Column: Niners coaches crashed with title on line

2013-02-05T16:00:00Z Column: Niners coaches crashed with title on lineBy MONTE POOLE - McClatchy Tribune Writer

NEW ORLEANS - When the architects of the 49ers offense finish reviewing and critiquing their postseason performance, they will wonder what got into their headsets during Super Bowl XLVII.

Coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were masterful and creative in their divisional win over Green Bay, resilient and deceptive in their comeback victory over Atlanta in the conference championship game.

Harbaugh and Roman tripped over their playbook in the 34-31 Super Bowl loss to Baltimore.

Maybe they were blinded by the sheer volume of brilliant possibilities available with Colin Kaepernick, as unique a quarterback as there is in the NFL.

Harbaugh and Roman installed Kap as the starter because his multiple skills force defenses to react to every member of the offense. His presence provides an advantage the unit lacked under Alex Smith.

The coaches expertly used their new toy against the Packers and used Kap very well if quite differently against the Falcons.

What happened to common-sense ingenuity?

There were throughout the game several puzzling play calls and a few outright gaffes-most notably on the potential winning drive late in the fourth quarter.

"That last drive, when we had time to go down and score a touchdown, we thought it was our game," Kaepernick said.

Of course he did. The 49ers were 7 yards from the goal line, with four chances to cross it. On the biggest stage in sports, with a chance to establish themselves as trendsetters and their unit as the most versatile in the league, the formidable football minds of Harbaugh and Roman were afflicted with system failure.

They could have tried veteran running back Frank Gore, who had gained 110 yards, was getting better as the game wore on (81 yards on eight carries after halftime) and would have to be the sentimental choice to punctuate such a stirring comeback.

Nope. Not once.

They could have floated a fade route to fading wideout Randy Moss, who at 6-foot-4 remains a towering specimen able to leap and reach passes most others can't.

Nope. Not once.

Most stunning of all, though, was the curious handing of Kaepernick. His terrific speed and impressive arm create a conundrum for defenses. Do they spy him? Try to pinch him to keep him in the pocket? Sit back in a conservative zone? Send the house and hope?

Might the Ravens defense, which was gasping and reeling and bending on that final drive, have broken if faced with a read-option play featuring Kap and Gore?

Never came. Kap was busy dropping and throwing. Doing what Alex could have done.

Roman and Harbaugh apparently planned to turn to the read-option on the fourth-down pass that sailed over the head of wideout Michael Crabtree. Seeing a blitz coming and "man" pass defense, Kaepernick audibled out of the plan and couldn't connect with Crab, who was wrestling with cornerback Jimmy Smith in coverage.

San Francisco's last hope stalled at the money window. The offense gained 2 yards-on first down, LaMichael James coming off the bench-on four plays, giving the ball back to Baltimore, effectively ending the game.

To reiterate, the 49ers ran once, for 2 yards, and threw three times to Crabtree in vain.

Tackle Joe Staley said he wanted to keep running. Veteran safety Donte Whitner, watching from the sideline, said he was "a little surprised" by the late play-calling.

Gore took it a step further.

"We could've ran on them all day," he said. "We called plays that we thought were good, and things didn't happen."

When asked by this newspaper's Cam Inman why Gore, who was on the field for the final three plays, never got the ball, Harbaugh delivered a three-second stare and a terse response.

"We had other plays called," the coach said.

Too many of those "other" plays were uncharacteristic of the imaginative work Roman and Harbaugh submitted most of the season and seemed to improve upon in the first two games of this postseason.

But with the end zone close enough to touch and the Lombardi Trophy on the line, Roman and, by extension, Harbaugh got throw happy. They played it exactly as Andy Reid did for more than a decade in Philadelphia, where his Eagles usually contended but generally came apart in the playoffs.

"Five yards short," Staley said. "All the work we did in the offseason, the whole entire season, everything comes down to 5 yards. And we weren't able to get it."

No doubt Roman and Harbaugh have regrets. That's typical among coaching staffs that lose the Super Bowl, especially when they come so close to winning it.

No doubt, either, that these two saved some of their worst and weirdest for last.

They have a few months to question their strategy, examine their identity and evaluate their personnel-plenty of time to figure out why they blinked in the final minutes of the biggest game of their coaching careers.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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