio and assistant head coach Brad Seely – though highly coveted – weren’t available for other NFL teams to court when openings came up. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t still leave this offseason, but the chances are now less likely.
- General manager Trent Baalke has proven in his approximately three seasons in charge that he can add key pieces to the 49ers’ puzzle, through the draft and free agency.
- The defense, though getting older – standout defensive end Justin Smith is 34 and may only have a season or two remaining – is largely young and athletic, with standouts such as NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks either approaching or in their prime.
- Wideout Michael Crabtree finally clicked as a top-echelon player, and tight end Vernon Davis is one of the NFL’s best.
- The 49ers have many stars under longterm deals, including Willis (through 2016), Davis (2015), Bowman (2018), Brooks (2017), offensive tackle Joe Staley (2017) and Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee (2018). As Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group noted, the team has put itself in a good long-term financial position by locking up its key players, giving it “financial and personnel stability for years.”
Over the past two seasons under Baalke and Harbaugh, the 49ers have gone to the playoffs twice and won three games and they’ve compiled a 27-9-1 record.
Still, the road back to the Super Bowl won’t be easy. The NFC West is no pushover any more, and the Seattle Seahawks have now emerged as an NFC force and the Cardinals are probably just a quarterback away from being a contender. The Rams under Jeff Fisher also are likely to improve. Winning the NFC West in 2013 is going to be more of a battle than it was in 2011 or 2012.
Plus, the 49ers need to add depth to their defense. As shown in the Super Bowl – and in a near loss to the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game – the secondary can be vulnerable, and that can be addressed by adding more young pass rushers, a future replacement for Justin Smith and help at cornerback.
Still, the 49ers’ future looks bright.
As the Chronicle’s Ostler wrote, “There is nothing to indicate that this team isn’t for real, that it won’t continue to be a force.”
Added Ostler, to grieving Niners fans: “Step back and look at it as you would view an oil painting, ignoring minor flaws, and ask yourself: With the momentary exception of the Baltimore Ravens, who’s got it better than us? Seriously.”