As the purple and gold confetti fell, the mass of black jerseys behind me stomped their feet in unison. Swallowed whole by a booming cacophony of Ooooohh's to "Seven Nation Army," I sat in my seat helpless, hopeless. Seeing the look of utter despondency on the faces of players I love so much can only be described as heartbreaking.
I made an inconspicuous exit from the sports bar that night. I hugged a few of my friends, thanked them for coming out, walked out to the parking lot and got in my car. The drive home felt more like twenty years than twenty minutes. The only text message I received was from a friend who told me he'd be organizing my suicide watch in shifts. To be honest, the agony of defeat never truly settled in until I got home. I took off my Patrick Willis jersey and hung it up in my closet where it hadn't been since the very start of the season. It was at that moment that I realized it was all over.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>Time to order a <a href="https://twitter.com/search/%2349ers">#49ers</a> world champions shirt and live in an alternate reality.</p>— Anthony Ly (@AnthonyLy49) <a href="https://twitter.com/AnthonyLy49/status/298292888121532416">February 4, 2013</a></blockquote>
<script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
In total darkness, hidden under a heap of blankets, all I could think about was five yards. The difference of five yards. It could have meant a rain of red and gold confetti covering the field. It could have meant a teary-eyed Frank Gore hoisting the Lombardi trophy. It could have meant Colin Kaepernick sitting in a pristine 2014 Chevrolet Corvette. It could have meant a lot of things. But it simply wasn't meant to be.
Since the Super Bowl ended, I've been on a complete media blackout with the exception of an occasional tweet. I avoided ESPN, Sportscenter, and NFL Network altogether. Instead, I watched Paula Deen deep-fry sticks of butter in a vat of vegetable oil and Nicki Minaj going at it with Mariah Carey and wondered which was more detrimental to my health.
After a week and a half of hibernation, I finally feel ready to emerge from my cave. Furthermore, I have a few golden nuggets of wisdom that I wish to bestow upon you all. It might not be what you want to hear, but it's something you should know.
STEP #1 OF RECOVERY: "LETTING GO"
Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15) reaches for the ball on fourth down in the fourth quarter against Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed (20) in Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Was Bruce Miller held on the second half kickoff return touchdown by Jacoby Jones? Was Michael Crabtree held by Jimmy Smith on the fourth down play at the end of the game?
The answer to both questions and any of the like: who cares?
Yes, there were questionable calls that could have changed the outcome of the game, but the game is over, and any game of "What if?" is a practice in futility. The new league year officially begins on March 12 - less than a month from now. If the National Football League is turning the page on 2012, so should we.
Simply put, it's time to let go of the past and move on to the future. And for the San Francisco 49ers, the future is incredibly bright.
TEACHER & PUPIL
Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh (left) talks with quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) prior to Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
What has this team been desperately lacking the most since the days of Steve Mariucci and Jeff Garcia? The obvious answer - a good head coach and a good quarterback. With Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick, the Niners have a great head coach and a great quarterback.
Harbaugh inherited Alex Smith, signed Josh Johnson in free agency, and claimed Scott Tolzien off waivers. However, Kaepernick has the unique distinction of having been selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, making him Harbaugh's first handpicked quarterback since arriving in San Francisco. Harbaugh has quite a reputation for identifying and developing quarterback talent as we've seen from Johnson at San Diego State, Andrew Luck at Stanford, and Smith during the 2011 season when the Niners reached the NFC Championship Game.
Why should we doubt him now?
Kaepernick is only the third quarterback in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl after nine or fewer starts. He's also the sixth-youngest signal caller to ever start in the big game. I've never been a guy to make lofty predictions, but I'm convinced - convinced - that Kaepernick has barely even scratched his ceiling. At 25 years old, he's young, healthy, and possesses every tangible and intangible tool you would look for in a franchise quarterback.
In other words, Kaepernick is the kind of quarterback I would create in Madden. The best (scariest) part of all? He has an entire offseason to get better.
SET FOR THE FUTURE
Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Francisco 49ers players including Ahmad Brooks (55) , Ricky Jean Francois (95) and Joe Staley (74) lead his teammates to the field before Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
I challenge you to find a more talented roster in the league right now. From top to bottom, the Niners are stacked. With the exception of kicker and maybe cornerbacks, there are no real glaring weaknesses at any position.
- Kendall Hunter, who was an exceptional spell to Gore in 2011, will make a full recovery by the start of training camp. The only challenge for the San Francisco backfield might be finding a way to feed all the mouths. Between Hunter, Gore, LaMichael James, and Kaepernick, the Niners promise to employ a multifaceted running attack next season.
- Since Michael Crabtree came into the league, his production has only gotten better and better. This past season, he became San Francisco's first 1,000+ yard receiver since Terrell Owens back in 2003. Remember that both Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams return in the offseason, so the Niners' receiving corps isn't as bare-bones as you might think it is. Also, we can't forget about A.J. Jenkins, the first round pick from a year ago, who promises to work hard this offseason to earn a more significant role on offense in 2013.
- Vernon Davis' production dipped considerably in the latter half of the regular season, but his physical attributes cannot be ignored. Davis is among the fastest players on the roster and continues to be a valuable asset in the blocking game as well. Delanie Walker had a disappointing season and is facing free agency. He may get paid starter money elsewhere, but if he comes back to San Francisco at a reasonable price, I certainly wouldn't complain.
- John Madden named San Francisco's offensive line 2012's "Most Valuable Protectors," an award he gives every year for the league's most exceptional offensive line play. The Niners invested three first-round draft picks (Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, and Anthony Davis) into the O-line, and it's paying off in spades. Center Jonathan Goodwin, 34, is approaching the twilight years of his career but is still dependable. And how brilliant was the decision to move Alex Boone to right guard? Not only was he a competent replacement for Adam Snyder, he was a vast improvement.
Jan 12, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis (52) leads a huddle against the Green Bay Packers during the second quarter of the NFC divisional round playoff game at Candlestick Park. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
- Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman represent the very heart and soul of the San Francisco defense, and they're going to be around for awhile. Willis is inked through the 2016 season while his counterpart signed an extension last November guaranteeing his services through 2018. There's not a better inside linebacker duo in the league, period.
- Much has been made of Aldon Smith's lack of production late in the season and into the postseason, but the numbers don't lie: Smith recorded a franchise record 19.5 sacks in 2012. Combined with his rookie season numbers, he's totaled 33.5 sacks in two years. Smith was voted the team's most valuable player this season. On a roster so rife with talent, that speaks volumes. On the opposite end, Ahmad Brooks is certainly no slouch either. Brooks recorded 6.5 sacks of his own, two forced fumbles, and one interception. Darius Fleming, whose rookie season was cut short last May due to a torn ACL, is a promising youngster and will be worth keeping an eye on.
- The defensive line remains stout but is aging. "Cowboy" Justin Smith, who was an integral element in run defense all season, played through a torn triceps injury through the entire postseason. Smith is expected to undergo surgery but should be at full strength by the time training camp rolls around. Ray McDonald might be the quietest guy in the entire locker room. Quite frankly, he isn't talked about very much at all. However, McDonald continues to be a reliable run-stopper and performed very well in the playoffs.
- Dashon Goldson is undoubtedly San Francisco's biggest offseason priority. Goldson won't settle for playing another season under the franchise tag and will look for a long-term contract. Harbaugh was very vocal about getting a deal done. "[Goldson]'s somebody that I think you reward," the head coach admitted last week. Like Goldson, Donte Whitner is a heavy hitter and will make receivers think twice about running down the middle, but Whitner has some room for improvement in defending the pass.
- As I mentioned earlier, the cornerbacks might represent one of the few weaknesses on the roster. Carlos Rogers is hot one week and cold the next. He saw a larger role this year covering slot receivers, but he's been serviceable at best. I have to question whether or not he's worth his $29.3 million price tag. I wasn't very high on Tarell Brown early on, but truthfully, he's had a solid year. Chris Culliver is perhaps the team's most talented and physically-gifted cornerback. He had some fantastic pass breakups throughout the season, but he's also been burned a few times. Culliver needs to take advantage of this offseason and focus on becoming more consistent.
BUILDING ON THE FOUNDATION
April 27, 2012; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and first round draft pick wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and general manager Trent Baalke pose for a photo at the 49ers headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
With 14 picks in this year's draft, general manager Trent Baalke will have plenty of ammunition to build onto an already-talented roster. It also provides some maneuverability if they wish to trade up for a player they really want. These are all of San Francisco's draft picks in their respective rounds (courtesy of Matt Maiocco from CSN Bay Area):
1. First round: Own pick
2. Second round: Own pick
3. Third round: Own pick
4. Third round: From Carolina in trade-back during 2012 draft
5. Third round: Likely compensatory selection
6. Fourth round: Own pick
7. Fifth round: Own pick
8. Fifth round: From Indianapolis in trade-back during 2012 draft
9. Sixth round: Own pick
10. Sixth round: From Miami in trade-back during 2012 draft
11. Seventh round: Own pick
12. Seventh round: From Cincinnati for Taylor Mays
13. Seventh round: Likely compensatory selection
14. Seventh round: Likely compensatory selection
Last year's draft class proved that it will be quite difficult to crack the active roster and even harder to get onto the field. Of San Francisco's seven draft picks from 2012, only running back LaMichael James made a significant contribution, and that wasn't until late in the regular season.
The abundance of selections won't immediately translate to on-field production, but it does afford the opportunity to establish some depth behind the incumbents. The best front offices understand that a steady influx of young talent translates to sustained, long-term success. And as the Niners learned last season after losing Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter to injuries, circumstances can change at any time, and it will prove beneficial to have some fresh bodies waiting in the wings.
There are three necessary ingredients in building a thriving football organization: a talented roster, effective coaching, and passionate ownership. Every team in the league strives for all three, but very few possess them. The San Francisco 49ers are one of those teams. Success is never guaranteed, so I won't make any promises, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of this franchise.
Let that be the last time you say it. It hurts, I know, but keep your head up. We'll be back.
To the readers,
It's been an absolute pleasure authoring 'The Booth Review' this season. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I've received so much support, feedback, and discussion through Twitter and also from the comments section below. There's not a brighter, more intelligent fanbase in the league.
I'll continue to contribute articles through the next couple of months though not as frequently since I'm wrapping up my final semester of college and also working a full-time job. If only there were more hours in the day...
Anyway, thank you, and everyone on the staff, for making my first year writing at Niners Nation such an enjoyable experience. Just like the 49ers, 'The Booth Review' will be back before you know it!
Follow Anthony Ly on Twitter: @AnthonyLy49