Technically, the San Francisco 49ers are the home team in Super Bowl XLVII, and as grand arrivals go, their landing in New Orleans on an unseasonably warm Sunday evening was rather calm and unassuming. Players casually walked off the team plane dressed in casual attire, minus handheld video recorders recording the moment. Nobody waved to the crowd. They offered no real hint of the hoopla to come.
Only a 49ers team flag flapping in the breeze from an open window of their charter plane marked the franchise’s official return to a Super Bowl for the first time since 1995. The 49ers have won five Lombardi Trophies, but their proclaimed “Quest for Six” will need to go through the Baltimore Ravens, who are set to arrive Monday.
And while there is a lot of attention on second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose 10th NFL start will come next Sunday, there also is a palpable sense that the 49ers have been here, done that, and can do it again.
Maybe it’s because Kaepernick’s first NFL road start came in Week 12 at the New Orleans Superdome, a 31-21 victory over the Saints that offered another tantalizing peek at the complex zone-read option scheme the 49ers employ to capitalize on the quarterback’s uncommon speed and athleticism.
Kaepernick can keep plays alive with his feet and he extends the down with his fast-tempo style. He has the arm strength to find receivers deep. Altogether, it’s a pretty devastating package.
But Kaepernick is also quick to admit that at the start of the 2012 season, he never would have envisioned himself front and center at Super Bowl week.
“At the start of the season, I was just hoping to be on the field some way, somehow,” Kaepernick said Sunday night at the 49ers’ team hotel just off the French Quarter.
That opportunity came when starter and former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith went down with a concussion midseason. Kaepernick played so well in his first two starts as a replacement — passing for 474 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in wins over the Bears and Saints — that the No. 1 job became his permanently.
Everyone knows ultra-intense 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was an NFL quarterback for 14 seasons, albeit without the eye-popping playmaking potential of his young protégé. That shared knowledge of and passion for the position has drawn the second-year head coach and second-year player even closer.
“It’s definitely beneficial,” Kaepernick said of Harbaugh’s quarterback pedigree. “He knows what you’re looking at. He knows what you’re going through. It makes it easier for him to relate.”
Perhaps it was that mutual vision for quarterbacking that allowed Harbaugh to make the unorthodox final call to sit Smith for good after the Saints’ road win and stick with the hot backup passer — despite the fact team doctors had cleared Smith to play.
For that, the coach won’t be second-guessed.
“I thought it was a unique situation,” said Harbaugh, who along with general manager Trent Baalke personally scouted Kaepernick at Nevada-Reno and grabbed him in the second round of the 2011 draft.
“My experience had always been when it comes to playing the best quarterback, you play the quarterback with the hot hand . . . I made the decision I thought was best for our team.”
Does Harbaugh see a little of himself in a very grounded and focused Kaepernick?
“When Colin is running, the stride he has, the gracefulness with his stride, the ground that he covers, how fast and how quick he is, he reminds me of myself,” Harbaugh said, grinning widely.
“Then I wake up,” added Harbaugh, laughing some more, and that may be the lone bit of humor we get from this guy all week.
No matter. His players, an established group of winners who embraced Harbaugh’s structure and offensive mind following a rudderless ride with former coach Mike Singletary, have bought in all the way and feed off Harbaugh’s unflappable mentality.
Free safety Dashon Goldson coined a phrase during this wildly successful 49ers’ playoff run that has been a bulletin board staple for the team the past two weeks:
“We get fresher under pressure” the quote reads.
“These are uncharted waters for a rookie Super Bowl coach,” conceded Harbaugh, who is facing his brother John, the Ravens head coach, on Super Bowl Sunday. “But it’s exciting, too. We have a great thrill, a great desire, to be in uncharted waters. Our coaches and our players have always relished that, always thrive in that environment.”
On Day 1 in New Orleans, the 49ers seemed to chart a pretty good start for themselves.