OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Walking through the Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills on Wednesday, Joe Flacco noticed a televised replay of Super Bowl XLVII on NFL Network.
But the eighth-year quarterback and Most Valuable Player of that game says he doesn’t reminisce about the pinnacle of his career that night in New Orleans less than three years ago. These days, he and the Ravens are simply trying to turn around the worst start in the 20-year history of the franchise.
Sunday’s regular-season meeting with their opponent in that championship game, the San Francisco 49ers, isn’t creating much nostalgia, mostly because of the dramatic roster turnover since then. Just nine of the 46 Baltimore players active for Super Bowl XLVII are currently on the 53-man roster and only four were Super Bowl starters. In total, only 14 players remain who were with the organization then.
“It feels like so long ago,” Flacco said. “It’s disrespectful to even talk about it, because you have so many guys on this team that weren’t a part of it, and they’re trying to be a part of something great in the moment. I am, too. It doesn’t really cross my mind too often, and I think I like it that way.”
Of course, the dominant narrative leading into that Super Bowl was the meeting between John and Jim Harbaugh, but the latter is no longer in San Francisco despite leading the 49ers to three NFC championship games in his first three seasons. Jim Harbaugh now roams the sideline coaching the University of Michigan as the 49ers have slipped into a 1-4 hole under new head coach Jim Tomsula.
The Ravens coach dismissed any notion of it being personal against San Francisco and said he doesn’t have time to think back. Harbaugh and his staff are more consumed with trying to overcome a slew of injuries while also fixing the league’s 25th-ranked pass defense.
“It really doesn’t cross your mind,” said Harbaugh, who added that he hasn’t talked much with his brother as Jim prepares for his own big game against Michigan State this Saturday. “It’s a new challenge, new team, new year. That’s what you focus on.”
This season has also been a great challenge for the 1-4 49ers as they’ve looked even worse than the Ravens, owning the worst point differential (minus-65) in the NFL and losing three games by double-digit margins. Unlike the Ravens who have remained consistent at the top, the 49ers changed their infrastructure with Jim Harbaugh’s departure while experiencing a mass exodus of players this offseason that included abrupt retirements as well as free-agent departures.
Those wholesale changes have resulted in San Francisco having the league’s 29th-ranked offense and 31st-ranked defense through the first five weeks.
The most familiarity from Super Bowl XLVII that the Ravens will experience with the opposing side will be the two who used to be their own: wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. For a passing game lacking weapons and desperately hoping that the 36-year-old Steve Smith is ready to return, the former Ravens wideouts would sure look good in purple now.
But life goes on and the Ravens can at least take solace in knowing they came out on top on that memorable day.
“We had a lot of vets on both teams, too, so you’re always going to have to deal with [change] as well,” said Smith, who admitted he “cried like a baby” leaving the Ravens this past offseason. “I’m not surprised. Being on the other side, the other team, it’s different. It’s weird. We were walking out for the walk-through and they were playing the Super Bowl on the TV. And [49ers left tackle] Joe Staley, we were in the huddle, and he looks at me and was like, ‘You didn’t deserve that.’ We kind of talk trash about it every once in a while, but it’s definitely a sensitive subject.
“I’m still glad that I was on the winning side of that. But I think that change happens, and it’s about what you do next.”
“What’s next?” is the question for the Ravens as only six of the 121 NFL teams — just under five percent — to start 1-4 since 1990 have rebounded to make the playoffs. Regardless of how the next 11 regular-season games play out, Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome must identify which players will be key pieces moving forward.
The results haven’t been there in 2015, but the process of building the next championship team never stops. The Ravens made a difficult task look so easy over the first seven years of Harbaugh’s tenure, making the start of this season so surprising.
Stability at the top gives Baltimore the edge in rebounding more quickly than the team they’ll be playing Sunday as the 49ers were a laughingstock for much of the offseason. For now, both teams appear to be chasing ghosts.
“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. It’s unfortunate that we’re both in the same situation right now, because I think we feel as though we have a better team. I’m sure they feel the same way.”