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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers Face an All Too Familiar Ending in Super Bowl LVIII

LAS VEGAS—He stood there, eyes down, tucked underneath a flat-brimmed baseball cap. Kyle Shanahan was looking at a play sheet that provided little in the way of answers, and although he existed on that sideline surrounded by his peers—a whole jumping, yakking schoolyard of trainers, coaches, players and security—the man never seemed so alone.

Sure, the San Francisco 49ers were up by four points with three minutes to go in the third quarter of Super Bowl LVIII, but the sour pang of bright-light failure had to be hitting his gut. Anyone could see it. Anyone among the 66,000 celebrities and coattail hangers could feel it like a violently shifting weather pattern. The boy wonder. Winning by 10? In the Super Bowl? What could go wrong now?

[Buy now! Relive Super Bowl LVIII with Sports Illustrated’s commemorative issue]

And then came the three sounds that crystallized the end of San Francisco’s season, and, perhaps, the finality of one of the greatest teams to never win a Lombardi Trophy, one game short of a Super Bowl title.

The 49ers had two turnovers. 

Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

Gasps as a punt pinballed off the ankle of 49ers cornerback Darrell Luter Jr.

Screams as Ray-Ray McCloud III tried to pick it up and lost it.

Roars as Patrick Mahomes took the field a play later and lobbed a touchdown pass to an uncovered Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

They say at the very end, you don’t hear much of anything. But Sunday, over the loudspeaker, they played the Beastie Boys as the infallible 49ers dream team we had all constructed in the outer reaches of our football fantasy quickly withered away.

FIGHT. FOR YOUR RIGHT. TOOOO PARRRRRRTAY.

Sure, the 49ers regained a lead on a gutsy fourth-down call a drive later. Sure, the 49ers regained it again with less than two minutes to play on a 53-yard field goal. But it was already written in the stars. An extra point got blocked. The scattershot Chiefs had awoken. Travis Kelce was getting the ball and set up a game-tying field goal with six seconds on the clock. Taylor Swift was looking down from the scoreboard like a kind of foreboding Oz.

Later, in a post-game interview tent that provided no reprieve from the cold night air, Shanahan said that these are the moments you have to feel; that “words are not going to make better.” 

A reporter recited Shanahan’s lowlights (the 28–3 nightmare, the 10-point lead in LIV, and now this) and, in a show of tremendous restraint, he noted that “Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes have [come from behind and shocked teams] many times.”

Maybe we should have seen it coming. The Chiefs arrived at the stadium Sunday dressed for a costume party. Kelce looked like he was wearing the disco ball from Saturday Night Fever. Isiah Pacheco was shirtless underneath a white jacket, wearing white-rimmed rave sunglasses. Mahomes had his Kenny Powers shades on.

Kelce reportedly made a powerful pregame speech Saturday night.

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Before the game, the Chiefs escaped through the tunnel like it was happy hour at Delta Tau Chi. After players were catching warm-up balls, they spiked them with double windmill action. They kept their helmets off and sang to the music. One of them put his hands in the air like a merengue dancer and swayed his legs to the beat. It mirrored Kansas City’s post game celebration, awash in empty bottles of Crown Royal and cigar smoke. Paul Rudd, wearing a Derrick Thomas jersey and sporting a full-on Brian Fantana mustache, waited behind a sea of reporters for a crack at hugging his quarterback. Eric Stonestreet wasn’t far behind. A mile of red jackets, thigh-high leather boots and pearly white smiles piled out of the haze and onto the playing field for Instagram pictures.

On the other side of the 50-yard line, the 49ers were stiffer than plywood. Suited like actuaries. A team with all the knowledge and talent and skill in the world, lacking the ability to pull out a shiv and take the opponent down when it mattered most.

Time and time again, the 49ers had a chance to accelerate. To ball up their playmakers like a heavyweight fist and swing for the temporal bone. Choose your metaphor of violence. When you have no killer instinct, it doesn’t matter.

Up 10–3 after an interception of Mahomes to start the second half? Three plays, negative one yard. Punt.

Up 10–3 with 10:45 in the third quarter? Three plays, negative one yard. Punt.

Related: Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers Once Again Fall Short of Super Bowl Win

The greatest active coach-quarterback duo in football only hands out so many of these chances. The football gods only provide you with so many opportunities to surgically remove what ails you in front of a billion people watching on television screens around the world. Wait too long and you’re buried underneath a machine of offensive efficiency.

Wait too long and you only get the penetrating quiet of a locker room like San Francisco’s on Sunday night. From time to time, the silence would be broken only by the sound of peeling velcro, as temporary name plates were removed and stored inside black duffel bags. The red and yellow Chiefs confetti was cruelly dragged into their space like mud from a child’s play boots. Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father, waited outside the coach’s area, one leg folded over the other, hopefully able to provide some perspective.

Now come the hard questions for San Francisco. Now comes the autopsy, the roster analysis and the long, hard look in the mirror. For the better part of Sunday’s game, Shanahan’s offense looked beautiful. There wasn’t much in the way of points, but we could read the small threads and understand what was coming. We could see the wheels turning. We could watch each motion, each little personnel tinker and know that at some point Shanahan would look up from underneath that cap and pull the ripcord.

That’s how San Francisco is supposed to get you, after all. It’s like a horror film, single shot, walking you down a hallway then—WHAM—the masked man pops out of the closet with a revving chainsaw. Shanahan’s offense is at its best when it’s telling us a story with lots of plot twists.

On Sunday, however, the ending was all too familiar for Shanahan. The ending was truly macabre. The 49ers started strong, built a lead, shrunk down to size, then looked to the sideline for answers—looked toward the man in the flat-brimmed baseball cap. He was impossible to see through the red and yellow confetti. By the end, he was impossible to hear over the song on the loudspeaker, which played a second time as Mahomes threw a game-winning touchdown on a play called Corn Dog, which Kansas City had scored on in the Super Bowl the year before.

YOU GOTTA FIGHT. FOR YOUR RIGHT. TO PARTAYYYYYY.

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