New Orleans – Make no mistake about it, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens are here for Super Bowl XLVII for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is that their respective coaches, John Harbaugh of the Ravens and younger brother Jim Harbaugh of San Francisco, each won their late-season gambles.
Jim Harbaugh essentially wagered, of course, that the untested but talented Colin Kaepernick could take him a step further this year than Alex Smith did a year ago, when the 49ers reached the NFC championship game but fell short of a Super Bowl berth. A lot of critics, this correspondent included, openly questioned the move to supplant Smith, who was 20-6-1 under Harbaugh, with Kaepernick. Switch your starting quarterback more than halfway through the season. Unheard of in the NFL, right? Well, apparently, not quite.
We have to eat crow on that one. Meanwhile, the 49ers and Kaepernick will try to eat up another species of bird, Ravens, on Sunday evening.
John Harbaugh changed offensive coordinators, booting Cam Cameron and installing quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, to call the plays, on Dec. 10. At that point, there were only four games remaining. And then, after the season, with the playoffs on the horizon, John Harbaugh tossed the dice again. He reconfigured his offensive line, with the previously out-of-shape Bryant McKinnie taking over at left tackle. That allowed him to remake the unit, with only center Matt Birk starting in the same spot at which he began the season.
The result of the gambits: One of the Harbaugh Brothers will hold up the Vince Lombardi Trophy late Sunday night.
Said Jim Harbaugh earlier this week: “Sometimes you just don’t want to settle.”
Jim Harbaugh would never demean Smith, whose demeanor since his demotion has been classy. Exemplary, in fact. Left unspoken, too, is that Harbaugh privately feels that Smith might have gotten San Francisco back to the NFL title game for a second season. But, in Harbaugh’s mind, Kaepernick afforded him the chance to advance to a Super Bowl, and perhaps to win.
Too many coaches merely “settle” in the NFL. A playoff berth, maybe a postseason win, is enough to earn some more capital with an owner, more security, maybe even a contract extension. But the name of the game is championships. On Sunday night, there will be one champion. All the other 31 franchises – yeah, including the Super Bowl loser, frankly – will be an also-ran.
None of this is to suggest that other coaches or teams didn’t take gambles. Denver invested a lot of money in Peyton Manning and his surgically-repaired neck, on the chance he could earn a Super Bowl. The New York Jets traded for Tim Tebow, and surmised that he and the “Wildcat” formation would make them contenders. The Washington Redskins traded a passel of draft choices for the draft rights to Robert Griffin III. A couple years ago, Arizona dealt for then-Philadelphia backup Kevin Kolb, feeling he was the answer to the Cardinals’ longtime quarterback woes. And there are plenty of other examples as well.
Locally, I’ve heard suggestions that the Atlanta Falcons perhaps don’t gamble enough, that the franchise requires some sort of dramatic move to put it over the top and move ahead to its first Super Bowl since the ’98 season. But think about this: Two years ago, general manager Thomas Dimitroff swapped five draft choices to Cleveland to move up in the first round and get wide receiver Julio Jones, now a Pro Bowl player. Then this year, coach Mike Smith, who is fiercely loyal to his assistant coaches, replaced both his coordinators.
People can quibble all they want about whether owner Arthur Blank forced to move to bring in Dirk Kotter (offense) and Mike Nolan (defense), but it really doesn’t matter much, does it? The point is that, even after going to the playoffs in three of his first four seasons – with a franchise that had never enjoyed consecutive winning year before his arrival – Smith gambled. Not just on one new coordinator, but two. OK, so it didn’t culminate in a Super Bowl invitation this season, but no one can say it was a bad move, or that the Falcons weren’t better with the two new guys.
The upshot is that not all gambles pay off big-time. Or that some do more than others. Lots of people roll the dice. Some roll 7’s; others shoot craps. Both of the Harbaugh Brothers came out on top with their late-season gambles this year. But the truth is, only one will be an ultimate winner on Sunday night.
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