Super Bowl of firsts, lasts, bests
Once Smith was healthy, he no longer was the starter. Jim Harbaugh gambled by sticking with the raw second-year quarterback who brought more game-breaking skills to the position.
Difficult decisions like that are sometimes foolhardy, sometimes inspired.
This one worked superbly, and Kaepernick stands one victory from joining Joe Montana and Steve Young as a 49er Super Bowl champion.
‘‘It was tough watching this team do well and not being able to contribute,’’ said Kaepernick, more recognized before his promotion for his collection of tattoos than for his strong arm and sprinter’s speed. ‘‘For me, what kept me going was the fact that I might get an opportunity to get out there. When I did, I needed to take advantage of it.’’
The 49ers hope to take advantage in the same Superdome where they were at their most dominant, beating Denver 55-10 in 1990 in the biggest rout the Super Bowl has seen.
The Steelers are recognized as the true powerhouse of the Super Bowl era, which is nearly a half-century old. Four of those titles came in the 1970s, with Mean Joe Greene and the Steel Curtain shutting down opponents while Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann were scoring on them.
But the last two were in 2005 and 2008, and they've been perennial playoff qualifiers, too. That kept them in the football forefront.
For the 49ers the golden years of Montana, Rice, Young and Ronnie Lott ended with the 1994 season. They didn’t even make the playoffs from 2003-10, and this is their first trip back to the Super Bowl.
Rice sees Super Bowl win No. 6 coming Sunday.
‘‘I just think we had players who played well in the big game,’’ he said. ‘‘My best football that I played, I think, happened in the playoffs and in the Super Bowl. I think it’s the same with these players.’’
None of whom, except for center Jonathan Goodwin and linebacker Clark Haggans, has won a title. That’s still one more ring than the Ravens have: Lewis is the sole NFL champion in Baltimore.
Lewis hungers for these teammates to taste their first title — and to do it in his last game.
‘‘I've touched the Lombardi (Trophy), and I know how it feels,’’ the perennial All-Pro said. ‘‘For these guys who've made this journey with me to feel that, it would be the perfect ending for my career.’’
Like Lewis, 49ers receiver Randy Moss also could be suiting up for the final time, although he hopes to play another year.
Grabbed off the scrap heap after his career spiraled into oblivion and no team would touch him in 2011, Moss didn’t do much on the field (28 catches, 434 yards) this season. His loudest headlines came this week when he proclaimed himself the greatest receiver ever; maybe he’s never seen Rice’s numbers.
Teammates say Moss was very influential as a mentor and teacher.
‘‘Randy’s like my older brother,’’ said Michael Crabtree, who emerged as a top receiver in his fourth pro season. ‘‘An older brother you would have that’s been through a lot that you just can learn from just talking to him, watching him.
‘‘He’s a legend and I hope he'll be here next year.’’
Lewis won’t be. He'll don the face paint, put on his No. 52 for the final time, and see if he can replicate the championship of a dozen years ago.
‘‘You can never top the first one, because that’s an unknown feeling,’’ Lewis said before adding with a chuckle, eyes widening, ‘‘but a second one — that might be the only way you really can top it.’’