As Jed York strolled through the jubilant visitors' locker room at the Georgia Dome after last month's NFC championship game, the San Francisco 49ers' young owner shared in the celebration of his team's 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons and the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years.
A few minutes later, however, as he stood in the small dressing area, York couldn't help but look ahead — not only to his team's Super Bowl XLVII clash with the Baltimore Ravens, but also to a 2013 season that promises to be challenging for the two-time defending NFC West champions.
"I have to give a lot of credit to the NFC West," York said, responding to a question about how a blowout defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in late December had galvanized the Niners heading into the postseason. "Nobody expected it to be, in my opinion, the toughest division in professional sports. The Rams are getting back there and gave us so much trouble. The Cardinals always play us tough.
"The Seahawks? I don't know that I would pick the 49ers as the favorite to win the NFC West next year. That's how good they are. We have an unbelievable division and I think it prepared us for this run. And hopefully we can finish it off."
After watching San Francisco finish five yards short of that goal on Super Sunday, I can empathize with York's sense of urgency, and with the frustration he felt in the aftermath of the Ravens' 34-31 victory.
While the 49ers have already been installed by oddsmakers as co-favorites (along with the Denver Broncos) to win next year's Super Bowl, York is spot-on in his assessment of the Seahawks, who came within a whisker of defeating the Falcons and facing the Niners in the NFC title game.
When I look ahead to the 2013 season, Seattle and San Francisco seem like the two strongest teams, but that is for another day — or, realistically, days. For those of you scoring at home, as I write this column there are 211 web-surfing days until the Thursday night regular season opener at M&T Bank Stadium, and I'm sure we'll spend many of them projecting your favorite team's prospects, ideally with our customary degree of accuracy.
For now, however, let's take a final look back at a rollicking 2012 season, which began with an officiating lockout and ended with the most momentous Super Bowl blackout since Barret Robbins' Tijuana sojourn a decade earlier.
Before turning out the lights for good on this memorable NFL campaign, here are some things we learned along the way:
1. The margin for error at the top of the NFL is wafer thin: The Ravens, by sheer force of their will and resilience, are the Super Bowl champs, and by definition that makes them the best team. Yet can we really make a strong case for any of the NFL's top teams being superior to the others? The Ravens' victory over the Patriots in the AFC title game was decisive, but Baltimore needed a stunning, 70-yard touchdown pass in the final minute to stay alive in their divisional-round game against the Broncos in Denver, ultimately winning in double overtime. The Niners' NFC championship game victory over the Falcons could have gone either way, and the same could be said for the Falcons-Seahawks game the week before. The Niners' victory over the Patriots in Foxborough in December was tense as well. Let's take New England out of the conversation, and I would still argue that the other five teams mentioned (Ravens, Broncos, 49ers, Falcons, Seahawks) were all about the same caliber. And while I successfully picked the winner in each of the last three games I covered (Falcons over Seahawks, 49ers over Falcons, Ravens over 49ers), realistically, those games were coin-flips.
2. No lead is safe against a good team: Think about those three games I just mentioned — they essentially had the same story arc. In each case, one team jumped out to a stunning lead, and the game was declared over on Twitter, only to take a dramatic turn. In short order, the trailing team got back into the game, though only the Niners (in the NFC championship) closed the deal. Throw in that wild (and ultimately unsuccessful) Patriots comeback against the Niners in December, and I'm starting to have some sympathy for the coaches who feel compelled to pile on when their teams are ahead. If the opponent is a quality one, comebacks can happen quickly — even without power outages.
3. There are a lot of quarterbacks who can lead a team to a title, some of them very young: I'm not sure whether Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco is officially an elite quarterback; I am certain he's about to be paid like one. And why not? He earned it in throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in his four postseason games, and his timing is impeccable. Besides, elite is an overrated entity in today's NFL. Give me one game to win, and I'll take Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers. And I'd be thrilled with Drew Brees or Ben Roethlisberger, for that matter. Yet there are plenty of other passers capable of taking their teams on a playoff run similar to the one Flacco just spearheaded, and I believe that group includes Matt Ryan, Eli Manning (we know he belongs, because we've seen it, twice), Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and struggling stars Philip Rivers and Michael Vick. I'm also convinced that this year's triumvirate of awesome rookie QBs, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Wilson, has the goods, and 2011 rookie sensation Cam Newton may well be in this category. And despite his failure to get those final five yards against the Ravens, and his limited body of work, Colin Kaepernick needs to be placed on this list, too.
4. Momentum is a myth: I made the case after the Saints staggered into the playoffs before winning Super Bowl XLIV – not long after agreeing with then-Colts president Bill Polian (which may have been the only time that happened) – that entering the playoffs on a winning note correlating with postseason success is "pure fantasy." Now, after watching the Ravens lose four of their final five regular-season games — and outright tank their finale against the Bengals — before their stellar playoff performance, the L.A. Times' Sam Farmer has taken this argument to another level, explaining that seven of the last eight Super Bowl champions had underwhelming regular-season finishes. For the record, I believe that every situation is different, and that some teams can, in fact, benefit from late-regular-season momentum. I'm just sick of hearing this notion portrayed as a factually accepted one, when recent evidence indicates otherwise. In short, when a team has nothing or little to play for down the stretch, it's up to the coach to decide whether there's value in going all out to win or in shutting it down until the postseason begins. That's why he makes the big bucks.
5. It's not a question of if there will soon be an openly gay NFL player, but when: Last Monday night in New Orleans, I joined outspoken Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, where he was being honored at a dinner by local LGBT leaders. The private event's host, former Orleans Parish School Board president Thomas Robichaux, was thrilled by Ayanbadejo's presence, saying, "I've admired him from afar because of his advocacy for gay-marriage laws, but I was very nervous about meeting him in person, because you never know what someone will be like. Well, he's everything I could have hoped for — smart and warm and someone who puts you totally at ease. I can't tell you how appreciative our community is that athletes like Brendon are speaking out for change." Along with Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and Texans linebacker Connor Barwin — all fellow spokespeople for Athlete Ally, an organization focused on promoting acceptance within the sports community — Ayanbadejo looks forward to the day when an active NFL player will feel comfortable enough to be open about his homosexuality. As Ayanbadejo wrote in a guest column for USA Today on Wednesday, that pioneer will be the Jackie Robinson of the LGBT community, and he'll need all the support he can get. We've come a long way in the 18 years since I wrote about Dennis Rodman's gay sex fantasies, which provoked a loud and combative outcry in some quarters, and we're rapidly moving toward a society in which one's sexuality ceases to be a divisive issue. Soon, we'll look back at statements such as 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver's during media day the same way we recall segregated drinking fountains and overtly racist commentary — and it would behoove professional athletes to feel the winds of change at their back and get on the path to acceptance.
6. Success comes from the top down: At last Thursday night's rocking EA Sports party at the Metropolitan Nightclub, as Lil' Wayne performed on the stage below, I had a loud and lively conversation with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, whose shrewd leadership has helped produce one of the league's most successful franchises of the 21st century. Noting that I was wearing a purple pleather jacket (long story, and it should be noted that Fujita offered the guy at the coat check $20 to make it disappear) and that I have generally written positive things about the organization, Bisciotti wondered if I were a closet Ravens fan. I laughed and admitted I admired the way he ran his franchise, with a strong personnel department led by general manager Ozzie Newsome working in conjunction with coach John Harbaugh, and with team president Dick Cass presiding adeptly over the business side. Three nights later, as Bisciotti strolled through the Baltimore locker room holding a victory cigar, he did his best to deflect credit, saying, "I've got the best management staff in the whole country. I'm just proud to be a part of it with them." He was being modest, but he was also being smart. You know that movie Horrible Bosses? Bisciotti is the opposite. And while parity provides poorly run franchises with the occasional opportunity to break through and contend, good ownership usually shows itself over the long haul. This year's playoff field was full of positive examples, from the Patriots' Robert Kraft, to the Falcons' Arthur Blank, to the Colts' Jimmy Irsay, to the Seahawks' Paul Allen, to the Broncos' Pat Bowlen (who has largely ceded authority to team president Joe Ellis and executive VP John Elway), to York, among others. And while York's uncle, five-time Super Bowl-winning owner Eddie DeBartolo, hasn't yet been granted the Hall of Fame enshrinement he deserves (he was one of 15 finalists before being eliminated in Saturday's voting), the ultracompetitive tone set by the ex-49ers owner has clearly been passed down to the next generation. When I texted York on Monday to congratulate him on a great season, he replied immediately: "It's better than 2-14 but not good enough. We will be working." And in seven short months, when the lights go on and the 2013 season commences, we'll begin to see the fruits of that labor.
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