49ers still processing Super Bowl loss, falling short again – ESPN

playStephen A. on Shanahan: You have to question if his ‘palms get sweaty’ (2:27)

Stephen A. Smith wonders if 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has the fortitude to win a Super Bowl after blowing another lead in the big game. (2:27)

  • Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff WriterFeb 23, 2024, 06:00 AM ETClose
      Nick Wagoner is an NFL reporter at ESPN. Nick has covered the San Francisco 49ers and the NFL at ESPN since 2016, having previously covered the St. Louis Rams for 12 years, including three years (2013 to 2015) at ESPN. In his 10 years with the company, Nick has led ESPN’s coverage of the Niners’ 2019 Super Bowl run, Colin Kaepernick’s protest, the Rams making Michael Sam the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL, Sam’s subsequent pursuit of a roster spot and the team’s relocation and stadium saga. You can follow Nick via Twitter @nwagoner

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As various San Francisco 49ers filed through the locker room at their facility, less than 48 hours removed from losing Super Bowl LVIII to the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime, the enormity of that devastating defeat had already sunk in. They just didn’t want to believe it.

At one end of the locker room, defensive end Nick Bosa told reporters he needed time to digest the loss before looking to next season. At the other, left tackle Trent Williams, usually one of the team’s most thoughtful and expansive interviews, had little to say. Others — such as running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle, receiver Deebo Samuel, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and quarterback Brock Purdy — described their upcoming grieving process.

All of them — including coach Kyle Shanahan — had declined to re-watch what took place at Allegiant Stadium. None were sure they’d be able to stomach it anytime soon. But they made it clear that what happened in Vegas certainly won’t stay there.

“It really hit me, and then it would go away then it hit me again and it’s just like it don’t even feel real,” Samuel said. “It’s a different type of feeling. Like I don’t even have the answer. … It’s like one of the biggest heartbreaks you can deal with.”

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Dealing with heartbreak has become an unwanted offseason tradition for the 49ers. It started with their loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV to conclude the 2019 season. In 2021, they fell short in the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams. In 2022, they played most of another NFC Championship Game without a healthy quarterback in what became a blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

In each season, the Niners had taken a different, occasionally circuitous path to get back on Lombardi’s doorstep. The final defeat was always difficult to swallow but was often buoyed by an internal belief they could return.

To their credit, the Niners have put action behind those beliefs. But Super Bowl LVIII seemed to hit the hardest. Not just because they lost a game that was there for the taking, but also because of the cumulative effect of the previous near misses. And they might be running out of chances to rectify them, at least in their current iteration.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” general manager John Lynch said. “And ultimately, we’re going to have to live with for a lifetime the reality that we didn’t get it done this time. But I say this time because that’s this time. It hurts. And right now, everyone’s grieving.

“It’s not just going to be okay right away, but you understand that the only thing you can do is use this fuel to propel us forward. And that’s where our mindsets are at, or at least where they will arrive at some point.”

Getting to that point might take a little longer this time given just how close the Niners came to winning the franchise’s long-coveted but elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy. The memories of a third-quarter punt bouncing off cornerback Darrell Luter Jr.’s foot, the missed protection by guard Spencer Burford against Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones on a key third down in overtime, the Chiefs blocking Jake Moody’s fourth-quarter extra point and countless other plays that could have swung the game in San Francisco’s favor will linger.

Kyle Shanahan hasn’t re-watched the 49ers’ Super Bowl LVIII loss to the Chiefs yet and really isn’t in a hurry to. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

It’s why the only player in the 49ers’ locker room who acknowledged re-watching the Super Bowl less than two days after it concluded was linebacker Fred Warner. The previous Super Bowl loss was the conclusion of Warner’s second NFL season, and he believed at the time his team would be able to get back and get the job done in short order.

Four years and another Super Bowl loss later, Warner calls that mindset the naïveté of a young player who didn’t recognize how hard it is to get there or the scars that losing a Super Bowl can leave behind. While Warner’s takeaway from his Super Bowl LVIII re-watch was pride in his team’s effort, he knows that it won’t be easy to climb the mountain again even if San Francisco — as expected — retains most of its star, veteran nucleus in 2024.

“It gets easier, but it is going to stay with you all the way through,” Warner said. “The thing that gives me hope is knowing how much it means to me, how much it means to this organization, how much it means to Kyle and the players and John, and the things that make up a championship team.

“I know we have those things. You got to act the way of a champion before you are a champion. And so, I know it’s not a thing of if it is just when, and it sucks that it wasn’t this time.”

The when part of the equation dominates any 49ers discussion. The likes of Warner, Bosa, Kittle, McCaffrey, Samuel and Williams are under contract for 2024 and beyond. Purdy currently has a meager cap charge of $1.004 million in 2024 and $1.119 million in 2025.

There are, of course, questions that must be answered amid the grieving. Wideout Brandon Aiyuk is due for a contract extension. The Niners would like to keep him long-term but his ascent (75 receptions for 1,342 yards and seven touchdowns in 2024) has driven that cost up.

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Shanahan has a handful of coaches to replace, including defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who was fired three days after the season ended. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw has an arduous recovery from the torn left Achilles he suffered in the Super Bowl.

From a roster standpoint, the offensive line, defensive line and secondary require immediate attention. Receiver and linebacker aren’t far behind.

For now, players have gone their separate ways and will move past this loss in whatever way — and on whatever timeline — they see fit. For Bosa, that means returning home to Florida and taking a little time off before getting back to his workout regimen. Kittle, Juszczyk and McCaffrey have already headed to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for their annual offseason getaway. Purdy is in the final stages of planning for his March wedding.

Upon returning from Las Vegas, Shanahan spent his first night at home hanging out and watching Netflix with his family, avoiding anything that had to do with the Super Bowl. He says he won’t watch it until he’s “ready to or when I have to.” He doesn’t know when that will be. He does know that if his team is going to crack the code to finally winning it all, he’s going to have to be back and eager to attack the next climb sooner than later.

“This is real,” Shanahan said. “You do have to grieve this. … I think our guys are going to be hungry as ever coming back from this.”

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