LAS VEGAS — As the final seconds ticked away in Super Bowl LIV, the devastated San Francisco 49ers stood in stunned silence on the Hard Rock Stadium sideline after letting a 10-point fourth-quarter lead slip away.
In the aftermath of that 31-20 defeat at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs, the then-upstart Niners took solace in the idea their reign at the top of the NFC was just beginning. A miked up George Kittle was caught on camera vowing he would get back to the big game “with a vengeance.” Defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner, then in their first and second seasons in the league, respectively, figured they’d not only be back, but that it would happen in short order.
“When you’re young and naive, you think when you go so early in your career it’s like, ‘Man, this is just what it’s like, you go to the Super Bowl every year,'” Warner said. “That’s not what the case is.”
As Warner and the Niners can attest, there’s nothing easy about reaching this point. The years that followed the Super Bowl near-miss have offered overwhelming evidence of how hard it is to return.
Now, the 49ers are back on the game’s grandest stage. As a bonus, they’ll get another shot at coach Andy Reid, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and those Chiefs at Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium (6:30 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS). Although it has been four years, it has felt much longer to Bosa who said “a lot has happened” since the previous trip.
The 49ers suffered a 2020 season was plagued by an avalanche of serious injuries. Then, a pair of disappointing NFC Championship Game defeats in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. They’ve had difficult player and coaching departures and a never-ending series of questions about which quarterback could lead them back to the promised land.
“It’s very hard,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “When you go into January every year to February, it’s just long. But you always feel it after, whether you lose an NFC Championship, whether you lose a Super Bowl. You ask anybody, whether it’s one of them, whether it’s two of them.
“After that it’s like, ‘Oh my God, that took so much and was so long to get there. How can you ever do that again?”
THE ANSWER TO the question of what, exactly, has been the hardest part of returning to the Super Bowl depends on which member of the 49ers you ask. For Shanahan, it’s easy: the 2020 season in which nearly everything that could go wrong, did.
As though the COVID-19 pandemic that forced NFL teams to play in front of empty stadiums and brought the world to a halt wasn’t enough, the 49ers’ roster was ripped apart by injuries to Bosa, Kittle, defensive end Dee Ford, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, receiver Deebo Samuel, running back Raheem Mostert and cornerback Richard Sherman. That group played in 37 of a possible 112 games (33%).
That team lost 161.6 games to injury, the second most of any team in the past 20 years to that point, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric (which also factored in players missing games for COVID-19 reasons). When December 2020 arrived, the Niners were hit with yet another challenge, as Santa Clara County booted them out of their home facilities because of COVID-19 guidelines that temporarily banned contact sports.
The ban forced the Niners to move their entire operation to Glendale, Arizona, for the rest of the season, where some players rented homes while others stayed at the Renaissance Hotel as they played out the string of a 6-10 campaign.
“We had to go live in a hotel where COVID didn’t seem as big of a deal because outside of our windows, the whole state was open,” Shanahan said. “We got to look at a Dave and Buster’s, a movie theater and everyone was out. But we got kicked out of here because we couldn’t practice football outside. Then we were in NFL rules where we’re in a hotel for a month where we’re not allowed to see each other. … It was like nice jail cells and we got let out for recess.”
The following offseason came with a different kind of drama, as the Niners sought their long-term solution at quarterback after Garoppolo continued to struggle with injuries. They traded three first-round picks to the Miami Dolphins to move from No. 12 to No. 3 in the draft and used the pick on talented but raw quarterback prospect Trey Lance.
Although the Niners intended to stick with Garoppolo as starter while Lance learned, Garoppolo again battled injury issues. Even with most of the roster healthy again, they struggled to a 3-5 start and spent the final two months of the season treating every game like the playoffs, sneaking into the postseason on the strength of a 17-point comeback in Week 18 against the Los Angeles Rams that pushed them to 10-7.
Led by Samuel’s breakthrough season, the Niners advanced to a rematch against the Rams in the NFC Championship Game and built a 10-point lead through three quarters before losing by three, 20-17. Safety Jaquiski Tartt’s dropped interception that could have helped ice the game was the indelible image from that defeat.
In 2022, another slow start (3-4) turned into a 10-game winning streak to close the season at 13-4 with an NFC West division crown. Along the way, the 49ers traded for running back Christian McCaffrey and endured multiple quarterback changes, as Lance was lost to a right ankle injury in Week 2 and Garoppolo broke his foot in a Week 13 win against Miami.
From there, rookie quarterback Brock Purdy emerged as one of the most compelling stories of the season, leading San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback injuries had been the story of the Niners’ season until then, and came up again that day as Purdy tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right (throwing) elbow a few plays into the game. Backup Josh Johnson was lost to a concussion soon after and the Niners fell 31-7 in a matchup in which they played most of the second half with a quarterback incapable of throwing the ball.
According to left tackle Trent Williams, the bad taste of those two NFC title game losses hasn’t gone away, but the urgency to break through has ratcheted up.
“You want to get it all back in one day,” Williams said. “You want to win a championship the first day of OTAs. But you’ve got to have patience and understand this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. You need a little luck but for the most part, it’s all about focus and being able to set a standard and being able to get to that standard every Sunday.”
THROUGHOUT THE CLOSE calls and disappointments, the Niners have had to figure out how to contend even as other teams poach some of their best coaches and players. Defensive coordinators DeMeco Ryans (Houston Texans) and Robert Saleh (New York Jets) and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel (Dolphins) all departed for head-coaching jobs and took other members of Shanahan’s staff with them.
The Niners also made the difficult decision to trade defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts, watched as key role players such as Mostert, defensive tackle D.J. Jones, right tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Laken Tomlinson departed in free agency and had to adjust for draft misses on Lance — who was traded in August — and defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, the first of their two first-round picks in 2020.
“Every year is just so unique,” Kittle said. “That’s what makes it so difficult. … You can’t keep everybody; you can’t pay everybody. You have to fill gaps, you have to bring new guys in. You have to try to keep your culture.
“There’s just so many interchanging parts, and so to continue and sustain winning as many regular-season games as we do, making the playoffs, it’s very difficult.”
Nobody knows better than these Niners how difficult. San Francisco enters this matchup about as healthy as could be expected and has more offensive firepower than last time with the additions of McCaffrey, Williams and wideout Brandon Aiyuk (their second first-round pick in 2020), as well as more experienced versions of Kittle, Samuel and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. They have eight players, including seven starters, who played in Super Bowl LIV and a quarterback — Purdy — they believe can be the difference this time around.
These Niners hope the trials of their journey back to this Super Bowl have strengthened their resolve to finish the job and claim the franchise’s long-awaited sixth Lombardi Trophy, a trophy they haven’t won since beating the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX after the 1994 season.
“We’ve got to pay it off,” general manager John Lynch said. “Nobody really remembers who lost in the Super Bowl. If you want to be remembered … here’s your opportunity.”