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Kragthorpe: 49ers' return to Super Bowl a long time in coming

Published February 1, 2013 11:42 am

San Francisco can tie Pittsburgh with sixth Lombardi Trophy.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

New Orleans

Before the kickoff of Alex Smith's preseason debut as a San Francisco rookie, the 49ers showed video highlights of the franchise's Super Bowl victories and Hall of Fame quarterbacks with the expressed hope of more to come: "The tradition continues."

In Smith's eighth season, part of that promise actually may come true Sunday.

The 49ers went 18 years between Super Bowl appearances. In Miami, quarterback Steve Young famously walked along the sideline when the victory over San Diego was secured, asking teammates to pull the monkey off his back.

Bad cliché, good footage.

In any case, it is stunning to review everything that's transpired in San Francisco since then, from a talent dropoff to coaching changes and all kinds of struggles. Who'd have believed it would take the 49ers this long to get back to this level? Asked this week about his own eight-year quest to reach the Super Bowl, Smith said, "You hoped it would be shorter."

And that he would be the starting quarterback.

That's not happening, but San Francisco is in Super Bowl XLVII against Baltimore, only one season after ending an eight-year run of missing the playoffs. By winning Sunday, the 49ers can tie Pittsburgh for the most Super Bowl victories (six) in history.

About time, wouldn't you say?

Recalling his 49ers tenure, former BYU quarterback Brandon Doman once told me, "It's just a special place. You walk in the front door and there's five Super Bowl trophies sitting there. … They kind of lost that special sauce they had out there. But that franchise has all the ability in the world to always be at the top."

Well, it does right now. Coach Jim Harbaugh has posted a 24-7-1 record in two regular seasons, plus three playoff wins and an overtime loss to the New York Giants in last year's NFC championship game. He's restored the 49ers' brand, maximizing what ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, a former backup to Smith in San Francisco, labeled by far the NFL's best roster from top to bottom.

The 49ers also have a unique blend of offensive schemes, using the multiple talents of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. While the team's five championships have been delivered only by Joe Montana and Young, Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Kaepernick is capable of joining them in the club of title-winning QBs.

Young faced far more heat, trying to live up to Montana's standards. He lost to Dallas in two NFC championship games before finally reaching the Super Bowl, which turned out to be the easy part. "Boy, there was a lot of pressure to make sure we got to the Super Bowl," Young once said.

All these years later, the expectations had lessened significantly — until Harbaugh came along. Kaepernick's challenge once he took over the starting job was merely topping Smith's achievement of getting to the NFC title game. He succeeded by leading a rally to beat Atlanta and qualify for the Super Bowl.

Now that the 49ers are in another Super Bowl, Harbaugh is struck by "just the enormity of it all," he said Friday. "It's great to be part of. Now, we want to win."

That's what the 49ers have always done in Super Bowls — or used to do, anyway.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com