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How Many More Super Bowl Heartaches Can Kyle Shanahan Take?

This was the best 49ers team Shanahan has ever had, and yet it still wasn’t good enough

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

In the seconds following Mecole Hardman’s overtime game-winning touchdown catch for the Kansas City Chiefs, Kyle Shanahan began the slow walk onto the field for the customary postgame handshake with Andy Reid. But after taking a few steps near the 30-yard line, the 49ers head coach turned around and headed for the tunnel. He and Reid had spoken earlier in the week and decided that they’d pass on the handshake this time around. Four years ago, following the Niners’ loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, Shanahan said it took him about 25 minutes to finally get to Reid. Neither coach thought that was necessary this time around. The winning coach could celebrate on the field, and the losing coach could be on his way.

Shanahan was supposed to be the winning coach. This was supposed to finally be his year to hoist the Lombardi. His 49ers offense was a juggernaut for most of the season, with the NFL’s best collection of skill position players and a quarterback in Brock Purdy that somehow made it all work. His group had been tested. They carried with them the scars from previous years’ disappointments. They had gotten through difficult tests against the Packers in the divisional round and the Lions in the NFC championship game. They came into Sunday’s Super Bowl eager to put past demons behind them. This felt like their time—Shanahan’s time. Only once again, it wasn’t.

“Obviously, we’re hurting, our team’s hurting,” Shanahan said at an interview podium soon afterward, with a look in his eyes that suggested he hadn’t quite processed what had just happened. “We’ll get over this and come back next year ready to go.”

But that’s the problem. In the NFL, next year comes with no guarantees. No team will ever have the same 53 guys from one season to the next. Older players decline faster than teams anticipate. Young players don’t develop. Guys get injured. The randomness that affects players and teams and coaches and legacies doesn’t go your way. Think about how great of a coach Shanahan is, and then remember that he’s finished with six or fewer wins three times in seven seasons. These Chiefs, and the Patriots before them, somehow made dynasty building look easy; it’s not, and these 49ers know it.

“The first time around and it being the first Super Bowl that I was a part of, it was tough to lose,” said veteran defensive lineman Arik Armstead, one of the 49ers’ longest-tenured players. “We were all younger and it was a slightly different feeling. We had some great years ahead of us and some more opportunities. This time around, I still think that we have some opportunities, but we were just fighting so hard to get it done. The hardest part is once it’s over, you have to restart.”

It was nearly silent in the 49ers locker room after the game. The red and yellow confetti from the Chiefs’ celebration had somehow found its way in and was covering the floor. Christian McCaffrey chatted briefly with Deebo Samuel in one corner. Purdy hugged some staffers, took a seat at his locker, and quietly made a phone call. No one seemed to have the words to make anyone else feel better, not after yet another heartbreaking end to a season once so full of promise.

The sense was that they had wasted too many opportunities. Give Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs credit? Of course. But the 49ers did their part to keep Kansas City in it. Special teams were a huge factor. The 49ers, leading 10-6, forced a three-and-out late in the third quarter. But Tommy Townsend’s punt hit the foot of 49ers defensive back Darrell Luter Jr., and the Chiefs recovered in the red zone. On the next play, Mahomes threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling to give the Chiefs their first lead of the game. In the span of just two plays, the 49ers’ win probability went from 73 percent to 45 percent. San Francisco responded with a touchdown drive, but special teams let the 49ers down again as Jake Moody’s extra point got blocked. Instead of a four-point lead, the Niners led by just a field goal. They couldn’t get out of their own way enough to ever truly pull away.

But the offense wasn’t good enough, either. Based on expected points added (EPA) per drive, this was their third-worst performance of the season. With the 49ers in field goal range on their first possession, McCaffrey fumbled, and the Chiefs recovered. San Francisco had six true possessions after halftime and managed just one touchdown. On their first three drives of the second half, the 49ers ran nine plays for minus-2 yards.

Pass protection was an issue. Per Next Gen Stats, the Chiefs generated a season-high nine unblocked pressures on Purdy. The 49ers failed to convert a third-and-5 with two minutes left in the fourth quarter that could’ve kept the ball out of Mahomes’s hands. And in overtime, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo once again schemed up a way for Chris Jones to break down the 49ers’ protection on a third-and-4, forcing Purdy into an incompletion and the Niners to settle for the field goal.

As for the defense, they played well enough to win. The 49ers allowed just one touchdown on the Chiefs’ first 12 offensive possessions, and even that score was courtesy of a short field after the muffed punt. Against Mahomes, a defense should expect to give up some plays, but Mahomes got too many chances because the 49ers offense failed to sustain drives.

Shanahan will replay all of the mistakes over and over again in the weeks and months ahead because that’s what coaches—especially ones as detail oriented as Shanahan—do. In the aftermath of another Super Bowl loss and another blown double-digit lead, the takes are going to fly about whether Shanahan can win the big one. For perspective on that question, it’s worth looking at the career arc of the guy on the other sideline.

There was a time when Reid was viewed in a similar light as Shanahan—an excellent coach who just couldn’t get over the hump. From 2000 to 2004, Reid’s Eagles teams won between 11 and 13 games every season. They lost three times in the NFC championship game and once in the Super Bowl. Reid needed a change of scenery (and, yes, Mahomes) and finally won his first Super Bowl with the Chiefs in his 21st season as a head coach.

“I appreciate the first one because it took me a thousand years to get into a Super Bowl,” Reid said Sunday night. “At least being able to hold that Lombardi Trophy.”

That’s both good news and bad news for Shanahan. The good news is he’s too good of a coach to not have more opportunities, and the bet here is that he eventually will win a title.

The bad news is there’s no guarantee that the next opportunity is going to come soon. On paper, the 49ers should have the pieces to be in the mix again next season—Purdy is being paid well below market value for the quarterback of a Super Bowl team, and stars like McCaffrey, Samuel, George Kittle, and Fred Warner remain under contract. But the weight of a Super Bowl loss is heavy. There’s a reason that since 2000, only one loser (the 2018 Patriots) has made it back the following season.

In the days leading up to this Super Bowl, Shanahan faced plenty of questions about his psyche, how he’s dealt with past Super Bowl losses, and his general intense work habits. One exchange in particular stood out. He was asked about the process for installing a new play that assistants bring him. He explained that the coach better have answers for how that play would work against different fronts and coverages and what adjustments need to be made and whether it’s a concept the players can execute. Torture was the word Shanahan used to describe his own process. If he tortures himself with all of those details, then it’s fair to torture his assistants to make sure they have the right answers.

The response was a fascinating glimpse into Shanahan’s process and a reminder that NFL head coaches are generally not well-adjusted people. Given the nature of this latest 49ers Super Bowl loss, which compounded the previous postseason disappointments, Shanahan is likely headed to an even darker place than usual in the months ahead as he tries to figure out a path forward.

Before retreating back to that silent losing locker room Sunday night, he was asked by a reporter what he’d say to Purdy about the 49ers’ loss. “I mean, you don’t say a lot,” Shanahan said. “There’s not much to say. You let guys deal with it. You’ve got to feel this. It’s not something that just words or anything makes it feel better. You sit there and you deal with it. You got to do that for a while.”

He might as well have been speaking to himself.