Sunday’s game reminded everyone how long three years can be in the NFL.
For the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, combatants in Super Bowl XLVII, three years ago is forever. Back then, they were the toasts of the league in New Orleans and engaged in a literally lights-out game.
But only 10 total starters from that night gathered at Levi’s Stadium for a much less-hyped rematch. Only now, one football generation later, they occupied the league’s grimy sub-.500 underground. The ominous numbers were seered into their brains: Only one team that started 1-5 has reached the playoffs.
That’s the daunting reality for the Ravens after their 25-20 loss. For the 49ers, they’re slightly better at 2-4, though no one exactly danced in the aisles after Joe Flacco’s 40-yard dart into the end zone was batted down by Eric Reid on the game’s final play.
The Ravens were ravaged by injuries, the 49ers by an offseason from hell. If you sought NFL glamour, you watched the wrong game. This was an ugly knife fight, blood and mud mixed together, a desperate groping for tiny advantages.
It swung on, of all things, a player switching sides. The Ravens signed corner Shareece Wright this week, only a few days after the 49ers granted his release. Baltimore’s mangled secondary needed help, for sure, but they no doubt also scrambled for inside information. Ravens coach John Harbaugh tore a page out of brother Jim Harbaugh’s playbook by busting such a move.
The plan worked swimmingly … for the 49ers.
Wright might as well been a double agent. He was beaten by Colin Kaepernick’s on-target 76-yard scoring strike to Torrey Smith. He allowed another 18-yard reception to Smith, fell to the ground to free up Quinton Patton’s 21-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, and also was penalized for holding Anquan Boldin.
When asked about Wright, Boldin said, “That was one of the things we wanted to attack today.”
Kaepernick on Wright: “There were a couple things we thought we could take advantage of, and we did.”
On the field, the 49ers weren’t so cryptic. They targeted Wright like surfers eyeball the next wave. In a game that figured to be decided by a bounce, a call or a kick, it actually switched hands when Wright swapped locker rooms.
It also coincided with Kaepernick’s rising confidence. Credit the Pitman High graduate for delete-keying all the noise. He’s becoming a parlor game, the prop for the “How to Fix Kap” debate. Everyone from Joe Montana to Steve Young to his former college coach Chris Ault, to every TV talking head took their turn this week riding the Kaepernick Ferris wheel.
Kaepernick has responded with back-to-back solid games. Again, the 49ers built their quarterback’s confidence with short throws during the first quarter. The result was 16 of 27 passes for 340 yards, two touchdowns and a glossy QB rating of 128.2. He’s not the same guy who short-armed the ball to the turf three weeks ago.
“I mean, people can talk all they want,” he said. “It doesn’t affect how I go about my business.”
Kaepernick answered his critics with accurate deep passes to Bruce Miller, Smith and Boldin. His 51-yarder to Boldin, which led to the decisive TD, was classic free-form Kap. Rolling to his left, he tossed on the run to the veteran receiver.
For all the arrows buzzing his way, Kaepernick trotted out the kind of physical skill only a few can match. It’s why Jim Harbaugh insisted that the 49ers draft him and why today’s 49ers stick with him through difficult times.
“I think our team is building. We’re gradually picking up momentum,” Kaepernick said. “We’re playing better and better. It’s something that we have to continue.”
Kaepernick has expanded his postgame answers since Harbaugh’s exit. He also wore a suit, another sartorial touch growing in regularity. The crooked cap has been put aside, at least for now. He’s becoming a more complete NFL quarterback.
More than ever, the 49ers lean hard on Kaepernick as they retool their personnel. They nearly tied together two wins, due in part to no major errors by their quarterback.
The 49ers can celebrate their measured progress for, say, five minutes. Seattle, a wounded 2-4 team holding major ownage of the 49ers, comes calling Thursday night. The last time the Seahawks visited Levi’s, they ate Thanksgiving turkey on the field.
Kaepernick’s struggles with the Legion of Boom are well-documented. The Kap Watch again will convene in short order.
It promises to be much like Sunday, a slog for a modicum of respect in an unforgiving league, where heroes quickly are rendered past-tense.