Out of the Pain, a Saving Grace

Feb 9, 2013 at 10:28 AM


In times like these, a little perspective always helps.

In 1987, the Niners (and their strike replacements) went 13-and-2. Their offense and their defense were ranked #1. They won their last three games by a combined score of 124 to 7. Going into the playoffs, the oddsmakers didn't see any need to wait for the Super Bowl. They installed the Niners as two-touchdown favorites, no matter the opponent. Accordingly, they were expected to bludgeon their first playoff victim, the lightly regarded Vikings.

Yet in every phase, the Vikings dominated. The pressure applied by their defensive line drove the Niners' all-pro QB into shocking ineptitude. Meanwhile, our D had no answer for Anthony Carter, who set a playoff receiving record that stood for more than a decade. Shoo-ins for the title, the Niners instead sustained what remains their most stunning defeat of all time.

The explanations were all over the map. Overconfidence. A lack of adjustments. An emotional retirement announcement. Exhaustion from overpracticing. An Achilles' heel of a left tackle. And on and on. But the explanations didn't obscure the painful truth.

Without even having made it there, the Niners had lost the Super Bowl.

There's nothing worse. To work so hard, invest so much, only to have to start over again. Almost out of sheer necessity, you've gotta find some saving grace, a reason to maintain your faith.

In '87, the reason was this: our coach was Bill Walsh, and our QB was Joe Montana.

Now understand, this didn't make the loss any easier to swallow. In a way, it actually made it worse: how on earth could Walsh and Montana, who'd won two titles already, go into this game so unprepared? Yet through the pain, a larger point. They'd proven themselves to be mortal, but you wouldn't trade them for anyone else. They'd earned your trust, and from that trust came a certain peace.

They didn't win the Super Bowl. But they took their best shot, and win or lose, their best shot was all you could want.

With that in mind, let's chat about Super Bowl 47.

Though the Niners' catastrophic first-half (plus second-half kickoff) did show signs of unpreparedness—lining up wrong on their very first play—the crucial issue was the one we'd been dreading for weeks: the final collapse of a once-great D. At last we can freely admit that both of our Smiths were seriously hurt, and the lack of a pass-rush opened gaping holes in a woeful secondary, no match for Joe Flacco's aerial circus. We'd been ignoring the warnings since halftime in New England, but now there was nowhere to hide. The Ravens were this year's "team on a roll," and they were about to blow us away. And I, for one, was prepared to accept it.

But then, of course, the lights went out.

Almost absurdly, the Niners fought their way into the game. It looked like it'd be too little too late, all the way until late in the fourth, when somehow the Niners, cruising now, started a drive at their own 20, down only five. They steadily made their way down the field, against a D that was on its last legs, until they had first-and-goal at the seven.

The conclusion was inescapable. Almost absurdly, the Niners were going to complete their quest. They'd quiet the ghosts of destiny thwarted. They'd capture a glory too long denied.

Almost absurdly, the Niners would win.

But scoring down low isn't always so easy. After all, the Niners were here only because the Falcons had failed. And the Ravens were especially good at making you fail.

The conventional wisdom, aided of course by the wisdom of hindsight, is that the Niners should've run the ball. But naturally, it isn't that simple. The Ravens were smart enough to sell themselves out to stop the run. And though some would argue that the Niners still could've simply plowed through them—imposed their will, as a certain coach used to say—I myself can't make that claim. Having placed on record my subconscious premonition of a crucial postseason failure by our overhyped "jumbo package," I can hardly complain that we didn't use it.

The main issue wasn't the debatable playcalling; it was how we looked on the plays that were called. The entire series felt rushed, uncertain, teetering on the edge of panic. One play was scuttled by a timeout that averted a delay of game—a common sequence all season long—while others were ruined by tentative decisions or blitzes that seemed to catch us off-guard. We'd come so close, but as each play failed, the Niners just didn't seem up to the task.

And just like that, when a final pass (but no flag) hit the ground, the Niners were dead, only five yards away. And the Football Fates had won at last.

The pain, of course, was devastating. Except for maybe The Drive and The Fumble, the Niners had suffered the most gut-wrenching consecutive playoff defeats in the history of the league. Almost out of sheer necessity, you've gotta find some saving grace, a reason to maintain your faith.

The reason is this: our coach is Jim Harbaugh, and our QB is Colin Kaepernick.

Harbaugh never recaptured last year's magic. WWL was mystifying, as were these slow postseason starts. On the sidelines he seemed to be dangerously unstable, and, in the end, his brother outcoached him. Yet despite all that, he was five yards away from the Super Bowl title. That's the greatest sign of his coaching genius, and I wouldn't trade him for anyone else.

Meanwhile, this year's magic belonged to Kaepernick. No doubt, the Ravens exposed his inexperience, particularly on that fateful drive. But out of nowhere, this kid virtually carried this team, more and more as our defense sagged. As I told you after his second start, he's the league's most spectacular young QB, and I wouldn't trade him for anyone else.

They didn't win the Super Bowl. But they took their best shot, and win or lose, their best shot was all we could want.

They've earned our trust, and from that trust comes a certain peace.

As well as plenty of reason for hope. It's hard to imagine, but after that dreadful Vikings game, we'd lost three postseason games in a row, each one worse than the one before. What looked like it might've been a dynasty was now apparently slipping away. The pain seemed almost unendurable.

Don't forget what happened next.

Don't give up on what's to come.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


34 Comments

  • RamItOn
    It's been almost three months, Mr. Kaplan. Are you still alive?
    Apr 30, 2013 at 12:15 PM
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    Response: Alive and well, Ram! Thanks, you guys, for missing me.
  • Lucky Phil
    Ok I'm over it!....Jeff, What are you working on? I've been watching a lot of ping-pong from the Orient. The asians are the best damn ping-pong players on the planet. If David Stern was Japanese, Shaq O'Neal would have never picked up a basketball. Ping-Pong Jeff! Check It Out. It's a long offseason.
    Apr 23, 2013 at 5:21 PM
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  • Steve
    Kap, you've been surprisingly quiet in the offseason. Looking forward to your next piece, whenever it may be. Always great commentary, always spot on. There's a void in Webzone commentary without your input!
    Apr 18, 2013 at 11:55 AM
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  • niner man
    Just seems you missed a point or two. First, to me, it seems Harbaugh CHOKED on that last series. Yeah, we didnt run and impose our will on them, we passed to Crabtree instead. Second, that had to be the most uncreative playcalling sequence for the Niners in a big game on record. No QB bootleg, no reverses, end arounds, no trick plays or QB option. My beef is if you are going to pass 3 times, put it into the end zone, you might draw a flag at least and then run it in. That is common sense and a sound strategy, what we saw was desperation and inexperience.
    Mar 17, 2013 at 4:21 PM
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  • ca
    Terry B., you probably thought that Harry Douglas "Catch" was really a catch, too, huh? A few things I'm wondering from ATL Fans are 1) How is it P.I. on Roddy when Roddy runs a 4 yard route, gets stiffed, and Bowman releases the press and bats the ball away? and 2) can you send me the video or a link of Bowman "admitting" he interfered? To compare that to the Crabtree Super Bowl P.I. is a joke. Jimmy Smith never even REMOTELY played the ball or looked for it...had himself a handful of jersey and his arms wrapped around Crabtree. Get mad at your own team for not being able to score in the 2nd Half...The Falcons controlled the 1st Half and then got their asses handed to them in the 2nd...The Niners played the 1st Half of the Super Bowl like crap...but to storm back and almost beat BAL with all the BS no-calls they experienced (which was well over 4-5 calls missed) says a lot more about the Niners than the same old Falcons...you're the Dan Marino of NFL teams; win 12 games a Reg. Season, but nothing much after...NEVER win a Super Bowl. Also seems like you think y'all would've beat the Ravens, which I'm not so sure of. Your Defense is as soft as Whitner's Pass Coverage.
    Feb 11, 2013 at 10:37 AM
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  • d
    All I see is a team that can't finish and as a lifelong 49er fan I hope I am wrong. The difference between a good team and a great team is that one can finish the game when it counts. The 49ers have shown that they are incapable of doing that. Why? I do not know. I love the players and coach we have in place. However, to expect a repeat of this year would only be foolish. Teams say all the time they will be back but every football fan knows that is hard to do and unlikely. As we learned, the best team doesn't win every Sunday. As we saw, sometimes they don't even show up for the biggest game ever.
    Feb 11, 2013 at 8:29 AM
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  • Terry B.
    Shaj, don't forget that if not for the non-call on Navorro Bowman interfering with Roddy White we wouldn't have been in the Super Bowl to begin with. And Bowman actually admitted to the PI. So, many Falcons fans will probably be going to their graves believing that they should have been hoisting the Lombardi trophy.
    Feb 11, 2013 at 8:05 AM
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  • David
    You're inconsistent. If Alex had blown it in the end like Kaep, we'd be hearing all about how it was his fault. Everything that happened all game is inconsequential because the fact is that our QB couldn't get it done with four plays from the 7. There are plenty of things that Kaep has done well this year, but at least be honest about what happened.
    Feb 11, 2013 at 3:07 AM
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  • louie
    This season's 49ers were very talented and very inconsistent. That goes for the key coaches as well as the players. Their talent got them through some major setbacks to the Super Bowl, but their inconsistency cost them the win. Great teams are not inconsistent and, to me, that trait falls on the coaches. With 14 draft picks and some tradable pieces they will improve their talent (please, no more first-round busts), but coaching improvement is job 1.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 3:45 PM
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  • Mike W
    Great column, Jeff. My favorite insight: "The main issue wasn't the debatable playcalling; it was how we looked on the plays that were called. The entire series felt rushed, uncertain, teetering on the edge of panic". Harbs, Roman, and Kaep picked a bad time to lose their cool but I guess a great Baltimore defense had something to do with it.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 1:13 PM
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    Response: That's a crucial point, Mike. Everyone seems to assume that if we'd simply called better plays or executed better, we would've scored automatically. The Ravens get paid too, and though they're not the D they used to be, they're as good as anyone at keeping opponents out of the end zone. It just isn't easy, and when the D sends the house while the CBs are allowed to get physical with the WRs, it's harder still.
  • Tom
    "Absolutely no doubt we would have lost by 40." Gosh it must be nice to live in a world where you have absolute knowledge of what is going to happen. You must do great in Vegas.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 1:00 PM
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  • Jonathan
    Great article! Moving forward I have concerns with both our pass rush and our secondary. However, I feel really good about our QB situation and the offense as a whole. People seem to forget we were playing without many of our offensive weapons throughout the playoffs. Don't really understand all the hate towards Kaepernick. He is going to be a great QB. Looking forward to the draft and next season.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 12:11 PM
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  • Ted
    I disagree with your response to Tom. Your assessment with the D collapsing can also be attributed to the insertion of Kaepernick. With Smith we had ball control as well as time of possession which kept the D fresh and minimized injuries. With Smith we had a slow methodical and boring attack that resulted in field goals more often than TDs, but with Kaepernick the coaching staff got so enamored by the "quick strike" that they went away from the ground game late in the season. I'll probably get feedback saying that they were trying to keep Gore fresh, but I say they took for granted what kept them in games all last season as well as the first half of this season. I'm not calling for the return of Smith, not because he doesn't deserve it, but because the decision has been made and the team needs to press forward. Flip flopping can only do harm to team unity and you know what happens next, losses and a return to mediocrity. Harbaugh with what he brought to this team will eventually wear on the players, so hopefully he has new cards to play.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 9:35 AM
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  • GoldHelmet
    Another good season at WebZone. Looking forward to next year. What I like about your column is that you're always a straight shooter, you're not afraid to post critical responses, and, if you respond to criticism, you always do so in an intelligent way. The censorship aspect of Webzone's comments is dated and unfortunate, but you don't abuse it. For instance, it is inconceivable that you would ever set up a phony personal conduct policy for your readers, then repeatedly violate that policy yourself by personally attacking your readers, and then, when you're called on your double standard, start censoring comments.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 9:00 AM
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  • Eric V
    Nice article. I believe the best move for the Niners at this point is to complete a trade for Revis. A combination of players and picks such as Whitner, Culliver, Rogers, or Smith should work. I am very optimistic about the future of our team after the Super Bowl loss. Kaepernick is our future & we need a quality CB to ensure that our secondary will never be embarrassed on the national stage ever again.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 8:24 AM
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  • Shaj
    Great article, Jeff! The perspective with Montana/Walsh was refreshing. You also did a good job talking about how we shot ourselves in the foot during the big game, but I wish you would have talked about the officials too. Our coach should have been hoisting that trophy in a big parade in SF last week. I'll go to my grave believing that.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 7:38 AM
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    Response: I hear you, Shaj. I didn't like the officials any more than you did, but I agree with those who say that championship teams make the officials irrelevant. We didn't play well enough, period.
  • Terry B.
    Well, I think the jury is still out on Trent "AJ Jenkins is a first rounder" Baalke. I want to see a few more offseasons before I make up my mind.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 6:37 AM
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    Response: I must admit, Jenkins' year was really, REALLY disconcerting.
  • Darrell G
    Great read as always Jeff. I think a lot of people have given the media a free pass when it comes to the team (and certain players) being flat. They generated a huge distraction about locker room dynamics and made that the story of the week. They piled on a kid that didn't give the focus group tested, PC response. That same kid had a rough game to go with a rough week. Anyone truly surprised? Maybe if the 49ers hadn't spent so much time talking about "sensitivity training" and other liberal garbage, they may have had a little more in the tank for the Ravens and a clearer focus of mind. I'm not saying that was the whole problem. Your points about WWL and slow starts are what they are. I am just saying that the Culliver Controversy probably played a big role.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 5:17 AM
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  • Tom
    He didn't "carry" the team, as I recall they were doing pretty well before he came along. Defense won vs Chicago and New Orleans, his inexperience cost them the Rams game, and the Seahawks kicked his ass. His inexperience probably cost them the Super Bowl as well. I have no beefs with Kaepernick, he clearly has more raw talent than Smith, but I think his insertion into the line-up ended up hurting the team more than helping it because suddenly it was about all about how he was playing and not about how the team was executing. I think the running game was better under Smith and the passing game was good enough to get the job done and quite frankly I thought Smith had earned the right to lead the team to the Big Game, but I guess now we'll never know how that would have worked out, which is too bad.
    Feb 10, 2013 at 1:44 AM
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    Response: But when Smith was playing, the D was still good. Once the D collapsed, almost every game became a shootout. Surely you'll agree that Smith's play-it-safe offense wasn't built for games like those. If it weren't for Kaepernick's explosiveness, we wouldn't have even sniffed the Big Game. (And in any case, the Ravens would've won it by 40.) I've got absolutely no doubt about that.
  • edmond
    You would be speechless. You keep praising this kid just because he's not Smith. That's an obvious fact. Harbaugh's a fine coach, but he screwed up with the change of identity halfway through. But if this is what you guys like, and if 49er fans are now going to accept ALMOST winning as a good thing, I'm the one who's speechless. I'll take 49er Team ball with Smith over this arrogant (oops, i mean 'humble') walking contradiction any given Sunday.
    Feb 9, 2013 at 8:51 PM
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  • AL
    Great article, the point is we found our QB for years to come. Go Niners, so proud of the team!
    Feb 9, 2013 at 8:44 PM
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  • hapifam
    Wow! Great Piece! Thank you brother.
    Feb 9, 2013 at 7:32 PM
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  • edmond
    So... the guy blows it in the first half and blows it in the end after the lights came back on and the 49ers' team identity is not TEAM anymore but one kid that doesn't quite know what being 'humble' really means, and you have faith in this? It's a joke and a gimmick, all of it. They have strayed from the blue collar team theme that is magical and replaced it with a selfish non-team player that caters to the other two selfish guys on the team (Crabtree and Moss). Seriously. This isn't magic. This isn't 49er football. It's something that I can't sink my teeth in and I haven't understood the fanfare in this kid since the Seattle game. I smell disaster. Hate to say it, but this kid isn't a leader even if he thinks he is and says he is. You all fell for the hooker with the heart of gold.
    Feb 9, 2013 at 7:06 PM
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    Response: I'm speechless, Edmond.
  • Terry B.
    So, does AJ owe you a steak at this point? First, you go head to head with him on Mike Singletary, and you turn out to be right. Then this year, there you were pointing out the greatness of Colin Kaepernick right after his first appearance, while AJ spent the whole season begging for a return of Alex Smith, not succumbing to the truth until week 15. What would WebZone be without this column?
    Feb 9, 2013 at 5:51 PM
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    Response: Thanks for the support, Terry, but given the whole Trent Baalke affair, I don't think I deserve to be collecting steaks from anyone. With or without me, this site would be the best on earth. I'm just happy to be here.
  • Geoff Bowers
    Awesome piece Jeff. Great job acknowledging our flaws, while using precedent to convey why we should all still remain so faithful and hopeful, just a very responsible write-up all around. 11 of my closest, diehard Niner faithful friends and I made a trip out to New Orleans last weekend and went to the game, and it was just so shocking and unexpected that we actually ended up losing the game. This truly is the first thing that has brought me any sense of closure. Thank you.
    Feb 9, 2013 at 3:50 PM
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    Response: Thank YOU, Geoff.
  • Robert
    But it's also that passion and confidence that Harbaugh shows that drives this team.
    Feb 9, 2013 at 3:33 PM
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  • Adrian
    "you can lose championship games but you can't lose Super Bowls, that is the mantra for a Quarterback of the 49ers" - Steve Young. CK7 will go down in 49ers history as the first QB to lose a Super Bowl and throw an Interception.
    Feb 9, 2013 at 2:56 PM
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    Response: I love Steve Young. But that "mantra" is ridiculous. Besides, Kaepernick has that distinction only because Lewis Billups couldn't catch. Give the kid a break. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJFOBI1cZaM
  • Paul A.
    Jeff, I'll tell you what, none of what you have said, though I'm happy you have recovered from the loss, makes me as hopeful as you. The very things that you mention as giving you faith (I want to reason with my brain), having Harbaugh and Kaepernick, cause me to shudder. Twice the 9ers were at the door and twice they failed to step through the door. A case can be made that the coach did not enter those two games completely prepared. As for Kaepernick, like all athletes before him, they have traits that define them, and he choked on the last series. Sorry there is no other word for that in sports. The NFL is littered with great athletes that never, for whatever reason, get the big prize. I want to believe that that is not the case with Kaepernick. But for now the jury is out. To have failed in these last two years when this team was at their peak, and it's very difficult in today's NFL to get back to the SB. Makes me want to spit!!!
    Feb 9, 2013 at 2:01 PM
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  • Nik
    I will take a Super Bowl loss over a 2-14 or 4-12 season anytime. This loss hurt like hell, but after suffering through 2003-2010, a last second Super Bowl loss still makes me proud to be a Niner fan.
    Feb 9, 2013 at 1:08 PM
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  • Ladale
    Trent Baalke. I'm pretty sure when this guy was trading away past draft picks and players to all culminate with this 2013 draft, he never envisioned the 9ers going to the NFC title game one season and the Super Bowl the next. The guy's plan undoubtedly was a three year plan to place Harbaugh in a position to go after talent and dominate this 2013 draft to build a contender. His plan is still on track. He's retained his defensive playmakers and now has a possible 14 draft picks to work on the offense. Everything is on par.
    Feb 9, 2013 at 11:37 AM
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  • Penny
    Thanks.....
    Feb 9, 2013 at 11:19 AM
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  • Ted
    I've watched this franchise since 1978 and never thought that in my lifetime I'd see them lose a Super Bowl, especially after winning 5 Lombardi's. Yes there was always a possibility, but seeing how free agency affects a franchise, the opportunities are there but never a given so this loss hurts deep. I could always get through a loss in a conference championship (we've had six to stomach), but going through this after a decade of ineptitude cut really deep. I'm not going to say I'm looking forward to next season because I already see people talk ridiculously about an undefeated season, shoo-in for the Super Bowl and all the other BS. I can't stand the knuckleheads that spout off at opposing teams' sites and suddenly disappear after this disaster. Thanks though for the pep talk, it helps, but this will probably be my longest offseason to date.
    Feb 9, 2013 at 11:13 AM
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  • steve
    Great write-up, Jeff. Completely agree. Oddly enough, these past two postseason losses didn't hurt as much as the incessant losing of "the dark days" did. Sure I was disappointed, but when there was seemingly no hope for this organization year after year, it was much harder to deal with. The fact alone that this team climbed within 5 yards of winning despite a porous defense, a 22 point deficit, and questionable officiating speaks volumes to how talented they are. Much to look forward to.
    Feb 9, 2013 at 11:01 AM
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    Response: Thanks, Steve. As awful as this past Sunday was, I thought your piece was a really important reminder of how much worse it used to be. Onward.
  • jj37
    The two greatest coaches I've ever seen shared one important quality that is not shared by Jim Harbaugh: unflappable calm! When a call goes against Harbaugh and he loses it on the sideline, he sets a tone for the players who also seemed to lose their poise when the chips were down. I love our team and I am excited by Kaepernick, but I am worried that this team will be one of those good ones that can't quite perform at their best when the stakes are highest, because they haven't developed poise. Jim Harbaugh, the ball is in your court!
    Feb 9, 2013 at 10:46 AM
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    Response: You raise a valid concern. I wish he could settle down a bit--for the sake of both his team and his health--but then again, his madness might be fueling his genius.

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