NEW ORLEANS — Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick are, in so many ways, similar. Strong-armed, no-flinch quarterbacks from small schools playing in the biggest game there is for the first time in their careers.
But Super Bowl XLVII's greatest appeal isn't in the similarities of Flacco's Baltimore Ravens or Kaepernick's San Francisco 49ers. It reaches deeper than head coaches who share Jack and Jackie Harbaugh's last name. It's bigger than Randy Moss thinking he's better than Jerry Rice or future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis trying to join the likes of Bronko Nagurski, Otto Graham, Norm Van Brocklin and John Elway as NFL greats who retired as world champions.
No, the most fascinating aspect of Super Bowl XLVII might become its place in history. The Superdome on Sunday night could be the symbolic intersection of a traditional style of quarterback play and a brash new era. A standard created by guys with names such as Unitas, Manning and Brady vs. an approach that wasn't supposed to work at this level yet is taking the NFL by storm because of fearless kids named Newton, RG3 and Kaepernick.
"The standard, isolated-to-the-pocket quarterback, the Joe Flacco, the Peyton Manning, the Tom Brady, you're going to see fewer of them," said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who helped the Ravens win Super Bowl XXXV. "The Flaccos of the world, you'll see them slide [in future drafts]. They'll be extremely talented passers, but they'll be looked at differently because they don't do all this other stuff that we all love."
Don't say that to the guy who drafted Flacco and has ridden him to five straight playoff appearances. In fact, Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome has a rather strong opinion on the longevity of the 49ers' highly popular "read-option" play and the "pistol" formation from which it is run.
"As far as this pistol and this read-option goes, when these [NFL] defensive coordinators get together this offseason, it's going to be just like the Wildcat and the run-and-shoot and all of that other stuff," Newsome said. "It's going to become extinct, too."
In other words, game on.
Joe Cool and red-hot Colin
Flacco doesn't have a contract beyond Sunday night and seems locked in perpetual disagreement with reporters and fans who don't consider him as good as Flacco considers himself. In other words, he's kind of like Eli Manning before Eli won a couple of Super Bowls.
A win Sunday night would be Flacco's first Super Bowl title and ninth postseason victory, an NFL record he'd share with Brady. With eight touchdowns and no interceptions in this postseason, Flacco also is chasing Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young. Montana holds the record for most postseason touchdowns without an interception (11 in 1989), while Young ranks second (nine in 1994).
The 6-6, 245-pound Flacco's strengths are his flat-line demeanor and a great deep ball off play-action in the Ravens' run-oriented offense. His completion percentage (59.7) ranked 18th in the league, but he also threw a league-high 11 deep-ball touchdowns without any deep-ball interceptions.
Flacco is one dropped pass from this being his second straight Super Bowl. But he'll need a win to maximize his next contract and quiet his detractors.
"I think there is definitely a part of all of us that hears things," Flacco said. "And when somebody doubts you, you definitely go show them that they may be wrong."
At least Flacco's boss is happy.
"We made enough mistakes on quarterbacks before we got Joe that we knew what we were looking for," said Newsome, who picked Flacco 18th overall out of Delaware in 2008. "You win with quarterbacks. Would [Bill] Belichick be where he is without Tom Brady?"
Meanwhile, no one doubts the multi-dimensional talents of the 6-4, 230-pound Kaepernick. In fact, the 49ers are favored to win their sixth Super Bowl title -- tying the Steelers for most ever -- despite the fact that Kaepernick is making only his 10th professional start.
Since taking over for the concussed Alex Smith in Week 11, Kaepernick is 7-2 with a passer rating of 101.2, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also has run for 440 yards and four touchdowns, including an NFL quarterback-record 181 yards in the divisional playoff victory over the Packers. A week later, he ran only twice for 21 yards, but his 233 yards passing on just 21 attempts (11.1 average) broke Montana's team record (10.7) and beat the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game.
Disarming the pistol
The pistol formation -- or at least the version that the 49ers use about 30 percent of the time -- was conceived by former Nevada coach Chris Ault in 2005. That's where Kaepernick excelled in it before he was selected 36th overall by the 49rs in 2011.
Ault wanted to combine the spread passing game that's enhanced by having the quarterback in the shotgun with the power running benefits of a running back lined up behind the quarterback. What makes the 49ers' pistol especially difficult to stop is Kaepernick's powerful, accurate arm, his running skills and his training in the read-option, which, if run correctly, creates blocking angles that Dilfer calls "a dream come true" for the offensive linemen.
"It makes it 11-on-11 football, not 10-on-11," Kaepernick said. "You [the quarterback] are actually blocking the defender by reading him. ... And if I was worried about my health, I wouldn't be playing football."
When the Packers' perimeter defenders pinched in to take away running back Frank Gore, Kaepernick kept the ball and set an NFL record for rushing. When the Falcons took away the perimeter a week later, Kaepernick handed off to Gore or took advantage of the passing lanes created by a defense that was focused on the run.
"It was either Kaep or Frank Gore who asked me, 'Moss, how long do you think this pistol offense will work in the NFL?'" said Moss, the 49ers receiver and former Vikings star. "I said, 'Man, as long as you keep doing what you're doing, it'll go as far as you will take it.' Kaep's a blessed young man."
Lewis hinted that the best way to put an end to the pistol is to repeatedly clobber the trigger man.
"[The pistol] doesn't intimidate anything we are coming here to do," he said. "We are coming here to play football, and if you are carrying the football, from my defense, we gonna hit you, because that is what the game is all about."
Dilfer, meanwhile, calls the pistol/zone read combination "genius" and argues that if it's run properly, the quarterback not only won't get hit but will "torch" the defense if unblocked defenders steepen their angles to go after the quarterback.
"You're going to hear a lot of really smart defensive people say, 'Oh, it will go away. It'll become extinct. We'll hit the quarterback,'" Dilfer said. "And I always say this: Get into a room with an offensive-centric coach and a defensive-centric coach. At the end of the conversation, the defensive-centric coach usually leaves with his tail between his legs. We [the offense] always have an answer for what you [the defense] think your answer is."
49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman makes things even more difficult for defenders by running such a wide selection of plays from multiple formations and schemes that he says he's plucked from long-ago decades.
"We even run the Lombardi sweep," Roman said. "I mean, how cool is that? But the main idea for any offense is to put pressure on all 11 defenders. You want to make it a bad day for those guys on the other side."
Now, the question is who wins the present? The team that resembles the league's successes of the past or the team that's trying to take NFL quarterbacks into a future few thought was possible?