For 49ers' Jim Harbaugh, luck was not on his side

Jim Harbaugh is left to ponder the final four plays of a critical drive late in the game.
Jim Harbaugh is left to ponder the final four plays of a critical drive late in the game.
Posted: February 05, 2013

Fans of the San Francisco 49ers waited 18 years for their team to return to the NFL championship game and they were reminded Sunday night that long waits and heartaches don't guarantee happy endings.

Here in Philadelphia, that's not much of a surprise. The Eagles went 24 years between Super Bowl appearances and what did the fans get for their trouble? They got a quarterback who threw up on the field and a three-point loss. Thanks for stopping by.

With the exception of the vomiting, the Niners came away with the same result, although their method was different than most. San Francisco fell way behind, came way back and had four shots at the end zone to win the game on its final possession. In between the falling behind and the coming back, the 49ers - like misbehaving kindergartners sent to the timeout room - were forced to sit through a half-hour in semi-darkness to think about what they had done.

When it was over, in the same way that Andy Reid was asked why a two-minute drill in Super Bowl XXXIX against the Patriots took four minutes, people wanted San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh to explain why he didn't run Frank Gore or give quarterback Colin Kaepernick a rollout option on one of those final four plays.

"We had other plays called," Harbaugh said.

That's not a satisfying answer, but Reid would approve of it. He gave a lot of those answers during his 14 years with the Eagles, and the truth is that all coaches know it doesn't matter what you say when you win, and it doesn't matter what you say when you lose.

What it comes down to is whether you happen to be lucky on the most important days. Not lucky like find-a-100-dollar-bill lucky. Just lucky enough to have the variables even out when it really matters. Some people get that break and some people don't.

It will be a while before Jim Harbaugh's luck or lack thereof becomes apparent. He is still a hot coach and almost every team in the league would swap their guy for him. Harbaugh didn't get lucky on Sunday, however.

In football, turnovers happen. Penalties happen. Coverage breakdowns happen. But they don't happen every time. And they don't have to happen in the Super Bowl. We know that San Francisco is a good, well-coached team. And we also know that the Niners, until the lights dimmed two minutes into the third quarter, were bad enough to trail by 28-6 against a team that might have been their equal but was not their superior. Not by that much, anyway.

A fumble and an interception on consecutive offensive plays in the first half and a special-teams letdown that allowed a 108-yard kickoff return to open the second half helped put them in that hole, and a couple of passes that went off fingertips and a couple of penalties that weren't called helped keep them from climbing all the way out.

Take away any one or two of those components and the 49ers probably win the game, although Harbaugh had no business ripping the officials for two no-calls on pass plays to Michael Crabtree on the final set of downs.

Let's see: Your team played terribly to get into this situation and you want the officials to bail you out in the end? You want them to decide the outcome of the Super Bowl on a judgment call of too much contact on your last offensive play of the game? You think hockey players expect officials to blow the whistle in the third period of a Stanley Cup Final?

During the regular season and two previous postseason games, the 49ers were plus-11 on turnovers, didn't get penalized very much and covered 56 kickoffs without allowing a touchdown. So, what happened? Football happened, and it might happen that way for Jim Harbaugh his entire career. Bud Grant was a good coach. Marv Levy was a good coach. Dan Reeves was a good coach. Ask them about football happening.

For his part in this, Andy Reid is a good coach. More than just a lack of luck undid him here, but he suffered from that, too. The organization finally decided it was time to change the dice and let someone else roll. Here's hoping that Chip Kelly can really coach football, but also that the football gods will prove to like Chip Kelly.

Eighteen years might be a long time to wait between Super Bowls, but at least the folks in San Francisco have the memory of winning five of them. Almost any city would envy that number (any city except Pittsburgh, actually), but it really resonates in a town where the last championship was won three weeks before John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

That's a long time to be either not good or not lucky. Things are changing around here, though, and maybe that will, too.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, Follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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