A clash years in the making
The Harbaugh brothers' lifelong competition moves to one of the biggest stages
They grew up together. As kids, they slept in the same bedroom. As coaches, they took their teams to Super Bowl XLVII and even practiced in the same facility for two days. On Friday, they held a joint Super Bowl news conference.
Jim and John Harbaugh have dominated Super Bowl XLVII. Come Sunday, though, one has to be a winner and the other a loser. Who has the edge in Harbowl I -- Jim of the 49ers or John of the Ravens?
Jim was the younger brother, but because he was so much bigger than kids his age, he hung out and played sports with the friends of his older brother, John. Ever competitive and involved in seven sports, both brothers competed relentlessly, never conceding anything. John noted how physical it was when he played against his brother in hockey.
On Sunday, though, it comes down to their minds and ability to coach at the highest level. Jim talks about the band of brothers a team must form to be successful. These brothers are close, but neither likes to lose.
Here are the 10 major trends to look for in Super Bowl XLVII.
1. Copycats? The Harbaughs are taking the NFL back to the 1980s with their styles of football, and other NFL teams need to consider their positions. The 49ers run a 1980s offense and a 1970s defense. On offense, Jim Harbaugh believes in a Bo Schembechler style of football. He has overloaded the playbook with two-back sets or two-tight-end sets. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman spiced up those plans with trap plays, pulling guards schemes, tight-end wham blocks and counter plays. The 49ers run the up-to-date read option with Colin Kaepernick. On defense, coordinator Vic Fangio doesn't do much situational substitution. He bases their play on 13 defenders who see 95 percent of the action. It has worked. Since Jim Caldwell began handling the offensive play calling, the Ravens have found a way to get more out of first and second downs. They have a better mix of the Ray Rice runs and the Joe Flacco deep passes. But both Harbaughs are about power running. It allows them to be more forceful in the red zone and better on short-yardage plays. We'll see whether other teams copy that next year.
2. Kaepernick's shot at greatness: Like Tom Brady in his first Super Bowl, Kaepernick can accomplish the rare feat of winning a ring in his first season as a starter. Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe after an injury and won a Super Bowl. Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith after Smith suffered a concussion, and now he's giving NFL defenses headaches as he tries for his first ring.
Few athletes can eat up chunks of yards as quickly as Kaepernick with his long, fast stride, but a lot needs to be made of his arm. Kaepernick has a rifle. Wide receiver Kyle Williams first saw him during the lockout and couldn't believe how fast the football arrived when Kaepernick threw. "Were you a pitcher in baseball?'' Williams remembered asking him. Kaepernick nodded. Williams, who also played baseball, estimated Kaepernick would have been a 96 mph pitcher. "His pitch is like a two-seam fastball with a slight fade,'' Williams said. Kaepernick's accuracy amazed teammates, who say he throws a fast, catchable spiral. Because the ball spins consistently well, it's easy to catch, but some catches come with a price. Randy Moss dislocated a finger. Others get a few aches from his fastballs. But they all love his abilities.
3. Blind side: The Michael Oher story, as told in the film "The Blind Side," captivated the country a few years ago. In high school, Oher was homeless, but he ended up getting the support of a great family and eventually made it as a first-round pick. But it's not Oher who is the key to protecting Flacco's blind side now. It's Bryant McKinnie, a 33-year-old veteran left tackle whose career was almost at an end. Left guard Kelechi Osemele is another key. They have to contain 49ers defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Aldon Smith, the key to the 49ers' pass rush. Justin Smith has a 50 percent tear of his left triceps. Aldon Smith is coming off a 19-and-a-half-sack season, but he works his speed off Justin's strength. Justin Smith is an old-school 3-4 defensive end who relies on his strength and savvy. He struggled in the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta, but, after the first quarter, he started to look like the old Justin. His strength can overpower a guard, and, when that happens, Aldon cleans up on sacks. The Ravens like to use five- and seven-step drops, so Osemele has to hold back Justin and McKinnie has to slow down Aldon.
McKinnie is an interesting story. Last year, he was 377 pounds and out of favor. He got down to 350, but John Harbaugh didn't start him in the regular season. A hip flexor buried him further on the bench. Finally, McKinnie went to Harbaugh and said he needed to play. The Ravens were struggling at right tackle, and McKinnie was showing some things in practice. Harbaugh made the line better by moving Oher and starting McKinnie at left tackle.
4. Importance of safeties: Super Bowl XLVII features four Pro Bowl safeties -- Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard of the Ravens and Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson of the 49ers. All four can hit. To get to a Super Bowl, a team needs a top quarterback, but, since 2005, it also seems as if a team needs good safeties. Whether it's Troy Polamalu of the Steelers or some of the other great safeties in the past eight Super Bowls, safety might be one of the most important positions in these games. In 2005, the Seahawks had a couple of injuries at safety. When they ran out of depth, Ben Roethlisberger took advantage of it for what turned out to be the game winner. Nowadays, safeties have to do a lot. One usually needs to be near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. One has to make sure a tight end such as Vernon Davis of the 49ers or Dennis Pitta of the Ravens doesn't beat him.
5. Super Bowl of focus: In the 36 Super Bowls I've covered, I don't think I've seen two teams more focused than the Ravens and the 49ers. The Ravens' focus is simple: Ray Lewis is perhaps the best leader on defense ever to play the game. He's retiring, and his teammates want to win this game for him. Lewis has stayed at the hotel all week reviewing tape on his iPad and making sure his defensive teammates are also prepared.
The 49ers might be a little more focused. They have a core group of players who didn't win for about four years. Enter Jim Harbaugh, and the team goes to the NFC title game. Refocused by the championship-game loss last year, the team has become maniacal about work. The 49ers might be the first team I can remember that didn't bring video cameras or take pictures upon arrival and at the interview sessions. The defensive linemen are weight-room junkies. On Tuesday, the linemen were up about 6 a.m. and in the weight room. Unable to find enough weights to do 600-pound squats, the 49ers scrambled for another weight facility. Each of the linemen squatted 600 pounds, something they have done for 24 weeks of game preparation.
6. Case for the 18-game season, or not: Seeing these two veteran teams at the Super Bowl raises questions of whether they could hold up for 18 regular-season games. I'd say they couldn't, and it has nothing to do with talent. The wear and tear of the long season is visible. The 49ers are banged-up. Justin Smith has a 50 percent tear of his left triceps. Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis have shoulder injuries. They will all play, but the longer the season, the tougher the challenge. These four linebackers each played between 997 and 1,025 plays in the regular season. They've had 115 to 125 plays in the playoffs. That's a lot of hits. Aldon Smith and Brooks were limited in practice all week because of their injuries. The Ravens have older veterans such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and two extra games might have been tough for them. Still, both teams should have enough to slug it out Sunday.
7. Did Super Bowl week beat down anyone? Ray Lewis was able to survive the SI.com story alleging that he received deer-antler spray to help heal his torn triceps. First, there is no blood test to determine whether he had the illegal substance from that spray in his system. Second, this is his last game. The league certainly can't suspend him, and there are no future games. This is it. The story had a two-day shelf life. Randy Moss stirred up things by saying he was the greatest receiver of all time. Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver, spoke up -- and that was that.
The real loser was cornerback Chris Culliver of the 49ers. At media day Tuesday, Culliver made anti-gay comments to a shock jock. Although Culliver issued an apology, he also had to answer questions at Thursday's media session. It was painful. Culliver, the team's third cornerback, clearly understood the trouble he was in. Owner Jed York is the league's most pro-active owner in trying to stop gay-bashing. It wouldn't surprise me if Culliver, who spoke of losing sleep over the incident, also loses his focus.
8. NFC supremacy: From the 1984 to 1996 seasons, the NFC won 13 consecutive Super Bowls. From the 2003 to 2008 seasons, the AFC won five of six. But the NFC has become the top conference. Will that trend continue Sunday? The NFC has won the past three Super Bowls, and the 49ers are favored in this game. This year, the NFC has dominated. It won the interconference series, 39-25. The NFC blew out the AFC in the Pro Bowl. In All-Pro voting, there were 37 NFC selections compared with only 22 by the AFC. The 49ers bring nine Pro Bowlers into this game, including six starters on defense, and the Ravens have six total.
9. Home run derby: Don't expect a game of dinks and dunks. Both offenses love to go for the throat. Kaepernick has a great deep arm, but let's look at Flacco. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the average target depth of his throws is 12.4 yards. That's three yards per throw more than in the regular season. Credit offensive coordinator Caldwell for opening things up more. He's been able to use speedy outside receiver Jacoby Jones as a decoy, and that has opened up the middle of the field for deeper throws. Cam Cameron, the former offensive coordinator, didn't do that as much. Since Caldwell's promotion late in the season, Flacco is completing 53.6 percent of his throws that sail at least 20 yards downfield. He averages about three of those long throws a game. For those big plays, he has averaged 20.3 yards an attempt under Caldwell. That number was 11.4 under Cameron.
10. Who's better, Ray Rice or Frank Gore? Each back is ideal for his team. They both catch the ball well. They run well. They are also leaders. Gore motivates himself by hearing comparisons to other backs. The more he feels underappreciated, the better he does. All week, he's been hearing how Rice is better. Gore will be motivated for Sunday's game, and he has the extra edge. The threat of Kaepernick's running opens more inside runs for Gore.
Rice has had a resurgence since Caldwell took over the play calling. Cameron called only 40.4 percent designed runs this season, and Caldwell called 48.5 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Flacco has mentioned the need to get more out of first and second downs. Caldwell has done that. He has called 61.4 designed running plays on first downs compared with 48.4 under Caldwell.