NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL spent much of the week stressing its concern for players' physical safety. In the wake of Super Bowl XLVII, however, the league showed little regard for the 49ers">49ers' psychological state.
Instead of putting ample space between the teams' postgame press conferences after the 49ers' 34-31 loss, as typically is the case, the league had the 49ers and Ravens separated by only a thin blue curtain in the bowels of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The result was as awkward as it was painful for San Francisco players, particularly left tackle Joe Staley, who in the middle of discussing the anguish of coming up five yards shy of a world championship had to pause to avoid being drowned out by two Ravens shouting "We did it! We did it!" into microphones directly behind him.
"It hurts," Staley said of having to be a disinterested participant in the Ravens' celebration.
It appeared the 49ers would be the ones doing the celebrating with 2:39 to play. They used a 34-minute stadium power outage to battle back from a 22-point third-quarter deficit and seemed prepared to take their first lead of the game with a 1st-and-goal at the 7. But a 2-yard gain by LaMichael James was followed by three consecutive incompletions to wide receiver Michael Crabtree, including a controversial non-holding call in the end zone on 4th-and-5.
Afterward the 49ers were left to ponder what could have been, while listening to the Ravens celebrate what was. Would they have liked to run the ball more in the goal-to-go situation? Sure, they said. But they knew the Ravens liked to flood the gaps with blitzers, so they felt their best chance was through the air.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick confirmed that they had a read-option called on third down, but changed the play after calling a timeout to keep the play clock from expiring. They came back with a creative call, on which Crabtree lined up in the backfield, went in motion and ran a few yards up the field before cutting the sideline. Kaepernick made a nice throw, but as Crabtree tried to snare the ball and turn upfield, Jimmy Smith came in from the outside with a hard hit to knock the ball free.
That set up the decisive play on fourth down. The 49ers showed the "Pistol" formation, from which they sometimes run their read-option, and had two receivers to the left and Crabtree to the right. The play call was for a pass against zone coverage, but Kaepernick switched to a fade route in the corner after the Ravens showed an all-out blitz and left Crabtree with one-on-one coverage. Kaepernick barely had time to set his feet because linebacker Dannelle Ellerbe came free over the left guard and hit him as he released the ball.
Crabtree was unable to get to the pass, however, because he had been tied up with Smith. Coach Jim Harbaugh wanted a holding call, and replays showed that Smith had his outside arm around Crabtree and was holding Crabtree's jersey. No flag was thrown, however, and the ball landed softly on the turf.
Crabtee did not say that a penalty definitely should have been called -- "I feel like he got his hands on me, and I guess the refs said he made a good play" -- but Harbaugh there was "no question" a flag should have been thrown.
While outsiders tried to make an issue of the lack of touches for running back Frank Gore during the decisive sequence -- Gore averaged 5.8 yards a carry for the game and finished with 110 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries -- the veteran standout was fully supportive of coordinator Greg Roman, one of the game's top play-callers.
"You can't say anything about it," Gore said. "Our coach did a great job of calling plays all game. Those were the plays he called and it just didn't happen. Crab, he was hot. You know, big receiver. One of the tough guys in this league. Anybody (would) want to give it to him. I'll take a chance with him, too."
The inability to get in the end zone, down by four with less than two minutes to play, is something that Kaepernick said will stick with him the "rest of my life." Staley and others also said the defeat would sting for a good while.
"Very frustrating," Staley said. "We were very relaxed. We were very confident that we were going to get it in there, but that's just the way football goes sometimes. We didn't get in, five yards short. All the work we do in the offseason, the whole entire season, everything comes down to five yards and we weren't able to get it done. Tip your hat to the Ravens. They were able to win it."
If there was any doubt, Staley simply had to listen to the celebration taking place behind him.