Eli Manning took the ball from center David Baas. Manning didn’t turn to give the ball to his back or drop into the pocket to throw. Instead he sidestepped to his left and dropped his knee to the floor.
Manning was eight yards from the San Francisco 49ers’ endzone, with just under eight minutes left in over-time of the 2011 NFC Championship game. Despite it being only third down, Manning turned and jogged towards the sideline leading most of his teammates off the field.
Once that happened, the 49ers knew their fate was out of their hands. Kicker Lawrence Tynes strolled onto the field to kick a 26 yard field goal that would send the Giants to the Super Bowl…and the 49ers into the off-season.
Despite the unheralded success that Jim Harbaugh achieved with the 49ers during his first season at the helm, the whole of the fanbase likely felt more pain losing in the NFC Championship than they would have after another underwhelming regular season.
After a season in which they won the NFC West with a 13-3 record, the 49ers lost to the New York Giants at home in the playoffs by 20 points to 17. It is always heart-breaking when the fairytale ends with a frog opposed to a princess, but the San Francisco 49ers fans shouldn’t be disheartened by last season’s final result.
It was simply another part of the process.
A lot of positives can be taken from the 49ers’ 2011 season. The team won 13 games for the first time since 1997. Alex Smith reminded fans why he was drafted first overall with a massive performance in the playoffs against the New Orleans Saints. Vernon Davis proved all of his doubters, including Mike Singletary, wrong, while the defense excelled to unforeseen levels, so much so that even the most optimistic fan in Santa Clara couldn’t have seen it coming.
Unfortunately for 49ers fans, none of those facts can erase the after-taste left from Kyle Williams’ infamous fumbles, that ultimately cost them victory in the playoffs.
The thing about winning in the NFL however, and typically in all sports, is that you must suffer before you can develop the understanding of how to succeed. While those Williams’ fumbles cost the 49ers a chance at winning a Super Bowl in Harbaugh’s first season, the misery the team endures will be just as important to winning a Super Bowl title eventually as any player scheme or personnel alteration.
Obviously it’s not as simple as losing pushes you towards winning. What is important is how the team, and franchise as a whole, reacts to the loss.
As Oklahoma City Thunder basketball coach Scott Brooks would say during his team’s losing seasons, he and his group of players were learning how to win opposed to just losing games on a repeated basis.
The 49ers were actually fortunate last season as they managed to skip a large portion of the expected learning curve in the NFL.
When you examine the last seven Super Bowl winners, or in other words since the Patriots’ back-to-back victories in 2003 and 2004, you find that no team became a Super Bowl champion without enduring some pain beforehand.
The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks after losing to the Patriots the in the AFC Championship the year before.
Peyton Manning’s 2006 Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts had lost to the Steelers in the playoffs the year before. A missed Mike Vanderjagt field goal in the dying seconds broke the hearts of the then Super Bowl favourites.
The 2005 New York Giants lost in the wildcard round to the Carolina Panthers, before finishing 8-8 in 2006 and winning the Super Bowl in dramatic fashion in 2007. The Steelers’ second championship in four seasons came a year after losing in the wildcard round and two years after missing the playoffs completely. Before winning the Super Bowl in 2009, the New Orleans Saints had managed just two winning seasons in eight years.
Aaron Rodgers’ ascension to Super Bowl MVP in 2010 didn’t come quickly. His Packers team had only six wins in 2008 before just losing out to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2009 playoffs. While the New York Giants were able to repeat their victory over the Patriots last year, the intervening years weren’t exactly kind to Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin’s teams.
The one constant with every single Super Bowl team of the past decade or so is a high quality head coach. High quality head coaches understand how to guide their players through the trials and tribulations of the professional and personal disappointment that losing in the NFL encompasses.
Harbaugh’s handling of the off-season so far has been excellent. He has accurately assessed the 49ers’ weaknesses and taken an aggressive approach to addressing them. At least, he has from a personnel and scheme point of view.
How the 49ers learn from their failures will determine their future successes however. It will be the difference between being the next New York Giants or Green Bay Packers and being the Miami Dolphins post 2008.