Toby Gerhart's final touch in 2009's Big Game resembled a bowling
ball obliterating teetering pins, a 29-yard haul that put Stanford
on the verge of stealing a massive contest late.
Frank Gore's last carry in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII turned into a
rumbling 33-yard dash that put his San Francisco 49ers team on the brink of the
The parallels are uncanny. In both situations, head coach Jim
Harbaugh never turned to his stud running back thereafter, suddenly
shunning his team's massive physical advantage and relying instead
on a first-year starting quarterback to daintily finish the job. In
2009, it was clear that California would not have stopped Gerhart, but
redshirt freshman Andrew Luck threw two horribly designed passes instead, the last of
of which was intercepted to seal the game. Golden
Bears 34, Cardinal 28.
History repeated itself in 2013 on a bigger stage. After a slow
start, the 49ers were gashing the Ravens to the tune of eight yards
per carry in the second half. Defensive bedrock Haloti Ngata,
Baltimore's primary run stopper, was out with injury. Yet, after
Gore's dominant run had fully exposed the Ravens' defense, Harbaugh
never gave No. 21 the ball again. Instead, he took Colin Kaepernick
-- making only his tenth career start -- out of his element, dialing
up three consecutive low-percentage passing plays that removed San
Francisco's biggest strengths from the equation. Ravens 34, 49ers
29: another otherwise spectacular drive left incomplete.
Jim Harbaugh has resurrected Stanford and San Francisco in
remarkable fashion. His entire body of work at both Bay Area sites
has been spectacular, but an identical flaw has now reared its ugly
head at both stops. In the biggest situations, with rivalry games
and world championships on the line, Harbaugh's teams have abandoned
the ingenuously creative power run at its highest point of success
and replaced it with a fearful, sputtering passing plan. Perhaps Harbaugh, a former NFL passer, experienced urges to
live vicariously through his quarterbacks in both spots. Or perhaps
offensive coordinator Greg Roman, at the helm of both the 2009 and
2013 meltdowns, saw his playcalling suggestions tighten up in both
Whatever the reason, Harbaugh is the man with the final call as head
coach, and he must learn an important adage moving forward to take
the next step as a great coach: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Sunday's final sequence demanded continued creativity, an
intelligent mix of run and pass (or the magic option) that
capitalized on San Francisco's staggering number of strengths, and
not on a suddenly stale passing plan that summoned the team's one
weakness. This much is certain: Gore's last touch shouldn't have
been his 33-yard carry.
The silver lining: the year after the 2009 Cal debacle, Harbaugh’s 2010 Stanford squad was the greatest in school history, going on a 12-1 tear capped by a 40-12 Orange Bowl triumph. A similar 2013 49ers response would put San Francisco in excellent position to return to the Super Bowl.
David Lombardi is the Stanford
Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He carefully
tracks the Stanford - San Francisco 49ers connection. Check him
out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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