San Francisco one win
from sixth Super Bowl
By Tom Williams
No professional sports league rewards its bad teams as much as the National Football League. High draft picks, a hard salary cap and free agency combine to help last-place teams vault out of the basement and into the playoff picture.
So it’s a bit ironic that three of the four teams who played in last year’s Conference Championships have qualified again. Sunday’s AFC game is a rematch between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens.
The NFC game offers the San Francisco 49ers, who lost last year’s game to the New York Giants 20-17 in overtime, against the Atlanta Falcons (a wild-card team last season).
Owned by John and Denise DeBartolo York of Canfield since 1999, the Niners are hoping their return to the level of the NFL’s elite franchises won’t be short.
In last week’s divisional round, the second-seeded 49ers dominated the Green Bay Packers, 45-31, at Candlestick Park.
The Niners overcame an early mistake by quarterback Colin Kaepernick to engineer a strong win against the team many were picking to win the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons.
The Niners did not get off to a good start. While most of the nation was still watching the Ravens-Broncos double-overtime game, Packers defensive back Sam Shields intercepted a Kaepernick pass and returned it 52 yards for a 7-0 lead.
“I don’t think there was any feeling of panic after that pass,” said John York, who is co-chairman of the team with his wife. “They played us to stop the run, concentrating on [running backs] Frank Gore and LaMichael James.
“I don’t think that package included Kaepernick.”
Kaepernick, who took over as the starter when Alex Smith was injured and kept the position when Smith was ready to play again, rebounded like an established veteran, rushing for two touchdowns and throwing two scoring passes to wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
Kaepernick’s first scoring run covered 20 yards and tied the game, 7-7. In the third quarter, his 56-yard burst put the Niners ahead for keeps, 31-24.
With 181 yards, Kaepernick set NFL records for rushing yards by a quarterback (playoff game or regular-season contest). He also passed for 263 yards.
“Colin threw some awfully good passes, except for that first one,” York said.
Kaepernick’s second-quarter touchdowns to Crabtree covered 12 and 20 yards.
With five championships from the 1981-94 seasons, the Niners are the only franchise with multiple Super Bowl victories and an undefeated record in Super Bowls.
In their 14 seasons since taking control of the team from Denise’s brother, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the Niners have never been stronger.
The franchise was in salary cap hell during their first two seasons as the Niners had to shed payroll and top players to offset overspending in the mid-90s.
In 2001, the 49ers rebounded for two playoff seasons under head coach Steve Mariucci. But the team struggled again when Dennis Erickson replaced Mariucci in 2003.
Mike Nolan, now the Falcons’ defensive coordinator, was the Niners head coach from 2005 until midway through the 2008 season when Mike Singletary replaced him.
In 2009, the Yorks named their oldest son, Jed, the team’s president. At age 32, the Cardinal Mooney graduate is now the team’s chief executive officer.
A little more than two years ago, Jed York promoted Trent Baalke to general manager. Balke and Jed York then wooed Jim Harbaugh to take over for Singletary as head coach.
The 49ers have been rolling since. Under the Baalke-Harbaugh tandem, the Niners have gone 24-7-1 in the regular season and won two of three playoff games.
Asked to pick the MVP of the two, John York said there’s no need.
“They have different jobs and they both do them very well,” York said. “They make a great combination.”
One of Baalke’s acquisitions was signing wide receiver Mario Manningham, the Warren Harding graduate who made a tremendous fourth-quarter catch for the New York Giants in their 21-17 win over the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl.
With 42 receptions in 12 games, Manningham was the Niners’ second-leading receiver before going on injured reserve in late December.
Harbaugh’s biggest gamble was sticking with Kaepernick over his starter in last year’s championship game.
So far, that move has paid huge dividends as the Niners’ “Quest for Six” takes the spotlight in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Jed’s brother, Tony, is an entrepreneur in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley while his twin sisters Jenna and Mara are pursuing careers in oenology — the study of wine — in the Napa Valley.
All will be in Atlanta hoping to see the team’s biggest win in 18 years.