The 49ers and Ravens will play Sunday in Baltimore in a regular season meeting between two of the NFL’s best teams, a possible Super Bowl preview. It provides reason to remember the night those teams played nearly seven years ago in New Orleans, a bizarre game with a cast of characters that, in retrospect, helps tell the story of the NFL’s past decade.
Two brothers, Jim and John Harbaugh, coached the teams, a first in NFL history and a feat unlikely to be duplicated in the next 100 seasons. Three current Hall of Famers set foot on the Superdome turf, and a handful of other players who did might someday be enshrined in Canton, Ohio. The stadium’s power went out early in the second half and delayed the Super Bowl for more than half an hour. The Ravens won the franchise’s second Super Bowl but only after staving off a wicked 49ers comeback and intentionally taking a safety on their final snap.
Scanning the box score, though, two names stand out. Colin Kaepernick played quarterback for the 49ers. Ray Rice started at running back for the Ravens. In the moment, they were known as scintillating football players: a quarterback changing the sport with his blend of arm strength and speed and a franchise-bedrock running back. In vastly different ways, they have altered NFL history.
Kaepernick remains out of the league for a third consecutive season, unsigned in the wake of kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and social injustice. His protest remains an NFL flash point, revealing how the league’s 32 franchise owners respond to dissent and forcing an organization eager to drape itself in patriotism onto political terrain it prefers to avoid.
Rice would play one more season after the Super Bowl. Shortly after the 2013 season, a security camera in an Atlantic City casino captured Rice knocking his then-fiancee to the floor and dragging her out an elevator. The NFL’s clumsy handling of Rice’s suspension drew an avalanche of criticism, from which Commissioner Roger Goodell never fully recovered. The aftermath forced the NFL to reckon with how it handles accusations of violence against women, an issue with which it still struggles.
Looking back, the lead-up to the Super Bowl reinforces what a sensation Kaepernick was on the field. He replaced starter Alex Smith after Smith suffered a concussion midway through that season, and Kaepernick excelled, never relinquishing the job. In the playoffs, he shredded the Green Bay Packers with 263 passing yards and 181 rushing yards, then led a 17-point comeback over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game.
“I just remember going to practices and seeing the San Francisco 49ers and saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, they are an unbelievable looking team,’ ” said CBS broadcaster Phil Simms, who called the game. “Every player looked like, ‘Oh, you must play in the NFL.’ ”
The hype surrounding the game centered on the coaches. John and Jim Harbaugh looked alike and approached football with the same tenacity, products of their father, a legendary college coach from Ohio. But they differed, too.
Simms recalled John welcoming the CBS crew into practices and answering all of their production questions. Simms had never watched a practice from farther away than where Jim made them stand at the 49ers’ facility. When a producer asked Jim whether the 49ers would receive or defer if he won the coin toss, he demurred until somebody told him he didn’t have to answer.
“He was not going to tell you anything, not even close,” Simms said. “He asked us, ‘Does my brother really tell you all those things you say on TV?’ Yeah, Jim. We’re not making it up. He goes: ‘I can’t believe that. That’s just incredible.’ ”
The week took on a circus feel, sometimes darkly so, even by the standards of a Super Bowl. San Francisco cornerback Chris Culliver told comedian Artie Lang in a radio interview that he would not welcome a gay teammate. Ray Lewis, the Hall of Fame linebacker who had announced the Super Bowl would be his final game, arrived in New Orleans to discover an Alabama man had claimed Lewis recovered from a midseason triceps injury so quickly because of the deer-antler velvet spray he had provided him.
The talent was befitting of a Super Bowl. Randy Moss, making a late-career cameo, started at wide receiver for the 49ers. Ravens safety Ed Reed was the third current Hall of Famer on the field. Others — San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis and Baltimore wideout Anquan Boldin, guard Marshal Yanda, pass rusher Terrell Suggs and even then-rookie kicker Justin Tucker — could be considered. In listing off the all-time greats on the field, Torrey Smith also included 49ers defensive end Aldon Smith, a troubled player who at his peak rushed the passer as well as anybody in the NFL. “Probably one of the best football players I’ve ever seen,” Torrey Smith said.
San Francisco entered as the betting favorite, but Baltimore dominated. Jacoby Jones opened the second half with a 108-yard kickoff return touchdown, which pushed the Ravens ahead, 28-6. Minutes later, the power went out in the Superdome, leaving the cavernous stadium dark aside from rays of backup lighting.
“I had my family in the stands,” Simms said. “I was a little worried about that for a brief second. Something goes through your head like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this could be something where somebody is trying to create some big damage.’ ”
Panic subsided as the participants and fans realized the power had only gone out. (On Twitter, jokes about Batman villain Bane predominated.) The outage caused a delay of roughly 34 minutes, during which time the reeling 49ers had a chance to regroup.
“If the power didn’t go out, we probably would have blew them out,” Torrey Smith said. “The game was getting out of hand at that point. That break kind of allowed them to get it together.”
Kaepernick led the 49ers back and, in the final three minutes, ran four plays from inside the Baltimore 10-yard line that would have given the 49ers the lead and probably a victory. His final pass sailed out of bounds, beyond Michael Crabtree’s grasp. Had he completed it, it may have changed his — and the league’s — trajectory following his protest: Could NFL teams have had the temerity not to sign a Super Bowl winner in his prime?
The result changed the Ravens’ path, too. Quarterback Joe Flacco’s performance convinced the Ravens to sign him to a $120.6 million extension, tying him to the franchise for six more seasons. Flacco stayed long enough for Baltimore to need a quarterback in the 2018 draft, another reminder of the ripples created by Super Bowl XLVII. With the final pick of the first round, Baltimore selected Lamar Jackson.