Perhaps the most compelling match up to watch on Super Bowl Sunday won’t be between Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick or even the head coaching brothers, John Harbaugh and Jim Harbaugh.
No, the match up to watch in Super Bowl XLVII may very well come down to two men with a shared football legacy who now stand on opposite sides of the battle in the trenches.
Ray Lewis and Frank Gore spent the years of their football youth battling on the talent-rich playing fields of South Florida, culminating in their shared attendance at the University of Miami in the late 90s and early 2000s. While their careers at “The U” and their subsequent paths in the NFL have been very different, these two former Hurricanes now find themselves in the sport’s ultimate game with their respective team’s fortunes hanging in the balance.
The fact that there will be a number of University of Miami players on the field in New Orleans is nothing new. In fact, there quite likely will be three future Hall of Famers in the persons of Lewis, Gore and Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed and five players overall from “The U” on both teams in the Superdome. Time, scandal and rise of the SEC have all diminished the 20th Century’s last true football dynasty. But Lewis’ and Gore’s head-to-head gives us a reminder of a time past when the dominance of the Hurricanes’ program in the NFL was center stage every gameday.
Ray Lewis’ path to football’s grandest stage seems almost preordained (and if you don’t believe it, just ask him). First, as superstar record-breaking athlete in high school, then as a sideline-to-sideline tackling terror at Coral Gables. As the Raven’s #1 pick in the 1996 draft, Lewis brought his even-then legendary intensity to the NFL, garnering Defensive Player of the Year, Super Bowl MVP and a plethora of other team and individual awards.
After suffering a torn triceps, Lewis has rebounded to lead his team with 44 playoff tackles. It’s his “last ride,” his final show. And while more of the legend remains of his dominance than his true ability, one, great, game changing performance may still remain.
Gore’s road to Super Bowl XLVII was rockier, but perhaps as equally satisfying. A tantalizing package of speed, cutting ability and power, Gore came to Miami as perhaps the most talented recruit in a backfield legacy that had featured Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee. Oft injured in his days at Miami, Gore struggled with consistency and fumbling when he did make it on the field.
When he came to the San Francisco 49ers in the second round of the 2005 draft, Gore was seen as somewhat of a project, a “what-if?” player. Eight years, and an all-time team record 8893 rushing yards later, he stands as one the greatest second round picks in league history.
Gore out gained James, outlasted Portis and has beaten fellow running back survivor McGahee to the big stage. The player who couldn’t stay on the field in Miami has the chance to shine like none of his former running back teammates ever have.
Given the match-ups on offense and defense, Lewis v. Gore may be a crucial element for both teams. Kaepernick’s mastery of the 49ers Pistol Pull-Read offense is balanced by Gore’s ability to slash on the cut-back for big yardage.
With DT Haloti Ngata likely to see a double team, DE Terrell Suggs not fully back from injury and DE Paul Kruger probably having his hands full with 49ers OT Joe Staley , Lewis’ ability to tackle Gore in the open field will be critical.
If Lewis can’t win this match-up for the majority of the game, the Ravens will be crushed in the ground game and likely will be blown out.
The Ravens have to put the pressure on Kaepernick to make the read to run or pass without the safety valve of Gore. Without that match-up win, Frank Gore will have eternal bragging rights over his Miami brethren at the next Hurricanes alumni function.