We experience loss with an unpleasant sensation. The competitive spirit can wallow after admitting defeat; true champions, they convert such feelings into fuel for their next challenge.
The 49ers 2011-12 campaign for the Super Bowl ended on a sour note; disappointed fans felt cheated. After boasting a record-setting turn over ratio, and trouncing the New Orleans Saints in a physical playoff game, the team couldn’t overcome a couple of special teams mistakes, and lost to the eventual Super Bowl winning New York Giants.
Players and fans took the loss hard. The 2012-13 season, when former NY Giant and new 49er Mario Manningham arrived in the locker room showing off his championship ring, players would tell him “you got my ring on.”
With a blossoming second year class, the first group drafted under new coach Jim Harbaugh, and an arsenal of offensive and defensive weapons; fans entered this year with optimism. The team lost last year in the NFC Championship, but 49ers team swagger, demanding respect and instilling harsh punishments, has the feel of a legendary football unit. The defense returned at full strength, and offense added considerably to receiving—Manningham, Randy Moss, and first round selection AJ Jenkins—and running back—Brandon Jacobs and second round draft pick LaMichael James.
Who could blame the 49ers or their fans for believing in themselves, and emphatically answering Coach Jim Harbaugh’s regular question, “Whose got it better than us?” with a resounding “Noooo-BODY!”
People will tell you that the preseason doesn’t matter. Fans don’t enjoy the games; the season ticket holders give away their seats to charity. The starting players hardly play half a game. However, the preseason provides vital playing time for developing players, who get as close to real playing conditions as possible. Arguably, the most talked about quarterback of the year received ample playing time during these games. Colin Kaepernick, a second year player, played a few snaps in the 2011-12 season, so technically he isn’t a rookie like the sensational true rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson. However, if you consider that over three games last season Colin threw the football five times, labeling Kaepernick as a rookie only slightly stretches the truth.
The truth is, for many 49er faithful, Alex Smith was finally playing at an acceptable level after five years of complete disappointment. In fact, his passing efficiency was incredible. The guy refused to make risky throws and played with extreme patience for the entirety of the 2011-12 season, and the beginning of the 2012-13 season. On top of his improved performance, Alex Smith fought through years of opposition from the fan base and took it with grace. Fined this year when wearing a SF Giants hat to a news conference in support of World Series Champions, Smith seemed to make all right moves to earn support and favor from Bay Area Sports fans.
With Smith at the helm, the 49ers started the season with a big statement; they ran the ball for over 100 yards and threw the ball for 211 yards against a formidable Green Bay Packers team. Colin Kaepernick saw a snap during the game, he ran the ball for 17 yards. The was season underway; Alex Smith threw the ball well, and Colin Kaepernick created a reliable running threat for a ‘wildKaep’ formation, the 49ers looked to be just as promising as the 2011-12 campaign.
Vernon Davis, the 49ers star tight end since 2006, still frustrated about the playoffs outcome five games into this year’s season clearly stated his feelings before a rematch of the NFC Championship game, “there’s a bitter taste in our mouth because, that game[against NY], it hurt, we lost that game and we’re still thinking about it a little bit.” Davis was honest in his statement, but he made clear that this season was on the forefront of his mind, “we can’t jump out of our skin. We have to continue to stay focused.”
The 49ers lost again to the Giants, but after the first half of the season the 49ers were 6-2 with most games won by commanding leads. Fans had no reason to complain; with the team on track to make the playoffs few worried about Smith’s low yards per game, partly because of his accuracy decreasing the likelihood of interceptions, but also because of the team surrounding him. He averaged less than 200 y/g while completing 70.2% of his passes–things were about to change.
Football owns a reputation for stubborn, strong, athletes who could play through injuries without a second thought. Until recently, the issue of concussions simply hasn’t been talked about. The unfortunate deaths and suicides of former players linked to head trauma motivated players, parents, and the league to address the issue. NFL commissioner, Rodger Goodell, took a clear stance to protect the players, if at the expense of spectacular defensive hits.
In a presentation to the Harvard School of Public Health, the commissioner spoke about the issue of concussions, “the culture of the athlete is still too much of a play-through-it, rather than player safety mentality. Many players have publicly admitted to hiding concussions.”
While Goodell carefully chose his words to demonstrate that many sports are dangerous for the brain, he knew that football brought the issue onto the map, “this is unfortunate, but we are working with players, team, doctors and coaches to change that culture. It is changing, but will take more time to resolve, patience, and determination.”
Unfortunately for Smith’s career in San Francisco, Smith suffered a concussion during the ninth game of the season, a game that ended tied against the Saint Louis Rams. The NFL’s new player safety rules require all players who suffer concussions to receive medical clearance from a doctor, and perform in practice with full contact before returning to the field.
Smith, unaware or in denial, actually stayed in the game after suffering his concussion and led the 49ers to a touchdown before leaving the game. Kaepernick took over for the injured Alex Smith and started every game thereafter.
Kaepernick’s first time to shine arose the following game. Monday Night Football vs. the hot Chicago Bears who owned a 7-2 record entering the game and the second best statistical defense in the league.
For those not familiar with the world of American Football, since the 1980s, the Bears stout defense gained a reputation for their toughness, and while the current defensive unit was older, they still pose a potent challenge for opposing offenses. The 49ers offense would dramatically change when Kaepernick took the field.
After four quarters of domination, Kaepernick’s skillset awed writers. Long time NFL reporter and Yahoo! Sports writer, Adam Silver, already envision Kaepernick becoming the future of the franchise after the single game. Silver raved at his athletic capabilities and decision making, “the ball came off his hand with zip and authority; he made smart, confident decisions; and he attacked the opposing secondary without hesitation, something Smith isn’t always encouraged or equipped to do.”
Keapernick looked like a budding NFL star, his numbers showed it. Colin completed 16 of 23 passes for a 133.1 passer rating. His performance ignited a quarterback controversy; the media frantically questioned coach Jim Harbaugh, who would frustrate them routinely by deflecting their questions.
Keapernick demonstrated athletic capabilities and arm strength on an entire different level than Smith. Where Smith could scramble and get 10 yards, Kaepernick could outrun the defense and gain over 50 yards. Where Alex Smith struggled to complete deep passes down the field, Kaepernick could throw the ball around the field accurately, and faster than anybody else in the league.
Future Hall of Famer, Randy Moss, suffered a dislocated finger in Colin’s first start against the Bears, having caught nearly 1,000 passes over his career, this was a first, “I’ve never experienced that and it hurt like hell.” ESPN football writer, Mike Sando asked Moss if he turned up the throwing machine to simulate Colin’s passes. Moss replied that “it’s no use because the machine can’t deliver the ball as hard as Kaepernick throws even on its highest setting.”
A season can be defined by a play, or an injury; just ask the Indianapolis Colts who lost Payton Manning over the 2011-12 season to a neck injury and tied with the Rams for the worst record in the NFL after routinely achieving winning seasons under Payton. This year, the 49ers’ season ended in the right game, with the wrong outcome. A very similar 49ers team will enter the 2013-14 football season. After an incredibly successful year, the season will become defined by the change from Smith to Kaepernick. While Kaepernick takes the headlines from his storybook first season as aNFL starter, the reason behind the 49ers impressive season is coach Jim Harbaugh’s leadership, decision-making, and tenacity.
Harbaugh not only benched Smith after his recovery from the concussion in favor of Kaepernick, Harbaugh traded up in the draft a year earlier to get Kaepernick. He created an offense in which, for the first time in his career, Alex Smith could thrive, and then had the guts to switch QBs half way through the season.
The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl this year. Noooo-body has it better than Jim Harbaugh’s team. Kaepernick holds the reigns to the 49ers franchise under the wise supervision of Harbaugh. Alex Smith finds a new home in Kansas City, and we find ourselves with even more draft picks. Fans have a supremely talented team to root for over many seasons to come. The question really answers itself, but you should ask your fellow fan anyways, “Whose got it better than us?”