Staley apologized for his emotions, but he could not control them. For all of the 49ers, it will be a long offseason of regret and sorrow that, somehow, they must get past to avoid becoming another oh-so-close Super Bowl loser with a monster hangover.
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Staley said. “This is super disappointing. This is very hard being in this moment right now. You put your heart and soul and whole entire life into trying to be a Super Bowl champion, and you get towards the end of your career, and you realize how rare these opportunities are. Emotions are still raw and real for me right now.”
Staley’s words frame the new challenge for Coach Kyle Shanahan, the 40-year-old offensive whiz kid who was one quarter from becoming the third-youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl before suffering the second collapse of his career in the title game. It’s no longer about designing and calling pretty plays. It’s no longer about flaunting his clairvoyance to officials in calling out penalties before they happen. Shanahan has to help his team, still young and rising, heal properly from this devastation. And the coach must do it as a flawed and vulnerable leader.
Shanahan has had the strangest meteoric rise. Despite accomplishing so much at such a young age, his brief career has had some high-profile failures to balance out the successes. He came into Super Bowl LIV trying to shed the disappointment of 28-3, which was the lead Atlanta blew in a 34-28 overtime loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Falcons, and he was criticized heavily for continuing to pass rather than running the football — thus using more clock — in that game.
The Falcons led 28-9 at the start of the fourth quarter three years ago. The Patriots’ comeback became the largest fourth-quarter rally in NFL playoff history; no team had won a postseason game when trailing by 17 or more points entering the final quarter. Now Shanahan must add the failure to hold another double-digit fourth-quarter lead, this time 20-10, to his list of setbacks. After the Atlanta heartbreaker, he left to become the head coach in San Francisco and didn’t experience the fallout. But as a head coach going nowhere, Shanahan will feel all of this pain up close.
“Everyone’s disappointed, and they should be,” Shanahan said. “I wouldn’t expect anything different. Guys put their heart into the season and came up one game short. I’m extremely proud of us, but this is going to take a little bit of time to get over.”
During this 49ers run, I referred to Shanahan as the best young offensive mind in the NFL. This doesn’t change my mind. There’s still a genius to him, same as there was a genius to Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid long before his 21-season championship chase ended with a breakthrough Sunday night. But just like Reid, Shanahan has a few holes in his coaching game. It’s on him to continue to learn from his mistakes and motivate his team through his persistence.
But first he will have to guide them against the curse of the Super Bowl loser. While the 49ers have the talent, youth and clean salary cap to improve, add a few pieces and win it all next season, history suggests they probably won’t redeem themselves so quickly. In 54 Super Bowls, just three teams have lost the big game and then returned the very next season to bathe in confetti: the 1971 Dallas Cowboys, 1972 Miami Dolphins and 2018 Patriots.
There is a greater chance that next season could go haywire for San Francisco. Before losing to the Patriots, 13-3, a year ago, it seemed like the Los Angeles Rams had staying power. They responded to their Super Bowl defeat by finishing 9-7 and missing the playoffs this past season. Four years ago, the Carolina Panthers regressed from 15-1 to 6-10 in response to finishing as the runner-up.
Even when Super Bowl-losing teams make the playoffs the next season, they often have to grind, rebuild their confidence and trust and search for a new edge. They’re just not the same. The 49ers are in a better position than some of the others because it’s not like they have been chasing a title for years. Their excellence this season was a bit of a surprise coming off a 4-12 campaign in 2018. Had they finished the Chiefs on Sunday, they would have won a championship while still ascending. There would have been talk about a sustained run, similar to the chatter about the Chiefs winning multiple championships.
One breakdown midway through the fourth quarter shouldn’t ruin all optimism for the 49ers’ future. But with all the pain and second-guessing, this loss complicates the effort to sustain the overall momentum.
To move forward, Shanahan must accept being blamed for two Super Bowl losses. There is no getting around it, no barking back at it. It could help the psyche of his players if he puts the loss on himself and then shows them how to respond.
Good coaches are built to turn the page, see the big picture and move on to the next play, the next challenge. They’re that way in victory. They’re definitely that way in defeat. To play the game is a much more emotional endeavor. It gnaws a little more. It stings. It lingers. It’s harder to compartmentalize. Shanahan should take this pain and all the negativity that comes with it, be open to public dissection and then move on a little later than he normally would. It’s a subtle but powerful shift in mentality that could break down the player/coach wall and make Shanahan more relatable and vulnerable. Players need that more than they need a dictator telling them how to heal.
It’s not the public ridicule that should concern Shanahan. It’s the doubt inside the locker room. He doesn’t need his late-game management to become a source of resentment. It’s a thing, and he shouldn’t deny it. In two blown Super Bowls, his dynamic offense failed to score a point in seven fourth-quarter possessions. In two blown Super Bowls, his teams were outscored 46-0 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
You can scrutinize individual play-calls, but for Shanahan, this is more of a macro issue. He likes to go with the flow of a game, which is awfully powerful when you’re running the football down the throats of the Green Bay Packers. But he also must have the discipline to adjust better to time and situation. If he can add some philosophical nuance to his strategy and exquisite feel for calling plays, then we will be praising his evolution in a few years.
And if he is as stubborn as most coaches? Well, he will be walking through a potentially flammable locker room holding a kerosene-drenched playbook.
Shanahan is so good that you sometimes forget he is just a third-year head coach learning on the job. He received a painful reminder Sunday. And there’s only one way to respond to being humbled: show humility.