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49ers left 'hurting'; Shanahan stands by coaching

Written by 
Published in Breaking News
Sunday, 11 February 2024 23:43

LAS VEGAS -- For the second time in four years, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan walked into a deathly silent locker room with the difficult task of finding the words to comfort a team that had climbed to within a step of the NFL mountaintop only to come up short.

Much like after his team coughed up a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, Shanahan came to the same conclusion following Sunday night's 25-22 overtime loss to those 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 ones you think you can pull off, it hurts. But I think when you're in the NFL, I think every team should hurt except for one at the end. We've gotten pretty damn close, but we haven't pulled it off, and we're hurting right now."

Sunday night's loss was painful not just for the fact that the Niners again had a double-digit lead they couldn't hang on to or that they had a pair of costly special teams miscues or that running back Christian McCaffrey fumbled away a promising opening drive. It hurt for all those reasons but even more so because it's the latest in a series of devastating near misses that are becoming a late January and early February tradition in San Francisco.

The Niners have advanced to at least the NFC Championship Game in four of the past five seasons. They've gone to the Super Bowl in two of those campaigns. They've lost double-digit leads in both Super Bowls and an NFC Championship Game, with a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles without a healthy quarterback for most of that game mixed in.

It's San Francisco's third consecutive Super Bowl loss since its last win following the 1994 season, making it the fifth team to lose three straight Super Bowls along with 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 versus any opponent under his guidance.

There has been plenty of success for the 49ers to make it deep into the postseason on a regular basis. But the inability to turn those into championships has left a continuously bitter taste in the 49ers' mouths.

"We've been so close so many times that there's only so many more opportunities that we have," defensive end Nick Bosa said.

Sunday's defeat came with plenty of chances to close 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 their first four snaps. Then on first-and-10 at Kansas City's 29-yard line, McCaffrey took a handoff to the right where he was met by Chiefs linebacker Leo Chenal, who pried the ball loose with defensive end George Karlaftis recovering it at Kansas City's 27.

It was McCaffrey's third fumble of the season after he lost just two in his first six seasons combined (2017 to 2022). After the loss, a despondent McCaffrey repeated the same phrase multiple times in the span of a couple of minutes.

"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 sting. Put that on me."

That was not the only costly mishap for the Niners. With 2:42 to go in the third quarter and the Niners getting the ball back with a 10-6 lead, a special teams unit that was having a strong game took a turn for the worse.

Kansas City punter Tommy Townsend's kick sailed 40 yards to the Niners' 25, where it hit off rookie cornerback Darrell Luter Jr.'s leg as he attempted to block for returner Ray-Ray McCloud.

Luter said he did not hear a "Peter" call, which is the signal to get out of the way if the ball is coming toward a non-returner. An alert McCloud attempted to scoop the ball up but lost it as Chiefs cornerback Jaylen Watson fell on it at the Niners' 16.

McCloud said he had no regrets about how he attempted to catch or recover the ball, but Luter was more disappointed in his inability to dodge the ball in the first place.

"It is a sucky feeling," Luter said. "It kind of makes you feel as if it's all on you. That's what it kind of makes you feel like. But I kind of got to take it with a grain of salt at the end of the day and just move forward and learn from it."

Even after the Chiefs immediately turned that miscue into a touchdown, the Niners bounced back with a 12-play touchdown drive -- but even that was tempered by kicker Jake Moody's extra point getting blocked by Chenal.

The Niners and Chiefs traded field goals to go to overtime, where the Niners 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 with a safety.

"We've been so close so many times that there's only so many more opportunities that we have."
49ers DE Nick Bosa

Before the game, Shanahan said he and his analytics staff discussed the possibilities and decided that with Patrick Mahomes on the other side, it would be best to take the ball first because that would also mean the Niners got the ball third in the event both teams matched points on their opening possessions and overtime progressed 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 stuff that I didn't plan on doing or that I didn't do, and second guess myself," Shanahan said. "I'm proud of what we did today as a coaching staff and as players in terms of we worked and we did everything we planned on doing. We just didn't get it done."

Now, the 49ers head off into another offseason where they will be forced to figure out how they can finally break through. The questions about all the things that kept them from winning this one and those that came before it will persist.

Most of San Francisco's veteran nucleus is still under contract and should be back for another run. Before any of that, they'll take time to grieve another defeat on the Super Bowl stage. As Shanahan reminded his players in the locker room after the game, there's no time limit on dealing with that pain.

It's a process with which they're becoming all too familiar.

"It's hard to put yourself out there on the biggest stage in the world and come up short and have to deal with what comes with that," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "It's not easy but it's something that we will never back away from and never back down from."

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