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Harbaugh can gain perspective from Lombardi

Packers' legendary head coach lost his first NFL title game, then won many

Green Bay Packers' legendary head coach Vince Lombardi lost his first NFL championship game to the Philadelphia Eagles, but built a dynasty that won the first two Super Bowls ever contested.

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Published: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 10:56 p.m.

How bad can it really be for Jim Harbaugh?

Sure, last Sunday's Super Bowl was a particularly tough defeat to swallow, especially considering that the Niners, with four shots to score a touchdown from fewer than 10 yards away in the final minutes, seemed to be poised for a dramatic come-from-behind victory.

But consider this. Harbaugh came oh-so-close to winning the league championship in only his second year as an NFL coach and has a team that appears to be in excellent shape to contend for that title for several seasons to come.

Just like Vince Lombardi.

That's right, Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, was in his second year as an NFL head coach when he took his surprising Green Bay Packers to the 1960 NFL Championship game on Dec. 26 in Philadelphia against the Eagles.

The Eagles led, 17-13, in the closing seconds. The Packers had the ball on the Philadelphia 22-yard line but had no timeouts. Bart Starr completed a pass to Jim Taylor, who looked for a moment that he had an unobstructed path to the end zone. But linebacker Chuck Bednarik, who played the entire game (he was also the Eagles' center — talk about old school), made the game-saving tackle at the 10, and time expired.

In the following seven seasons, Lombardi took the Packers to the NFL title game five times and won all five, and he also tacked on the first two Super Bowl championships for good measure.

If Harbaugh wants more historical company to help him lick his wounds from last Sunday, he's got plenty. Just like the current Niners and the 1960 Packers, the following teams looked for all the world to be ready to score and win a championship (or at least force overtime), but didn't.

In the Super Bowl of Jan. 30, 2000, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the Tennessee Titans trailed the St. Louis Rams, 23-17, with six seconds remaining and had the ball on the Rams' 10-yard line. Steve McNair completed a pass to Kevin Dyson, who caught the ball at about the 3. But Rams linebacker Mike Jones, who had been covering tight end Frank Wycheck on the play, reacted quickly, wrapped up Dyson and brought him down at the 1 as the game ended. An enduring image in Super Bowl history is the tackled Dyson with the ball, trying in vain to reach over the goal line.

On Jan. 27, 1991, in the Super Bowl at Tampa, the New York Giants held a 20-19 lead over the Buffalo Bills. In the closing seconds, Buffalo place-kicker Scott Norwood missed what would have been a game-winning field goal from 47 yards, and sent the Bills to their first of four Super Bowl defeats in four consecutive years. Also of note, in 1998, the independent film “Buffalo 66” told the story of a desperate, diehard fan who bet $10,000 that he didn't have on the Bills beating the Giants in that Super Bowl, although the movie gives Norwood the barely fictional name of Scott Wood.

In the AFC Championship on Jan. 17, 1988, at Denver, with 1:12 left, the Cleveland Browns trailed, 38-31, but had the ball at the Broncos' 8-yard line. Bernie Kosar handed off to Earnest Byner, who looked for an instant like he'd make it to the end zone for the tying score, but was stripped of the ball by Jeremiah Castille at the 2. Denver strategically yielded a safety and held on to win, 38-33.

The Oakland Raiders were trailing the Jets, 27-23, in the closing minutes of the AFL Championship in New York on Dec. 29, 1968. But the Raiders were on a roll, having driven to the Jets' 24, when Daryle Lamonica's incomplete pass to Charlie Smith in the backfield was actually a lateral. The Jets recovered what was technically a fumble, held on for the win and then went on to make history in Super Bowl III.

On Jan. 1, 1967, at the Cotton Bowl, the Dallas Cowboys hosted the Packers in the NFL Championship game. The winner would go on to what would become the first Super Bowl. Dallas trailed, 34-27, in the final minute but had the ball at the Green Bay 2-yard line. Three plays later, Dallas was still at the Packers' 2.

As time ran out, Don Meredith's pass, intended for Bob Hayes, was intercepted by Tom Brown.

Will all of this historical perspective make Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers feel any better about losing last Sunday's Super Bowl when victory seemed to be within their grasp? Of course not.

Still, they're in pretty good company in the close-but-no-cigar category.

You can reach Robert Rubino at robertorubino@comcast.net

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