The San Francisco 49ers had a chance to end the story that has been going around about them for most of the last five years, but instead they turned it all into a much bigger question after losing Super Bowl LVIII to the Kansas City Chiefs:
When not now?
The Niners made big moves over the past two years to win the long-awaited sixth Lombardi Trophy. They are battle-tested and have scars from past games. For running back Christian McCaffrey, they gave up four draft picks. They promised Javon Hargrave $40 million to help fill in a hole in the middle of their defense.
They also found Brock Purdy in the seventh round of the 2022 draft and helped him grow. They are sure that he will be their long-term quarterback.
People inside the Niners’ facility saw their problems over the past four years—a lost 10-point fourth-quarter lead to Kansas City in Super Bowl LIV, an injury-plagued 6–10 pandemic season, and back-to-back disappointing losses in the NFC Championship Game—as fuel to make them stronger.
Instead, the Chiefs won the Super Bowl 25–22 in overtime, making them the league’s newest dynasty. This was their third title in five years, while the Niners had lost two of them.
It was another heartbreaking loss for San Francisco on Sunday, adding to a long line of losses that have put seasons and championships at risk. Ray-Ray McCloud III’s muffed punt, Jake Moody’s missed extra point, and Patrick Mahomes’ heroics late in the game left the Niners with a very bad taste in their mouths.
It’s hard to forget those moments, along with Michael Crabtree’s catch in the corner of the end zone in Super Bowl XLVIII and Tyreek Hill’s 44-yard catch in the last few seconds of Super Bowl LIV.
“Yeah, I couldn’t say anything.” Not able to look anyone in the eye. “Most of all, my teammates,” Nick Bosa, a defensive end, said. “I did more than I needed to.” It seems like everyone could have done more, and there’s not much more to say currently. It will hurt and come at you in waves, but that’s life.
The team has been without a title for 29 years, which is crazy for a team that won five Lombardi Trophies in 13 years, from 1981 to 1994, with some of the best players and leaders in the history of the sport. In the history of the NFL, San Francisco is the fifth team to lose three straight Super Bowls. This comes after winning its first five Super Bowls.
Today, the Niners have failed, and they don’t know what will happen in the future. The veterans on the team may be losing their chance to win a title as Purdy’s 2025 payday draws near.
General manager John Lynch said, “It’s hard to look at the guys—the Ronnie Lotts, the Steve Youngs, and the Joe Montanas—when we haven’t done that.” “Because they’ve helped us, and we want to help them. They know we’re fighting, but you have to pay that off.”
“Do that if you want to be great. You need to break through.”
A lot of people will be paying close attention to coach Kyle Shanahan after this loss. He has lost the only two Super Bowls that went into overtime. He’s 44 years old, so he has plenty of time to finish the job. This is his seventh season as an NFL head coach.
You have to work hard to even get to the Super Bowl door, let alone kick it down and walk away with the Lombardi Trophy. Before Kyle Shanahan led the 49ers to two Super Bowls in four years, Jim Harbaugh got them back to being a competitor.
The Niners went to the NFC Championship Game every year from 2011 to 2013, which was their first trip there since 1997. They made it to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994 in his second season.
Harbaugh came so close so many times in four seasons in San Francisco before leaving for the University of Michigan after the 2014 season. However, he was never able to make it.
“The NFL is the most competitive sport in the world,” Harbaugh said last week. “I dream about having another crack at it.”
Even more difficult to understand is how hard it is to break through when Superman is on the other team. It was Montana who kept Hall of Famers like Dan Marino from getting a ring for a long time. For 20 years, Tom Brady was the best quarterback in the NFL. Other greats, like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, only won one Super Bowl.
Now that Patrick Mahomes is the quarterback for Kansas City, teams that want to win a title have to go through them. Being good enough to win the Super Bowl is great, but sometimes a team is just too good at the wrong time.
All of this makes the Niners’ most recent loss even worse. Under Shanahan, they’ve lost all four games against the Chiefs, and three of those losses were by more than 10 points. Under Shanahan, this is the most games that San Francisco has lost without a win against any opponent. The Chiefs, Andy Reid, and the rest of the team might be ready even if the Niners get back to this point.
“This is my second (Super Bowl) as the head coach, but I think when you go against guys like Tom Brady and Pat Mahomes, you better never feel comfortable with the lead,” Shanahan said after Sunday’s defeat. “Those two players are the best ever.” That’s why those guys are always in it, whether you’re ahead or behind by points. That’s something you see them do all the time.
Someone already said that Shanahan and Reid were a lot alike before Sunday night’s loss. While Reid was coach of the Philadelphia Eagles for 14 years, his teams made it to five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. In his first six seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, they also made it to five playoff games and one AFC Championship Game before winning the title in Super Bowl LIV.
People called him the “best coach who never won a Super Bowl.” People who are close to Shanahan know how important it is to get over the hump.
When Reid won his first title, he was with Kansas City, and now he plays cornerback for San Francisco. He sees Shanahan as being on the same level as his old coach and knows how badly Shanahan wants to win it all.
This week, Ward said, “[Shanahan] also eats, sleeps, and breathes football.” “I believe that getting that Super Bowl ring will make his career stronger in every way.” That seems like the only thing he’s missing. “He’s one of the smartest football players, everyone knows that.”
But the wounds from these losses get worse over time. Shanahan says that he usually needs at least a month to clear his mind and get ready for the next season, especially after a terrible breakup at the end of the season.
Harbaugh understands how you feel about it. The wounds are still there 11 years after the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVII.
“I think about it every day,” Harbaugh said. He is back in the NFL as the coach of the Los Angeles Chargers since January. What else could we have done to make things better? From the 5-yard line, how could we get the ball in?
“It’s vivid, and you walk off that field going, ‘There’ll be other days,’ but that might’ve been the only day.”
While the 49ers are away for another year, Shanahan won’t have much time to grieve. He and Lynch need to figure out how to stop being called “also rans.”
People will remember the 2023 Niners as having one of the best teams in the team’s history. But they’re in a tough spot since they haven’t won the Super Bowl yet. However, the 49ers are $43.96 million over next year’s estimated salary cap, even though most of their best players are already under contract for next season. And it looks like 2024 will be their last season with Purdy playing for very little money on his rookie deal.
If Purdy gets a contract in 2025, it’s likely that his $1.12 million cap charge for 2024 will go up to 50 times that amount. They might have to make tough choices about some of their expensive warriors because of this. In light of this, the 2023 season could be a two-year window to win the Super Bowl, at least with the present core of veterans. York laughs at the idea.
“When you talk about windows, I just think that that’s such a B.S. concept in this league,” said York. “There’s no telling when you might get the chance to be here.” “You should make the most of it.”
Still, some of the veterans, like seventh-year tight end George Kittle (two catches for 4 yards on Sunday), have said they know there is a window and that they need to break through it as soon as possible.
One of the Niners’ top offseason goals will be to sign rising star wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (three receptions for 49 yards), whose rookie contract is coming to an end, to a lucrative extension. But the Niners also need to plan for the future while trying to make moves to win a championship next season.
They need to take a close look at their defense because they spent a lot of money on an offensive line that hasn’t been as strong as they thought. On the other hand, their offensive line has often struggled without 35-year-old All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams, and they need to start making plans for the future in the secondary.
“We’ve been so close so many times that it’s only so many more opportunities that we have,” Bosa stated on Sunday. “We have amazing core of players that are going to be back and we have to be better.”
On Monday, the 49ers took a 40-minute bus ride from their hotel in Henderson, Nevada, to Allegiant Stadium for the NFL’s opening night media event. On the way, Bosa and defender Fred Warner talked about their trip back to the Super Bowl.
At one point, they exchanged notes on how many players from each draft class were still on the team. Warner knew that every other player he chose would be gone in five years. Three of Bosa’s peers were still alive after four years in the draft. This made him proud.
The two best defenders on the 49ers realized the same thing: every team will have to deal with big changes at some point. This is especially true for a team that tried to run it back with the same core but might need a bigger shakeup to get it over the finish line.
“Of course, we have the team to do it, to win the whole thing and still lose.” “That’s how things have been around here for the past two years,” Purdy said. “Everyone wish they had it.” I think we’re still trying to figure out what’s going on, but everyone in the room loves each other. That’s what I’ll say.
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