NEW ORLEANS — The final score won’t change and neither will the officiating calls or non-calls during the 49ers’ final, futile possession in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
So anger is only a temporary fix; it isn’t the answer. The answers will come in the weeks and months ahead, during hours of exhaustive film study, candid conversations and incisive, even excruciating self-critique.
“Again, I realize I’m on the side of the 49ers,” coach Jim Harbaugh said Sunday after vehemently disagreeing with the late-game officiating in the 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. “Yes, there’s no question in my mind that there was a pass interference and then a hold on (Michael Crabtree) on the last one.”
The loss was much more than that, of course. It was a personal punch to the gut and a harsh blow to the organization’s impressive collection of history books. Harbaugh not only became the first 49ers coach to lose a Super Bowl, he lost to his older brother, which is the coaching equivalent of two-beatdowns-in-one. Just guessing, but the siblings probably won’t be sharing cordial family meals anytime soon.
While John Harbaugh will savor Joe Flacco’s performance, the Ravens’ dominant first half, Jacoby Jones’ momentum-busting kickoff return, and his team’s refusal to give way on the 49ers’ final possession, Jim Harbaugh likely will revisit those last three plays and second-guess himself into a severe case of sick stomach.
He can’t pass the buck on this one, and he won’t.
Why three straight passes? Why no handoffs to Frank Gore? Why no Colin Kaepernick keepers?
This is what coaches do. They repeatedly dissect plays hoping for a different outcome, and when reality strikes and the score never changes they look in the mirror and start pointing their mangled fingers inward.
What will Harbaugh see then, when the haze lifts?
His team was shaky early. The 49ers committed too many penalties, dropped too many passes, allowed Flacco time to eviscerate the secondary, blew the coverage on the Jones’ runback that extended the Ravens’ lead to 28-6, at which point no one inside the Superdome was thinking “Niners comeback.”
But that 35-minute power outage allowed the 49ers to stretch their minds and their bodies and they were all touching their toes for a few minutes there, actually and infused them with a jolt of energy that persisted throughout the second half.
With Kaepernick again in rhythm and appearing unstoppable, the 49ers transformed a rout into a game, scored three touchdowns and added David Akers’ third field goal.
They were right there, within five yards and two minutes of another Super Bowl victory.
Instead, the Ravens stiffened, the officials swallowed their whistles, and a potentially memorable sequence ended with three incomplete passes and nothing new on the scoreboard. “It almost hurts worse to lose it like this,” center Jonathan Goodwin said.
The 49ers had come so far, had closed to 34-29 and started their final drive on their own 20. Gore busted ahead for eight yards. Kaepernick ran for eight, then connected with Crabtree over the middle for 24. Gore charged ahead again, punishing the Ravens for 33 yards. LaMichael James scrapped for two more yards to bring the 49ers to the 5-yard line just before the two-minute warning.
“As offensive linemen, obviously you want to run it in to win it,” added Goodwin, thoughtfully, “but we believe in what our coaches did. We have to believe in what our coaches see, and if our coaches want to throw it, we believe we can get it in throwing. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it in.”
A season-long discussion about pistol formations and revolutionary offenses ended with the three incompletions to Crabtree and the play calls that will haunt Harbaugh, perhaps forever: a short pass to the right side that was deflected by Corey Graham; another short, contested pass to the right that Crabtree was unable to gather; and a difficult fade into the deep right corner of the end zone that was overthrown … or maybe not.
Crabtree’s movement on two of the last three plays certainly was impeded, but pass interference?
While Harbaugh threw another sideline tantrum, one hand grabbing his other wrist to demonstrate a hold, the officials weren’t buying what he was selling. They rarely do in end-of-game situations. As former NFL officiating vice president Mike Pereira suggested afterward, summing up what seems to be universal sentiment, the sequence was a good non-call.
That’s not what Harbaugh wants to hear, of course. That’s not what any losing coach wants to hear.
Where was Frank Gore? And what happened to Kap’s fleet feet?
That’s what the 49ers’ coach will be asking.