Jim Harbaugh

How NFL pass interference rule change could have altered 49ers history

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USATSI

How NFL pass interference rule change could have altered 49ers history

The NFL issued a rule change Tuesday, and New Orleans Saints fans likely are pleased about it.

(Actually, they're probably still quite pissed.)

NFL owners approved a change for at least the 2019 season that will make pass interference -- both offensive and defensive -- a reviewable play. Additionally, coaches will be able to challenge non-calls for pass interference.

The proposed change had significant momentum as a result of the blatant missed pass interference call during the final minutes of the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game that should have given the Saints a first-and-goal opportunity and a chance to go up a touchdown with under two minutes remaining.

Instead, the call was missed, the Saints were forced to kick a field goal, the Los Angeles Rams tied it with 15 seconds remaining in regulation and eventually won in overtime to clinch a trip to Super Bowl LIII. The Saints and the rest of the football world were left wondering how such an obvious penalty could have gone uncalled.

Thus, the rule change. It won't take the sting out of that painful memory for Saints fans, but it will hopefully ensure that such an egregious mistake on the part of the officials doesn't happen again, particularly in such an important moment.

Which brings us to the 49ers. No, a missed pass interference call was not the difference between them making the Super Bowl or not last season. But just like every NFL team, they have both benefitted and been victimized by improperly ruled pass interference calls practically every time they've taken the field.

Some of those instances, however, stick out more than others.

[RELATED: Shanahan: Jimmy G looks good, has added weight in rehab]

Here's a look at some memorable plays (in chronological order) from 49ers history that might have turned out differently under the new rule change:

1983 NFC Championship Game

The 49ers were this close to going to the Super Bowl. Then the officials got in the way.

San Francisco led 21-17 over the Redskins late in the fourth quarter, but Washington had the ball at the 49ers' 45-yard-line. Quarterback Joe Theismann launched a deep pass to receiver Art Monk, but 49ers cornerback Eric Wright was in his back pocket. When Monk attempted to catch the ball, Wright did make contact with him, but the ball was so overthrown that it should have been ruled uncatchable.

"It was a ball a 10-foot tall Boston Celtic couldn't catch, let alone a receiver," 49ers coach Bill Walsh complained after the game.

Instead, Wright was called for a pass interference penalty, placing the ball at San Francisco's 18-yard line. That was soon followed by a questionable-at-best holding call on safety Ronnie Lott, setting up Washington kicker Mark Moseley -- who had already missed four kicks on the day -- for a game-winning 25-yard field goal.

Moseley's kick was good, sending Washington to Super Bowl XVII.

2002 NFC Wild Card Game

One of the crazier games in 49ers history came down to the final seconds, and in this case, San Francisco certainly benefitted from a missed pass interference call that could have changed the outcome.

With the 49ers leading 39-38 in the final seconds, the New York Giants botched the snap on a potential game-winning 41-yard field goal attempt. Placeholder Matt Allen gathered the ball, rolled right and hoisted a dead bird towards San Francisco's end zone in desperation. Giants lineman Rich Seubert -- who had correctly reported as an eligible receiver -- appeared to be open.

[WATCH PLAY HERE]

Then 49ers defensive lineman Chike Okeafor hauled Seubert to the ground while the pass was still in the air. Penalty flags were thrown -- but not on Okeafor. Instead, they had ruled another Giants linemen an ineligible receiver. Had Okeafor also been called for a penalty, those would have offset, and the Giants would have had another shot at a field goal.

Instead, the 49ers declined the ineligible receiver penalty, and the game was over. San Francisco then advanced to the NFC Divisional Round, where they were defeated by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Days after the Wild Card game, the NFL declared that the officials had missed the pass interference call on Okeafor.

Super Bowl XLVII

The last time the 49ers were in the Super Bowl seems particularly relevant to the new rule change.

San Francisco trailed Baltimore 34-29 with 4:19 left in regulation, but marched to the Ravens' 7-yard line on a 33-yard scamper by running back Frank Gore, giving the 49ers a first-and-goal with a chance to take the lead with a touchdown.

On first down, running back LaMichael James rushed for two yards, pushing the ball to Baltimore's 5-yard line. Then, on second and third down, quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw two incomplete passes intended for receiver Michael Crabtree, setting up fourth-and-goal.

[WATCH PLAY HERE]

Kaepernick went back to the same well on fourth down, but the pass intended for Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone fell incomplete once again, but not without some significant contact from Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith.

"There's no question in my mind that it was a pass interference, and then a hold on Crabtree on the last one," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said following the game.

The officials saw it differently and ruled Smith's contact incidental. The 49ers turned the ball over on downs and never got it back, as the Ravens came away with a controversial Super Bowl victory.

49ers vs. Rams, Week 3, 2017

Controversial pass interference rulings happen during the regular season, too, and 49ers receiver Trent Taylor knows that quite well.

Trailing 41-39 to the rival Rams in the fourth quarter, the 49ers recovered an onside kick, giving them a chance to notch their first victory of the young season. The 49ers gained zero yards on the first two plays leading into the two-minute warning, but on third down, 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer found Taylor on an 11-yard out pattern along the left sideline. Taylor secured the catch, appearing to set the 49ers up with a chance for a game-winning field goal.

The officials, however, threw a flag on Taylor -- all 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds of him -- for offensive pass interference, ruling he pushed off of Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman on his way to making the catch.

The contact was minimal at best -- the kind that happens on every single passing play -- and one has to wonder if it would have been overturned under the new rules.

The penalty moved the 49ers back to the Rams' 40-yard-line, facing a third-and-10. Hoyer then threw an incomplete pass before being sacked by Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald on fourth down, clinching the victory for Los Angeles.

The 49ers wouldn't get their first win until Week 10.

What happens to Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh if 49ers win Super Bowl XLVII?

What happens to Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh if 49ers win Super Bowl XLVII?

"If if was a fifth, we all would be drunk right now."

Those were the words of Warriors forward Draymond Green back in the summer of 2015, weeks after he and Golden State had won their first of three championships in a four-year span. He'd had enough of the insinuations that their title was somehow clouded by an asterisk -- that, if injuries had played out differently, a different outcome would have occurred.

History is written by the victors. Hypotheticals are a losing man's game.

The 2012 San Francisco 49ers would love to have the benefit of Green's perspective. Unfortunately for them, when it comes to reliving their championship pursuit, hypotheticals are all they have.

What happens if Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree connect on that corner fade in the end zone in the waning moments of Super Bowl XLVII? What happens if they hand the ball off to Frank Gore instead?

What if the power outage occurs earlier, or not at all?

If the 49ers win that game, does Jim Harbaugh sign a lengthy extension? Does Patrick Willis retire?

If Kaepernick establishes himself as a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, how is he remembered differently, both as an athlete and a public citizen?

Two current NBC Sports Bay Area analysts who were members of that 2012 49ers team -- safety Donte Whitner and defensive lineman Ian Williams -- recently sat down to play the what-if game about the biggest night of their playing careers. 

In many ways, their responses go to show how drastically the franchise was altered by that fateful night in New Orleans.

"We are primetime in San Francisco," Williams said of the hypothetical scenario in which the 49ers won Super Bowl XLVII. "We are primetime in the Bay Area. Once you start stringing them on you start getting free agents who want to come along, similar to what Golden State's going through right now with DeMarcus Cousins."

"If we had won, (Harbaugh) signs an extension," Williams continued. "Whatever happens upstairs doesn't happen and he's still the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers."

"If Kaepernick gets a Super Bowl under his belt, I don't know if his career changes because who knows if he'll still take a stand for social injustice," Whitner questioned. "I don't think winning a Super Bowl would allow him not to be blackballed and not play in the NFL. I believe they would still do that whether he won a Super Bowl in the past or you're going to win one in the future. 

"He'll go in down in history as one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League and he led his team to a championship. Nobody can take that away from him."

[RELATED: Whitner, Williams believe 2011 49ers could've beaten Pats]

Fast-forward seven-plus years, and the ways in which the 49ers franchise was transformed by that loss in Super Bowl XLVII are readily apparent.

Patrick Willis retired during the following season, surprising many. Harbaugh and the 49ers separated following an 8-8 finish, took the job at the University of Michigan and has been there ever since. Gore has spent the twilight of his Hall of Fame career overlooked in Indianapolis and Miami. Crabtree just got cut by none other than the Ravens. And Kaepernick, well, he hasn't played a down in two seasons, and reportedly recently agreed to a settlement with the NFL.

It's a fun what-if game. But you don't have to be able to read the tea leaves to know that winning Super Bowl XLVII would have been a lot more enjoyable.

Jim Harbaugh vows he'll remain Michigan coach, not plotting NFL return

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USATSI

Jim Harbaugh vows he'll remain Michigan coach, not plotting NFL return

Jim Harbaugh is being proactive in addressing the rumors this year: No, he isn’t leaving Michigan to return to the NFL, he says.

"I can't be any more clear about this -- it's not true," the former 49ers coach told ESPN’s Adam Schefter this weekend. "I'm not going anywhere."

Harbaugh’s success in San Francisco -- a 44-19-1 record and a Super Bowl berth in four seasons (2011-14) -- leads some to speculate each year that an NFL return could be in the cards. Harbaugh hinted that chatter could be planted by others to hurt him in recruiting players to Michigan, where he's 38-13 in four seasons as coach.

"This is a choreographed message that comes up at this time every year before signing day," Harbaugh said. "It's people spreading messages to further their own personal agenda.”

Harbaugh played quarterback at Michigan in the mid-1980s. Schefter, the reporter, also is a Michigan alum.

FL teams that need an offensive-minded coach who can develop a young QB surely will inquire about Harbaugh’s availability, though. For example, should the Arizona Cardinals, who’ve struggled to a 3-9 record, decide one season with coach Steve Wilks is enough, they certainly could consider Harbaugh and the impact he’d have on rookie QB Josh Rosen.

That would mean seeing Harbaugh and his signature pleated khakis on the Levi’s Stadium sideline once per season. Not sure how 49ers fans would feel about that.