49ers pack their bags believing they’ll be ready for the steep climb ahead – The Athletic

By David Lombardi47m ago

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — A hallway connects the Levi’s Stadium service tunnel to the San Francisco 49ers locker room. It’s about 15 feet long. Action portraits of 49ers legends — Dwight Clark, Steve Young, Roger Craig, Joe Montana, Patrick Willis, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice — fill up one of the hallway’s walls.

Under the legends, in all capital letters, lies a prominent text.

“It won’t be easy,” the wall reads, “but it will be worth it.”

Never has that message been more potentially useful than now, in the fresh aftermath of the 49ers’ calamitous overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII.

One by one, players packed bags at their lockers on Tuesday and ventured into the offseason, passing the wall on their way out. Many spoke before they departed in a space where visceral pain from Sunday’s loss was still very much present.

Brandon Aiyuk stood in silence for over 20 seconds before answering a question about what he’ll remember most about his teammates from this 2024 season.

“Guys that came in and worked to be champions every single day,” the receiver said, his voice trembling as he spoke.

It was impossible to see Aiyuk’s eyes under his dark sunglasses, but he was overcome by emotion. When a reporter asked him if this had been the toughest recent loss to endure, Aiyuk struggled to speak. Still quivering, he simply nodded his head for several seconds.

“That’s all I got,” Aiyuk said, turning back toward his locker to finish packing up.

GO DEEPER

Shanahan on Super Bowl losses: ‘We’ve won a lot of big games here’

The amount of postseason heartbreak the 49ers have endured over the past five seasons is unprecedented in franchise history. Sure, the 49ers saw three straight campaigns, from 1970 to 1972, end with playoff losses to the Dallas Cowboys. They lost brutal playoff games at the end of the 1986 and 1987 seasons at the hands of the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. They suffered again at the hands of the Giants and the Cowboys (twice) in NFC Championship Games to close the 1990, 1992 and 1993 seasons. The Green Bay Packers tormented them in the late 1990s. Three 49ers teams under coach Jim Harbaugh came up painfully short in the 2010s.

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But the damage over the stretch since Super Bowl LIV, which the 49ers lost to the Chiefs to end the 2019 season, has been even more extensive. Two Super Bowl and two NFC title game defeats, sandwiching a 2020 season of misery, have filled the five years. And the 49ers, as had been the case following some of the other heartbreaking stretches in franchise history, still haven’t been able to grab another Lombardi Trophy to alleviate the building anguish.

In time, the 49ers will attempt to summit the mountaintop once more. But that time is not now.

“Guys need to get away,” coach Kyle Shanahan said Tuesday. “This is real. You do have to grieve this. I think our guys really are passionate about their jobs and enjoy football a lot. So I think our guys are going to be hungry as ever coming back from this. Just like they were as hungry as I’ve ever seen a group of guys come into last offseason after how our (2022) season finished in Philly.

“When you’ve got guys who really love what they do, that’s what brings that passion. You’ve just got to put together a group of guys that are also good at it.”

By all objective metrics, the 49ers assembled a team that was capable of winning the Super Bowl this season. Nine of their players made the Pro Bowl, the highest total in the league. They finished the regular season ranked second, behind only the Baltimore Ravens, in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). Their scores on offense and defense both ranked in the top five.

But try as they might, the 49ers couldn’t vanquish the final boss. Patrick Mahomes and his Chiefs reigned supreme again.

“You can have the most talented roster in the NFL, which I really do think we do, and have incredible coaching, which I do think we do,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said Tuesday. “We can have all the pieces, but it never guarantees you the win. At the end of the day, it’s not basketball. It’s not a seven-game series. You can put yourself in the absolute best position, but sometimes you get beat.”

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Mahomes was great to finish Super Bowl LVIII, and he’s now defeated the 49ers twice in the big game with lethal play down the stretch. Chiefs nickelback Trent McDuffie executed one of the best blitzes the Super Bowl has ever seen to highlight a sterling Kansas City defensive performance. The 49ers also erred in all phases of the game, and regrets about that continued to ooze through the locker room as staffers taped cardboard moving boxes shut on Tuesday.

“I should have just played within the scheme,” right guard Spencer Burford said of his missed assignment on the 49ers’ final offensive play, which allowed Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones to disrupt quarterback Brock Purdy’s throw. “I played on instinct. It was my fault.”

Spencer Burford, left, walking off the field with Aaron Banks, lamented his missed assignment on the key third-and-4 play in overtime. (Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

But the 49ers also made several good plays to position themselves favorably throughout most of the game, and bad luck was also clearly part of their plight.

There were seven total fumbles in the Super Bowl. Kansas City recovered six of them. In fact, of 80 playoff teams since 2018, this season’s Chiefs — based on data tallying fumble recoveries, opponents’ drops and opponents’ missed kicks — quantifiably ranked as the luckiest. The 49ers ranked down at No. 69, even with Aiyuk’s sensational catch coming off a dropped interception in the NFC title game factored in.

A rare confluence of skill and fortune is required for a team to be the last of 32 standing at the end of an NFL season. Shanahan’s 49ers haven’t attained that, and their latest attempt to do so has them figuratively punched in the stomach and sprawled across the ground.

So what is motivating the team to get back up? Juszczyk says it’s the simple realization that ultimate success requires taking another swing.

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“All you can do is continue to try to put yourself in that best position,” he said. “But you’re never guaranteed anything.”

Juszczyk, 32, and left tackle Trent Williams, 35, said Tuesday that they won’t retire and intend to return for the 2024 season. Most of the 49ers’ many star players remain under contract for at least one more run. This makes the team naturally bullish about contending again. So does the fact that the 49ers had already bounced back from their previous traumatic losses with playoff success in each of the past three seasons.

Juszczyk credited a message from Shanahan.

“Kyle puts it in a good way: We’re going to put ourselves out there because that’s what you do as a professional athlete,” Juszczyk said. “You’re vulnerable in putting yourself out there on the biggest stage in the world. And when you come up short, it hurts. You’re a little embarrassed. But we embrace that. We relish that. Because what’s the alternative? That’s what living is. It’s taking a chance and putting yourself out there.

“Because if you don’t do that, you’re never going to have the opportunity to really experience true greatness and true accomplishment. That’s just part of the gig. I think having an understanding of that and just accepting that helps in these situations when you do come up short, in being able to bounce back. Because you know that it sucks, but what else are you going to do? That’s how we’re bred. That’s how we’re going to work. It’s important to try and find the positives of it. Obviously, you don’t feel any positivity right now. But there’s always a lesson to be learned in any of these losses, no matter how much they hurt. And I think you can use that to fuel yourself and just grow stronger from it going forward.”

Kyle Juszczyk believes the 49ers had the best roster in the league but knows that doesn’t guarantee a Super Bowl victory. (Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

Like Juszczyk, linebacker Fred Warner has been with the 49ers through every violent dip of the roller-coaster ride that has defined the past half-decade.

“It’s not easy,” Warner said Tuesday. “I’ll say that. It stays with you all the way. Even back in ’19 when we lost that one, it stays with you. It gets easier, but it’s going to stay with you all the way through. The thing that gives me hope is knowing how much it means to me, how much it means to Kyle and the players and John (Lynch). The things that make up a championship team, I know we have those things.”

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Warner then paraphrased a quote coined by legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh.

“You’ve got to act the way of a champion before you are a champion,” he said.

Shanahan and Lynch, the 49ers’ general manager, have shared that Walshian thought with the team over the years. They’ve strived to integrate lessons from the 49ers’ illustrious history into their present-day team. That’s why the hallway into the locker room, which players pass through every day, is adorned with that message.

Juszczyk, carrying a stack of clothes from the locker room to the parking lot, took note as he passed through the hallway. He just happened to be fresh off noting that the playoff runs of the past three seasons have given him confidence the 49ers can position themselves with another chance to win the Super Bowl and end this drought.

“I know that no matter how bad it hurts right now, my body and my mind will be ready when it’s time,” Juszczyk said. “Quite frankly, that’s what we do. When it’s time, we’ll be ready to go through all that again.”

Before leaving for his offseason, Warner took it a step further.

“I know it’s not a thing of ‘if,’ it’s just ‘when,’” he said. “It sucks that it wasn’t this time, because it should have been. But, like I said: Not ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”

(Top photo of Fred Warner walking off the field after the final play of the Super Bowl: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

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David Lombardi is a staff writer for The Athletic covering the San Francisco 49ers. David joined The Athletic after three years with ESPN, where he primarily covered college football. Follow David on Twitter @LombardiHimself

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