Kawakami: Will Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers ever win a Super Bowl? It’s nobody’s fault and everybody’s reality – The Athletic

By Tim KawakamiFeb 12, 2024

LAS VEGAS — This was not the time for a speech or even a few plain sentences. This was Kyle Shanahan back in another losing Super Bowl locker room, back with the players he loves and back trying to communicate a message that nobody could bear to hear and maybe he wasn’t quite ready to believe himself at the moment.

What could he say? What could anybody say after the San Francisco 49ers’ topsy-turvy, heart-wrenching 25-22 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium? That all their fans will be happy, anyway? That coming so close to a championship will be celebrated wildly and warmly? That they can just brush this off and charge ahead into next season, no big deal?


Well … no.

This was not the time for a stemwinder. Not for a team and coach that are now 0-2 in Super Bowls, both to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, and both after the 49ers held late leads — including a field-goal lead after the first drive of overtime on Sunday.

“Don’t have a lot of words for it,” Shanahan said. “But obviously our team’s hurting. But that’s how it goes when you put yourself out there. I’m real proud of our guys. No regrets with our team. Our guys played so hard today. Not everything was perfect, by no means. But I’d play with those guys any time.

“We’ll take some time, we’ll get over this. And come back next year ready to go.”

There is, of course, no real consolation for the 49ers in playing hard but losing the last game of the season. In fighting through a brutal early injury to Dre Greenlaw and two crucial special-teams blunders. In taking the best Mahomes could throw at them for more than four quarters and having every chance to win this game.

No consolation in yet another crushing loss to end a hopeful season, after the Super Bowl loss four years ago and back-to-back NFC Championship Game losses in the previous two postseasons. No consolation in having the chance to close this game with one defensive stop but letting the Chiefs go down the field for the win on a Mahomes 3-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman.

After the confetti blew into the air and the Chiefs screamed in joy, the 49ers quietly walked off the field. They sat quietly in their lockers. They were mostly quiet, except when a handful of them, by NFL rules, went to the postgame interview tent for sessions at the podium.

“I feel like it was hard for anybody to say much after this one,” Nick Bosa said. “We’ve been so close so many times that there’s only so many opportunities that we have. We have an amazing core of players who are going to be back. We’ll have to be better.”


Bosa’s point is the heaviest one for this franchise. It is no shame to lose to Mahomes twice, but if the 49ers can’t win the Super Bowl when their defense played as well as it did for most of Sunday, helping the 49ers to a 10-0 lead in the second quarter, when Brock Purdy is making key plays and when they’ve got first-and-10 at the Chiefs’ 15-yard line in the first possession of overtime … when is this ever going to happen?

Maybe never. That’s a hard thing to swallow, but it can’t be rejected now. It is possible that the 49ers of this era will never get over the hump, and it is a lock that they will be criticized for it the entire time until and unless they actually win a Super Bowl.

Of course, Shanahan knew there would be catcalls aimed at him for this loss — he famously was the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator when they took a 28-3 lead over the Patriots before the epic New England comeback in Super Bowl LI. And now he’s had 10-point leads as a head coach in two Super Bowls and lost them both.

You can blame Shanahan if you want. I won’t blame him for building something that consistently gets to this point. That is in position to win the whole thing so often. But yes, there is building frustration because the 49ers have been stopped so close so many times now. Again, everybody knows it. And will hear about it.

Shanahan probably knew that was coming the moment Hardman scored. When the moment happened, Shanahan took a few steps onto the field then headed straight for the 49ers’ locker room and didn’t go to midfield for the traditional postgame handshake. He said that was pre-arranged by him and Andy Reid; Shanahan had to stand and wait for Reid four years ago after Reid was swarmed by well-wishers for quite some time at the end of the game and neither wanted to go through that this time around.


“We talked on Monday,” Shanahan said. “When we played each other last time it was … it took about 25 minutes to actually shake his hand. So we both talked on Monday that regardless of who won, I love Andy, I’m tight with Andy, but we talked, both of us were going to do that ’cause it was too hard to get to each other after Super Bowls.”

The 49ers won’t and shouldn’t do anything rash after this loss. They have a 24-year-old quarterback who held his own in this game. They have young stars throughout the roster. But no team is guaranteed a chance at this every year, and the clock on the 49ers is ticking.

The odds say that if the 49ers keep this level of talent on the roster, they should break through at some point. But the odds say it probably should’ve happened already, and it hasn’t.

“There’s nothing different to say,” Shanahan said. “I don’t care how you lose, when you lose Super Bowls, especially ones you think you can pull off, it hurts. But when you’re in the NFL, I think every team except for one should hurt at the end. I think we’ve gotten pretty damn close, but we haven’t pulled it off.

“And we’re hurting right now, but it doesn’t take away from how proud of our guys I am. I’m real proud of them today, too. It’s part of sports, it’s part of football. It’s part of life. But proud we put ourselves out there and love our team. We’ll recover and we’ll be back next year strong.”

If there was a Shanahan theme to his players, that was it: You have to risk feeling like this. You have to know you’ll be barbecued if you lose to the best in the world. It stinks. But that’s part of the deal.

“There were no words, there’s nothing that can be said that’s going to make me feel better right now,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “It’s just the circumstances. We’re men that signed up for this. We know what happens when you don’t win.


“But what I really do love that Kyle always emphasizes is, win or lose, we go out there and live. It’s hard to put yourself out there on the biggest stage in the world and come up short and then have to deal with what comes with that. It’s not easy. But it’s something that we’ll never back down from. I take pride in that. You can say whatever you want, I’m going to go do it again.”

Are there things Shanahan could’ve done differently on Sunday? Sure. But there were no blatant blunders, at least none that I saw.

He raised eyebrows by taking the ball first in overtime after winning the coin toss, which probably was a 50/50 call. Taking the kickoff gave the Chiefs full knowledge of what they needed to do once the 49ers had to settle for a short Jake Moody field goal to start OT. But, as Shanahan explained it, given the new playoff OT rules that guarantee each team a chance to score, it gave the 49ers the opportunity to win in sudden death if both teams scored matching TDs or field goals in the first two possessions.

And settling for the field goal on fourth-and-4 from the Chiefs’ 9-yard line? Another logical call: Purdy had just been whomped on a blitz, which forced him to throw wildly on third down, and if the 49ers had gone for it and failed, all Mahomes would’ve needed was three or four first downs to set up a game-winning field goal.

Shanahan mostly coached this game well enough to win. His players mostly played well enough to win. It just wasn’t good enough to beat Mahomes and Reid, the same way Shanahan’s Falcons just weren’t good enough to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots.

There is nothing intrinsic about Shanahan that prevents him from winning a Super Bowl, unless you think the same about the coaches of 20 to 25 other franchises right now. It’s not easy. Reid and Mahomes are all-timers. They will block out the top end of a lot of people’s careers. They already have.

“This is my second (Super Bowl) as a head coach,” Shanahan said. “But I think when you go against guys like Tom Brady and Pat Mahomes, you never feel comfortable with the lead. Two of the best players to ever play the game.”


Shanahan said those words at the podium, not to his players. His players don’t need to hear anything like that. They understand how tough it is to go up against Hall of Famers, and they know Sunday, thanks to a handful of plays, was not their turn to celebrate. They also know that they might not get a better chance than this one … or the one four years ago.

That’s why it was so quiet in the 49ers’ locker room late Sunday night. That’s why there was nothing to say.

“I was speechless,” Bosa said. “Couldn’t really look anybody in the eye, especially all my teammates. I could’ve done more. Everybody could’ve done more. And there’s really not much to say at this point. It’s gonna hurt. It’s going to hit in waves. But that’s life.”

That was the sound of lost opportunity and a larger destiny slipping away, year by year. That will never go away until this extremely proud and talented team finally wins a Super Bowl, which means it might never go away at all. Nobody’s fault. Everybody’s reality.


Kyle Shanahan defends 49ers’ decision to take the ball to start overtime of Super Bowl 58

(Top photo of Kyle Shanahan: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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Tim Kawakami is Editor-in-Chief of The Athletic’s Bay Area coverage. Previously, he was a columnist with the Mercury News for 17 years, and before that he covered various beats for the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Daily News. Follow Tim on Twitter @timkawakami