It was a mere four years ago when 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio coached under the rule of another man surnamed Harbaugh.
The 2008 NFL season was just about to kick off, and linebackers coach Fangio was in Baltimore. It was then when he took note of a player — but it wasn’t a linebacker.
“I said to John Harbaugh, ‘You’ve got your horse to ride here for 10 years — at least,’” Fangio said of then-rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. “I really felt that he could be a really good quarterback in the NFL. I’ve felt that from that day, and I still feel that way.”
Fangio would be wise to still feel that way come Super Bowl Sunday.
While only in his fifth season, Flacco has guided Baltimore to its fifth straight playoff appreance — and first Super Bowl since the Ravens won it all in 2000.
Improving to 8-4 as a starter in the postseason, Flacco has been stellar. After vanquishing the Indianapolis Colts, Flacco upset the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots — both on the road. All total, he’s thrown for 853 yards and eight touchdowns, without once surrendering an interception.
“He’s got a big arm. He throws the ball effortlessly,” Fangio said. “The game isn’t too big for him. He’s calm, he’s confident and he’s capable of making all the throws.”
His players agree.
“I think anytime you’re going against a guy that’s in the Super Bowl, he’s definitely a top quarterback,” 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown said. “He’s definitely an elite quarterback in my eyes.”
But as good as Flacco and his receivers have been, the Ravens don’t solely rely on an aerial attack.
“He is really the heart and soul of their offense,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner said of Ravens running back Ray Rice.
“If he gets going, then you’re going to have trouble on defense. So we have to know where he is. We have to take that running game away and make them one-dimensional.”
But if the 49ers are to slow the Ravens’ ground game, they’ll be wise to focus on fullback Vonta Leach.
“He’s dominated some linebackers around the league, inside linebackers in particular,” Fangio said. “We’ve better be ready to take him out.”
His players concur.
“Their running game goes through him,” Whitner said. “So if we wanna stop the running game, we have to be extremely physical with him and know where he is.”
“Vonta, he’s an animal,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. “There’s no question in my mind, there’s going to be times in this game where we’re going to have our one-on-ones ... in this kind of game, it’s all or nothing.”