‘HURT’ 49ers lament another missed opportunity at the Super Bowl
LAS VEGAS — For the second time in four years, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan entered a silent locker room with the difficult task of finding the words to calm a team that had climbed to within a step of the NFL’s top mountain just short.
Just as he did after his team took a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, Shanahan came to the same conclusion after Sunday night’s 25-22 overtime loss to the same Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII.
“There’s nothing different to say,” Shanahan explained. “I don’t care how you lose, when you lose Super Bowls, especially one that you thought you were capable of, it hurts. But I think when you’re in the NFL, I think every team should hurt except one team in the NFL.” American Football: We came so close, but we didn’t make it, and we’re hurting now.
Sunday night’s loss was painful not just because of the fact that the Niners once again had a double-digit lead that they couldn’t hold on to or because they had costly mistakes on special teams or because Christian McCaffrey bungled a promising opening drive. It’s painful for all of these reasons but even more so because it’s the latest in a series of devastating near-misses that have become a tradition in late January and early February in San Francisco.
The Niners have advanced to at least the NFC Championship Game in four of the past five seasons. They went to the Super Bowl in two of those campaigns. They have given up double-digit leads in both the Super Bowls and the NFC Championship Game, with a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles without a healthy quarterback for most of that game.
It is San Francisco’s third straight Super Bowl loss since its last win after the 1994 season, making it the fifth team to lose three Super Bowls in a row alongside the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals. The Niners are also now 0-4 against the Chiefs under Shanahan, the most losses without a win against any opponent under his leadership.
The 49ers have had great success making it to the postseason on a regular basis. But the inability to turn it into championships left a persistent sour taste in the 49ers’ mouths.
“We’ve been so close to winning so many times that there’s only so many chances for us,” defensive lineman Nick Bosa said.
Sunday’s defeat came with plenty of opportunities to seal the deal.
The 49ers were the aggressors in the first half, moving the ball at will on the game’s opening drive, averaging 11.5 yards per play on the first four snaps. Then on first-and-10 at Kansas City’s 29-yard line, McCaffrey handed the ball off to the right where he was met by Chiefs linebacker Leo Chenal, who released the ball, with defensive end George Karlaftis recovering it at Kansas City’s 27.
It was McCaffrey’s third foul of the season after giving up just two in his first six seasons combined (2017 to 2022). After the loss, a despondent McCaffrey repeated the same phrase several times within a two-minute span.
“The first thing I think is I can’t put the ball on the ground on the first drive,” McCaffrey said. “It’s going to hurt. Put this on me.”
This was not the only costly accident in San Francisco. With 2:42 remaining in the third quarter and the Niners getting the ball back with a 10-6 lead, a special teams unit that had been having a strong game took a turn for the worse.
Kansas City kicker Tommy Townsend’s kick sailed 40 yards to the Niners’ 25-yard line, where it hit the leg of rookie linebacker Darrell Luter Jr. as he attempted to block returner Ray Ray McCloud.
Lotter said he didn’t hear the “Peter” call, which is a signal to get out of the way if the ball is coming at an unsuspecting person. The tipped McCloud tried to catch the ball but lost it, and Chiefs cornerback Jaylen Watson fell on it at the Niners’ 16.
McCloud said he had no regrets about how he tried to catch or retrieve the ball, but Lotter was more disappointed in not being able to dribble the ball in the first place.
“It feels bad,” Lotter said. “He makes you feel as if it’s all on you. That’s how he makes you feel. But I have to take it with a grain of salt at the end of the day and move forward and learn who he is.”
Even after the Chiefs immediately turned that fumble into a touchdown, the 49ers bounced back with a 12-play touchdown drive — but even that was mitigated by kicker Jake Moody’s extra point that was blocked by Chenall.
The Niners and Chiefs traded field goals to go into overtime, at which point San Francisco won the toss and decided to take the ball first. Under the league’s new postseason overtime rules, both teams get a chance to possess the ball before the game ends unless the first drive ends in a safety.
“We’ve been so close so many times that there are only so many opportunities for us.”
49ers DE Nick Bosa
Before the game, Shanahan said he and his analytical staff discussed overtime possibilities and decided that with Patrick Mahomes on the other side, it would be better to take the ball first because it would also mean the Niners would get the ball on third down if both got the ball. The teams matched points on their opening possessions and an overtime lead to sudden death.
Shanahan said he felt good about the game he and his staff coached.
“What I can’t live with is when I do things I didn’t plan to do or didn’t do, and I second guess myself,” Shanahan said. “I’m proud of what we did today as a coaching staff and as players as we worked and did everything we set out to do. But we didn’t get it done.”
Now, the 49ers head into another offseason where they will have to figure out how to finally break through. Questions about all the things that prevented them from winning this match and those before it will continue.
Most of San Francisco’s veteran core is still under contract and should return for another round. Before all that, the 49ers will take time to mourn another defeat on the Super Bowl stage. As Shanahan reminded his players in the locker room after the game, there is no time limit on dealing with this pain.
It’s a process they’ve all become familiar with.
“It’s tough to put yourself on the biggest stage in the world and fail and have to deal with what comes with that,” San Francisco linebacker Kyle Goscheck said. “It’s not easy, but it’s something we will never back down from and will never back down from.”