Ah, the power of “What if” – especially in the realm of sports.
When it comes to the scope of history, the question of “what if” is always an enticing one to ask. After all, many an interesting story comes from the thought of the alternate timeline. What if the Confederacy won the Civil War? What if the Soviet Union won the space race? What if Gavilo Princip wasn’t chilling at that one cafe on the day he planned to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand?
I mean, even I asked “What if” in the past. (It’s kind of a thing I do.)
From the 49ers drafting Aaron Rodgers in 2005, to Tom Brady going anywhere but the Patriots as the 199th pick in 1999, to the recent harebrained idea of trading DeMarcus Cousins for Kawhi Leonard, I have entertained the thought of these “simply won’t happen” or “could’ve happened” scenarios.
Which brings me to the good ol’ crew down at ESPN’s NFL Live. I guess because it was a slow NFL news day (which is certainly understandable), the guys decided to give this tried and true trope a shot, and even get social media in on the action. However, they managed to open some gaping wounds – both old and certified fresh – in the process, by asking the following:
“49ers fans, what one play would you change in 49ers history?”
They offered four especially heartbreaking moments that many 49ers fans would probably give their right arm to reverse, if it were up to them. If you are a 49ers fan – especially one of this generation – you probably know at least three of them all too well.
1) Roger Craig’s “Three-peat”-destroying fumble – January 20, 1991: The 1990 49ers were 14-2, and still considered on top of their game, following two previous Super Bowl-winning seasons. Many – including the team – believed that they were on the verge of the league’s first ever “three-peat” – three straight Super Bowl titles. Unfortunately, they stalled heavily against the New York Giants, scoring only 13 points in the game.
However, they held a 13-12 lead late in the fourth quarter, and were aiming to run out the clock with their able-handed franchise running back, Roger Craig. But with 2:36 left, Craig fumbled the ball back to New York – an error which would lead to a game-winning 42-yard game-winning field goal. There will be no three-peat.
2) Kyle Williams’ back-breaking kick return gaffes – January 22, 2012: It was the 49ers’ first year under head coach Jim Harbaugh, and they had just come off an amazing come-from-behind victory against the New Orleans Saints in the divisional playoffs, culminating in what is now known as “The Grab” (or “Vernon Post,” as the play was called here). With the wild-card Giants coming to Candlestick, the 49ers were favored to reach their sixth Super Bowl in franchise history.
But, in a contentious, defense-oriented matchup, it was Williams on kick returns that would alter the course of the game. With the 49ers clinging to a 14-10 lead, and the Giants punting deep in their own territory, Williams’ fair catch turned into a turnover when the ball, unbeknownst to him, grazed his body, and the Giants capitalized. A four-point lead turned into a three-point deficit late in the game.
While the 49ers would tie and send the game to overtime, Williams would go on to lose another punt, fumbling a ball that the Giants would recover. Consequently, it led directly to the Giants’ championship-winning field goal.
3) Colin Kaepernick’s “Five More Yards” in Super Bowl XLVII – February 3, 2013: In Harbaugh’s second year, an injury to incumbent QB Alex Smith led to the insertion of backup Colin Kaepernick – a dynamic runner and playmaker in his second year on the team. His overall skill – along with his mastery of a read option offense not many teams could figure out – guided the 49ers offense to an NFC Championship and a coveted Super Bowl berth. They would be favored against a Ravens squad that mirrored them in quite a few ways.
Despite this, the 49ers’ offense was stifled in the first half, only scoring two field goals. Meanwhile, a Jacoby Jones 108-yard kick return TD would put San Francisco in a 28-6 hole at the start of the third quarter. The 49ers would eventually come roaring back, bringing them to within two points early in the fourth. However, down by five with 4:19 to go, the offense would drive to the Baltimore five-yard line before they stalled on three straight pass plays.
It would be the closest these 49ers would ever get (in recent memory) to a Super Bowl title.
4) 4th-and-7 pass TD puts Seattle up for good in NFC title game – January 19, 2014: In a “bad-blood” affair between NFC West rivals Seattle and San Francisco in CenturyLink Field, the 49ers are clinging to a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, with the Seahawks driving. After stopping the offense on third-and-22 (yet allowing a 15-yard pass play in the process), the 49ers anticipate getting the ball back on a punt from their 35-yard line. Unfortunately for them, the Seahawks decided to go for it.
Catching the secondary unawares, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson takes advantage by throwing over the defense to a wide-open WR Jermaine Kearse, for the 35-yard go-ahead score.
It would a lead they would never relinquish, despite giving the 49ers multiple chances to come back. The game would eventually be sealed by a tipped ball in the end zone by safety Earl Thomas and an interception by CB Richard Sherman in the game’s final seconds.
While I was perplexed that the NFL Live crew decided to choose the Wilson touchdown play (which was early in the fourth quarter) over that final Sherman interception (which was in the game’s final seconds) as the play to do over, I ultimately digress.
Well? Do you know your answer? Because I certainly know mine, and it really shouldn’t even be much of a question:
The Kaepernick play.
But, why? Let me count the ways:
1) It’s a Super Bowl-winning play. First and foremost, out of all the plays listed, the Kaepernick play in the end zone is the only one that would have won them their sixth Super Bowl. It’s really as simple as that.
Oh, you want me to go on? Alright, I can go on.
2) To elaborate – all other plays are Super Bowl berth-winning plays. As Super Bowl XLVII so vividly illustrated, just because the 49ers get to the Super Bowl, doesn’t mean they would have automatically won the thing.
As much as I loved those dynasty-carrying 49ers of the 80s and 90s, there were no guarantees that, even if they beat the Giants in that title game, they would have been a lock to win the Super Bowl. Lest we forget, that game led to one of the all-time great finishes – one in which Bills kicker Scott Norwood will live in infamy with the words “Wide Right”. The Bills almost won that game – and who knows if they would have done so against the 49ers.
In Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants were underdogs against the Patriots, and they barely won that game with a potent defense and Eli Manning – a superior QB at the time to Alex Smith – at the helm. The odds would not have been in San Francisco’s favor, then.
Neither would have been the 2013 49ers against a potent offense like the Denver Broncos. To Seattle’s credit, they had a superior secondary that shut down Denver’s passing attack. You add the fact that the 49ers lost one of their best defensive players to a devastating knee injury during the NFC title game, and it’s possible that they would have been sitting ducks against Manning and company.
3) Changing any of the other plays might have had an adverse effect on the team going forward. Now, go with me on this – let’s just say, for argument’s sake, Roger Craig doesn’t fumble in 1990, the 49ers go on to annihilate the Bills in Super Bowl XXV, and San Francisco gets their historic Three-peat. Remind me again – when does Steve Young take over as starting QB for the Niners?
Oh, right. 1991. Now, if Montana had gotten that three-peat, do you think Young would have been handed the reins of starting QB the very next year? I think not, kemo sabe. And considering Young was already chomping at the bit to be the main starter in 1989, do you think he would’ve stuck around if he wasn’t the starter in ’91, or ’92, or ’93? I THINK NOT, KEMO SABE. Kind of a big deal for the post-Montana 49ers, don’t you think?
As for Williams’ gaffes – let’s just make the argument that, if those mistakes don’t happen, the 49ers are in Super Bowl XLV. Win or lose, Smith is an NFC Champion. Assuming that happens, I think it’s much more difficult to plant any seeds of doubt about upending him as the starting QB for anyone – even an aging, recovering Peyton Manning.
Now, if we’re going with a “Butterfly Effect” scenario here, let’s just say that, because all this stuff changes, Smith doesn’t get injured 9 games into the season. Kaepernick doesn’t get his shot to start, he remains on the bench, and maybe we see an abbreviated (yet somewhat effective) offense going forward, that leaves the 49ers in neutral. Maybe that hastens Harbaugh’s exit, and we never get to see the rise of Kap.
That’s a lot of “maybes”, but this is a “what if”, after all.
As for changing the 2013 NFC title game play? Let’s say the 49ers win that game, too, and face off against the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVII. Like I said earlier, I have no confidence that a team without one of their most dynamic defenders and an above-average secondary would be enough to stop Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl. That would likely put Kaepernick and Harbaugh’s 49ers at an 0-2 record in the Super Bowl – something the 49er Empire would find very, very difficult to stomach.
With all that said, it’s pretty obvious that the Kaepernick Super Bowl sequence would be the clear choice to change. In the realm of “What if”, it’s a fun game to play, even though you can’t account for everything involved. But there’s certainly one thing that’s indisputable:
If 49ers fans had the choice, six Lombardi Trophies trumps seven Super Bowl appearances any day of the week.