By: Chris Dagonas
As I’ve mentioned before, I was the younger brother in an athletically competitive household. Our sport of choice was street hockey, and we usually wound up on opposing teams. We would play for a couple of hours, and then relive the events of the game over dinner while waiting for a Maple Leafs game to start.
As such, I know very well the rivalry that comes from competing with a sibling. The competition is multi-faceted; you want to win for the obvious human desire to triumph. But sibling rivalries add in the dimensions of pride, and the competition over a family’s attentions. (Bart and Lisa Simpson know how that goes.)
On February 3rd, 2013, the Harbaugh brothers will bring their teams to New Orleans to compete in the most epic game of backyard football ever. Older brother John’s Baltimore Ravens will match up against younger brother Jim’s San Francisco 49ers.
The boys were born in Toledo, Ohio, the state that is home to the Football Hall Of Fame in nearby Canton. They moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, when their father Jack became an assistant football coach with the University of Michigan. Oh, ya, dad is a football guy. Add another layer to this familial, football-inspired soap opera.
Younger brother Jim has the NFL pedigree. He played quarterback for 13 seasons, mostly with the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts. He appeared in the Pro Bowl and led his Colts to the AFC Championship game in 1995. Big brother John played defensive back at the University of Miami, but never made it to the NFL. That’s surely one point to Jim in dad’s eyes.
Jim has been a successful coach at the college and NFL level. He led the University of San Diego to a 29-6 record over three seasons. He then moved to Stanford University, where he compiled a 29-21 record, and won an Orange Bowl in his last season. In 2011, he became the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and in his two seasons at the helm, the 49ers have gone 24-7-1, and have made two consecutive NFC championship games. They lost last year to the New York Giants, but have of course advanced to the Super Bowl this year.
John, on the other hand, spent over a decade as an assistant coach in various NFL franchises, before he became the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. In 5 seasons with the Ravens, he has amassed a record of 54-26, and has made 5 consecutive playoff appearances. So, on the coaching side of the ball, John seems to have the upper hand, for now.
Not surprisingly, these teams play very similar styles. They are defensive minded, run-first teams, built around middle linebackers and powerful defensive and offensive lines. The 49ers feature linebacker Patrick Willis, who many consider the best linebacker in the league, while the Ravens star linebacker is Ray Lewis, who will be retiring after the Super Bowl. At running back, the marquee matchup is Frank Gore vs. Ray Rice, two Pro Bowlers who are not just power backs, not just speed backs, but complete running backs who can juke a tackler, or run them over. They can also both catch pretty well, and feature heavily in the passing game.
Where these teams differ the most is at quarterback. Joe Flacco handles the offense for the Ravens. He’s a respected veteran, widely considered a good quarterback, if not a great one. For Flacco’s part, he believes himself to be in the “elite” level. Up until this year, Flacco was used largely as a game manager, the kind of quarterback who would not win you a game, but would manage to not lose it for you. Jim Harbaugh was the same type of quarterback, who made a career out of steady play and good decisions. However, this year, Flacco has been asked to carry a larger load on offense, and has actually been turned loose to throw deeper more often. The addition of receiver Anquan Boldin before last season meant that the Ravens were exploring Flacco’s range and options, and he has delivered, giving perhaps his best statisticial season this year. John Harbaugh has had the chance to lure free agent quarterbacks to the Ravens in the past, but has always stood behind his man Flacco.
Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick will remain the starting quarterback for the 49ers, and who could blame Jim Harbaugh for the choice? Since replacing Alex Smith in the middle of the season, Kaepernick has exploded as a dual threat, able to get first downs and touchdowns with his legs or his arm. I made a comparison between Kaepernick and Tom Brady last week, and I’ll expand on it here. In the NFL, a head coach is often tied to a star quarterback. The thinking is that if a coach has a very good quarterback, they should be able to find a way to become a playoff team consistently. Think Andy Reid with Donovan McNabb, and Rex Ryan with Mark Sanchez.
In Reid’s case, McNabb was usually able, when healthy, to lead the Eagles to the playoffs, though never to a Super Bowl Victory. With Ryan and Sanchez in New York, it was often a nightmare, and both may be looking for work sooner rather than later. When Bill Belichick decided to keep Brady in the lineup in 2001, even when incumbent Drew Bledsoe was healthy, he was making a choice that would have long lasting consequences. If Brady had flopped, which he never did, Belichick would have been replaced and his legacy as a genius would never have been made. This season, Jim Harbaugh made the same choice with Kaepernick over the reliable Alex Smith, and so far it looks as though this was the right call. However, if Kaepernick comes short in the Super Bowl, and if he struggles next season, Harbaugh and Kaepernick might be looking over their shoulders at possible replacements.
The Harbaugh brothers have a lot at stake on February 3rd. Sibling pride, legacy, and job security could all be on the line, and the always-entertaining Super Bowl will have extra layers to peel back. Sit back, enjoy, and watch the 49ers defeat the Ravens to win their sixth Super Bowl, an NFL best.