When I was watching the NFC Championship game this past Sunday, I strangely found myself rooting for the San Francisco 49ers.
I say strangely because, as a Patriots fan, I knew there was no way in hell that the Pats would win the Super Bowl if they faced the 49ers. I was probably right, except I was also naïve enough to think that Tom Brady could overcome a red-hot Ravens team later that day. I underestimated the impact of Ray Lewis’ final hurrah and the sudden emergence of Joe Flacco, who has somehow made Phil Simms semi-believable when he crazily said two weeks ago, “Flacco is as dangerous a thrower as there is in the NFL.” (But CBS really should offer a mute-Simms option, as should every TV remote.)
So why did I root for the 49ers? Was it because of the sensational story of Colin Kaepernick, who was offered only one scholarship coming out of high school? Was it because of Jim Harbaugh’s hilarious temper tantrums when a call doesn’t go in his favor? Or was it just because I was being sucked into Bay Area sports after living here for a year?
I just listed several viable explanations, but the biggest reason why I wanted to see the 49ers punch their ticket to New Orleans was that the 49ers reminded me so much of Stanford’s own football team this season.
Of course, the expectations for the 49ers this year were comparatively higher than those for the Cardinal; San Francisco was an early Super Bowl favorite, while Stanford was nowhere to be found in the conference championship prediction discussion. But it should be said that both teams ended their seasons last year in heartbreaking fashion: the 49ers were one muffed punt away from reaching the Super Bowl and the Cardinal was one kick away from capturing the Fiesta Bowl.
The first half of the season was a rocky road for the two Bay Area teams. San Francisco opened with a statement win over the Packers in week one, but fell to the Vikings on the road and the Giants at home. After shocking the country with an upset over then-No. 1 USC, Stanford proceeded to lose to Washington and Notre Dame.
Then the quarterback changes came. Colin Kaepernick saw his first meaningful playing time in the ninth game of the season and then started in the tenth game. Kevin Hogan, too, saw extended action for the first time in game nine against Colorado and then went on to start against Oregon State in the tenth game of the season.
To be fair, the situations for the two teams were different. Harbaugh’s decision to replace Alex Smith — who had just set an NFL record by completing 19 of his 20 passes on Monday Night Football — with Kaepernick was much more controversial. Josh Nunes wasn’t exactly leading the nation in passing efficiency when David Shaw elected to bench him for Hogan.
The purposes of those two quarterback switches, however, were the same. Sure, Smith had taken the 49ers to the NFC Championship, but did he have the explosiveness to go blow-for-blow with fearless gunslingers like Aaron Rodgers and Matty Ice? Could he have led the 49ers to a Super Bowl title the second time around? Harbaugh obviously didn’t think so. Considering how much Nunes was struggling in the short passing game, could he have rallied Stanford to victories over Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA like Hogan did? I’m glad we didn’t find out. Kaepernick and Hogan brought the added dimension of mobility that Smith and Nunes didn’t possess as pocket passers. Both Smith and Nunes had their share of inspiring scrambles (see the 2011 NFC Championship Game and the USC game), but they didn’t show enough to force opposing defenses to change their game plans.
Of course, there is the obvious fact that Stanford won its first Rose Bowl in four decades while San Francisco finally has the chance to bring back the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in almost 20 years.
But even some of the finer details are the same for the two teams. The 49ers had their signature regular season win late in the year, an impressive 41-34 victory over the Pats in Foxboro that verified their status as a Super Bowl contender. Stanford had its own signature win, of course, with that 17-14 stunning overtime upset over Oregon in Autzen.
The style of playing of the two teams couldn’t be more similar: a fearsome defense known for its physicality and aggressiveness and an efficient offense centered on a relentless running game coupled with the deadly play action. Even the personnel of the two teams are similar. Frank Gore is exactly the type of NFL running back Stepfan Taylor will be in five years: not dazzling with speed or size, but excellent at downhill running, pass protection, churning out extra yards and catching passes out of the backfield. LaMichael James’ blurring speed in the last few games reminds me a lot of what Kelsey Young brings to the table for Stanford.
But most importantly, the 49ers and the Cardinal share a resiliency that allowed them to reach their season goals. Down 17-0 in the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game, San Francisco rallied. Down by 10 in the early fourth quarter of the Pac-12 Championship Game, Stanford answered. While Harbaugh and Shaw might be polar opposites in terms of their dispositions on the sideline, they find a way to accomplish the same result: rally their players to overcome adversity.
In the bigger picture, Stanford and San Francisco football are two of the many Bay Area sports teams that have enjoyed a huge amount of success in an unprecedented season. In October, the San Francisco Giants swept the heavily favored Detroit Tigers in the World Series while the Oakland Athletics themselves almost knocked the Tigers out of the playoff two rounds earlier. The Golden State Warriors are playing like one of the best teams in the NBA right now, inspired by Steph Curry’s great celebratory skipping skills. As for Cal football … well, there’s always next year.
To pull a page out of Harbaugh’s book, “Who’s got it better than Bay Area sports fans? Nobody!”
George Chen injured himself trying to imitate Ray Lewis’ introduction dance. Send him exercise to stretch his groin at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DailyGChen.