On the evening of Feb. 3, 2013, the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers met to decide NFL supremacy. Today, the two teams play again, hoping to stave off 2015 irrelevance.
Staying on the NFL mountaintop has proved difficult for both organizations since Super Bowl XLVII. Retirements, free-agent departures and injuries have whittled away talented and deep rosters. There have been off-field problems and on-field deficiencies. After engaging in a classic shootout on the sport's biggest stage, the respective franchise quarterbacks have buckled while having to carry the weight of an entire organization.
"It feels so long ago," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said when asked last week about his team's 34-31 victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl, the last time the teams met in a game of significance. "It's disrespectful to even talk about it, because you have so many guys on this team that weren't a part of it. They're trying to be a part of something great in the moment, and I am, too."
It has been a little over 32 months since Flacco, the game's Most Valuable Player, lifted the Lombardi Trophy skyward at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and the 49ers trudged through a sea of confetti and into a despondent locker room. Both teams, ignoring the volatility of an NFL season, vowed to get back. Nowadays, they feel further away than ever before.
Since the 2012 season, the Ravens have a 19-18 regular-season record and one playoff victory. The 49ers are 21-16 in that same span with two playoff wins and an NFC conference championship berth in 2013. When they meet today at Levi's Stadium, both will be buried at the bottom of their divisions, carrying 1-4 records and facing questions about where the two teams will go from here.
"I feel like one franchise, the Ravens, is hitting a hump, and I think the 49ers are in a valley right now," said former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, now an analyst for ESPN. "San Francisco has had a lot of transition. That's reflected, I think, where they are as an organization. When I look at the Ravens, I still remind myself that they've lost three games by a total of 11 points. I don't see the Ravens in the same situation as I see San Francisco in right now."
Still, the Ravens and 49ers are a testament to how hard it is to win consistently in the NFL and keep championship-caliber teams together. Of the 106 total players on the active rosters for Super Bowl XLVII, only 22 are still with the team they represented that Sunday. That list includes only 10 total starters.
"The NFL in itself, every week is crazy. Every week is hard," said 49ers first-year head coach Jim Tomsula, the defensive line coach on former head coach Jim Harbaugh's staff before being elevated to the top job. "You talk about three years ago, that's an eternity in the NFL with free agency and the way everything goes."
For the Ravens, significant change after the Super Bowl was expected. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last week that it was "obvious … why we have turned over so many people," alluding to the team's tight salary-cap situation and the veteran-laden 2012 roster.
The 2012 Ravens were the oldest Super Bowl team in a decade. Ray Lewis had already announced his retirement and Matt Birk would soon. Ed Reed headed a large group of free agents.
"That last Super Bowl was sort of the last stand for the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed group," said Phil Savage, a former Ravens executive and a former general manager of the Cleveland Browns. "They knew that there was going to be a shift culturally from the Ray Lewis-led Ravens to the Joe Flacco-led Ravens. That was happening even in that last Super Bowl year."
For the 49ers, change was sudden and often surprising. Their 2012 roster was loaded with both emerging and established stars, a mix that included precocious quarterback Colin Kaepernick and star linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith.
But since losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in the 2013 NFC championship game, the 49ers have unraveled. Acrimony between Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers front office and ownership resulted in a parting of ways after last season. The surprising retirements of Willis, offensive tackle Anthony Davis and linebacker Chris Borland, and the expected retirement of defensive lineman Justin Smith further thinned San Francisco's talent level and leadership group.
"You've got to start over with a head coach. That's huge. And the next thing is, they lost players, but they lost a lot of players that they didn't expect to lose," said NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, a former top executive for the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. "You don't expect to lose retirements. You don't plan on that. They lost too many guys in too short of a time with too many changes. That's hurting them."
Just in the past two offseasons, the list of free agents to leave their respective teams includes Torrey Smith, Pernell McPhee, Arthur Jones, Corey Graham, James Ihedigbo, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Donte Whitner, Chris Culliver and Mike Iupati.
Because of salary-cap restraints, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome felt compelled to trade Anquan Boldin and Haloti Ngata. Some recent early-round draft picks haven't panned out, and player misconduct has run its course through both organizations.
Ray Rice's domestic-violence case cast a shadow over the team's 2014 season, and was one of a series of Ravens arrests. The 49ers have had more players arrested than any other team since 2012, and Aldon Smith's ongoing legal problems forced San Francisco to release one of the league's best defensive players.
"Those are things that drain the energy from your organization," Savage said.
The defections and draft-day misses have put the onus on the respective quarterbacks. Flacco, who signed the biggest contract extension in franchise history after the Super Bowl, had perhaps the worst season of his career in 2013. He rebounded last year, but he's again dealing with a lack of accomplished playmakers.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick, signed to a seven-year, $127 million contract extension in 2014, leads the NFL's 29th-ranked offense.
"Clearly, there's a huge difference between the two quarterbacks," said Casserly, referencing Flacco and Kaepernick. "I've said many times that Kaepernick is the same guy he was a couple years ago. The difference is the team. The running attack was much better. … The offensive line was better. The defense was better. Everything was better around him, so he didn't have to make as many plays throwing the football."
Dominik doesn't expect the Ravens to be down for long. He wouldn't even be shocked if a win today sparks a run back into playoff contention. As for the 49ers, a first-year head coach, a regressing quarterback and a retirement-riddled roster make for a far steeper climb.
Savage also predicted a Ravens revival.
"You can argue that they could be 0-5, they could be 3-2. It's just the volatility of the league," Savage said. "There are only 32 teams. You've got two or three really good ones, two or three really bad ones, and everybody else is sort of in the middle. But as long as you have stability at the quarterback position and the head-coaching spot, you're always going to be ahead of half of the league before you even roll the ball out there. The Ravens have that in John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco, not to mention in Ozzie."
Last week, the NFL Network replayed the broadcast of Super Bowl XLVII. Several Ravens, including Flacco, gave it a glimpse. However, what was a joyous occasion is now a painful reminder of how much things have changed for both organizations.
"It's tough to stay at that level. I think you see that consistently across the board," Flacco said. "It's just tough from year to year to keep that same team together and keep injuries down and all those things. I'm sure they feel the same way, and every other team that has only won one game or two games or zero games probably feels the same way."