Risk-taking brothers break mould for Super Bowl

19:12, Jan 29 2013
John Harbaugh
Baltimore Ravens head John Harbaugh.

For much of the NFL season it looked like two brothers could face off at the Super Bowl. That proved the case, but it was a different set of brothers.

Radio host Colin Cowherd tagged it the HarBowl (and was quickly copied by Sports Illustrated), with brothers Jim and John Harbaugh coaching San Francisco and Baltimore respectively in the game this Monday (NZ time). Quarterbacking brothers Peyton and Eli Manning will watch from the stands after Peyton's Denver Broncos were upset in the playoffs and Eli's Giants didn't even make the postseason.

For Jim, the Super Bowl berth is vindication of his much criticised decision mid-season to bench quarterback Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick.

But elder brother John also had to make a tough choice. Following four losses and with a stagnating offence, last month he fired long-time family friend and offensive co-ordinator Cam Cameron, replacing him with his quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell.

The impact was immediate. Since then quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown for eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the three playoff games and now has the most post-season road wins of any quarterback in history.

If the brothers hadn't made these risky calls, neither team would have made the Super Bowl.


But despite their many similarities the brothers come across as very different personalities. John is popular among his peers, while the intense Jim is famous for getting into fights with other coaches, including a hilarious incident with Lions coach Jim Schwartz (check it out on YouTube).

Their two teams put a lie to twin assumptions that have underpinned the league in recent seasons. The perception is that to win the Super Bowl a team needs an elite quarterback. Neither Kaepernick nor Flacco fits in this category. Both would slide into the second tier of quarterbacks.

The second myth is that it is an aerial game nowadays, tailor-made for Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

But the 49ers and Ravens are both throwback teams in many ways. Don't get me wrong, for both Kaepernick and Flacco are great passers, but their teams are built around establishing the running game. That's how football has been played for generations. Much in the way that the success of great rugby teams is largely due to their forwards getting them on the front foot, the best NFL teams look to establish the run before they go for the glory passes (the Patriots being an exception to this rule).

But when they go to their passing games the two attacks are quite different. Both look to find men in space but Baltimore has a vertical attack while San Francisco's is horizontal. That means Baltimore looks for deeper passes down the field while the 49ers' receivers run routes that don't exceed a 20-metre radius, giving Kaepernick's spread offence more options for the short pass.

It will be an unenviable task for the 49ers' receivers because the Ravens linebackers deliver fearful punishment to whoever gets the ball.

So who is going to win? It's a tough call given the 49ers have a quarterback who is little more than a rookie. He's a great athlete but a wildcard, as it's hard to know how he will react to the pressure of the occasion. So far he has looked unflappable.

Flacco has proven to be a terrific playoff quarterback and leads the league in long throws. But the word on him is that he's not great at making reads and can be pressured into mistakes.

While the influence of quarterbacks is often overrated, that of coaches is generally underrated. On that count the 49ers have the advantage. Jim has been the best coach all season. He's aggressive when he needs to be, conservative when it's called for.

So San Francisco by three.

The Press