His team was trailing 28-6 when the lights went out and as San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley looked around the Superdome on Sunday night, one thought came to mind: This has happened before.
“We had a similar situation when we played last year against Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football,” he said, referring to San Francisco’s 20-3 victory over the Steelers on Dec. 20, 2011 at Candlestick Park. “That was my first thought — we had a power outage and we came out on fire.”
It’s easy to say the same thing happened on Sunday but the truth is always more complicated. The 49ers’ first play was a third-and-13 at their own 40. Colin Kaepernick rolled right, bought some time and checked down to tight end Delanie Walker for 5 yards.
Like the Superdome, it took a while for the lights to come on for San Francisco. But they did. Problem was, when they were on the cusp of one of the best comebacks in Super Bowl — heck, football — history, the lights went out in their coach’s brain.
With 2 minutes left, the 49ers trailed by 5 but had a second-and-goal at the Baltimore 5. With the most dangerous running quarterback in the NFL in the backfield and an almost-unstoppable zone-read offense, there were only three logical options for the next three downs. Run, run and run.
But that’s when Jim Harbaugh, the son of a coach (Jack Harbaugh) who hated passing more than Woody Hayes, the former quarterback of a coach (Bo Schembechler) who hated passing as much as Woody Hayes, decided to put the game on Kaepernick’s shoulders, instead of his legs. Three incompletions later, the game was over.
The 49ers, of course, are not used to this. San Francisco won five Super Bowls under Youngstown native Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and, for a few minutes on Sunday, looked headed for its first under his nephew, Jed York. It was going to be one of those magical stories, not least of all because the owners are from Youngstown, the team spent a week in Youngstown and, well, everyone from Youngstown already hates the Ravens.
But it wasn’t.
It’s easy to say the 49ers will be back (and they should be), that the team is in good hands (and it is), that Kaepernick will only get better (and he will).
But the truth is always more complicated than that. Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results and as the Ravens celebrated just a few feet away, Staley looked and sounded like a man who wasn’t ready to think about next year.
This year’s pain was still sinking in.
“Five yards short,” he said. “To come up short, it hurts.”