LAS VEGAS -- Kyle Shanahan did what all head coaches do in these moments. He praised his San Francisco 49ers for all they gave this season. He acknowledged the expected pain in the locker room, the hurt that comes when that confetti falls on the other team and how the Niners will search for ways to win one more game next year. Shanahan certainly knows these comments by heart at this point, largely because he's had plenty of practice uttering them.
San Francisco's 25-22 overtime loss to Kansas City in Super Bowl LVIII will long be remembered as the game that turned the Chiefs into the NFL's latest dynasty. It also provides yet another opportunity to wonder why Shanahan keeps falling short in this game. This is now his second Super Bowl defeat in the last five seasons -- the other one came against Kansas City in Super Bowl LIV -- and he was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons when that team lost to New England in Super Bowl LI. For a coach so reputed for his offensive genius, it's hard to believe he hasn't held a Lombardi Trophy at some point with all those chances.
It's fair to say he's faced some stiff competition, especially since Kansas City head coach Andy Reid has claimed three championships in the last five seasons. The Chiefs found a way to make enough winning plays in this contest, as well, leaving the 49ers lamenting what could've been.
"I hurt the most for the players," Shanahan said in his postgame press conference. "I can't tell you guys about how long it takes to get here and how long it takes to get through an NFL season. Our guys -- I hurt for them the most."
The tough part for Shanahan must be how painfully close his teams have come to claiming victory. That Falcons squad held a 28-3 lead over the Patriots in that contest, before watching New England storm back for victory in overtime. The 49ers had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV, before the Chiefs rallied to win that one, as well. San Francisco actually jumped out to a 10-0 lead in Sunday's game, which once again proved to not be enough.
The reality of this Super Bowl was that the 49ers had the better team coming into the game. The Chiefs, on the other hand, were playing better in the postseason than they had in the months prior, and they never let San Francisco find a comfortable advantage. Running back Christian McCaffrey generated 160 yards of total offense, but his fumble on San Francisco's opening drive was a colossal blunder. The same was true of a Chiefs punt that skipped off the leg of 49ers cornerback Darrell Luter Jr. -- who was blocking on the play -- and into the hands of Kansas City cornerback Jaylen Watson deep in 49ers territory.
Kansas City turned Watson's recovery into a 16-yard touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and the momentum shifted immediately. The 49ers did plenty of good things, including the efficient play of quarterback Brock Purdy and the inspired effort of a defense that harassed Mahomes throughout the first half. That also is the narrative that Shanahan's teams must be tired of living: Finishing simply isn't something they know how to do well in championship games.
This was supposed to be a year of redemption after the 49ers lost in last year’s NFC Championship Game after Purdy sustained an elbow injury. It turned out to be one more painful reminder of how snakebit they can be in these moments.
"A lot of guys are quiet and are still quiet right now," said Purdy, when asked about the mood in the locker room after the game. "Not a lot has been said. It just hurts. You want to do this all year and to come up short like that, it's tough. After what we've gone through the last couple years, everybody wanted it so bad. We're still trying to gather our thoughts right now."
Purdy's presence gave Shanahan his best opportunity to win a championship with this current team. The second-year quarterback played at an MVP-caliber level throughout the season and became everything the coach needed in his high-powered offense. The 49ers knew the Chiefs presented a daunting challenge because of how well Kansas City's defense had performed throughout the season. A major factor in this game was going to be how Shanahan found ways to attack everything that Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could throw at his team.
Purdy answered the call for the most part. He missed a couple potential touchdown passes, but that had more to do with the Chiefs pressuring him to the point that he had to throw early. That was clearly the problem when Purdy missed wide receiver Jauan Jennings in the end zone in overtime. Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones harassed Purdy just enough that the ball floated over the head of the wide-open receiver and resulted in a Jake Moody field goal.
It was Mahomes' time after that. He drove his team 75 yards on 13 plays and hit Mecole Hardman for a 3-yard touchdown pass that won the game. It was another vintage moment for Mahomes, who earned his third Super Bowl MVP award in the win. He was the same guy who led the Chiefs to 21 fourth-quarter points in that victory over San Francisco in Super Bowl LIV.
That is the other reality for Shanahan: Sometimes timing doesn't work in your favor. That loss to the Falcons came against Tom Brady, and Mahomes has burned the coach twice. As Shanahan acknowledged after the game, he knew his offense had to be mindful of how brilliant Mahomes can be in high-pressure moments. That was a critical determinant in Shanahan calling a successful pass play to tight end George Kittle on a fourth-and-3 from the Chiefs' 15-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
San Francisco trailed at that point by a score of 13-10. That conversion set up a 10-yard touchdown pass from Purdy to Jennings that gave the 49ers a three-point lead (Moody's extra point was blocked).
"That wasn't something we would normally do, but it was the right thing in that situation," Shanahan said of eschewing a field-goal attempt.
Shanahan was similarly aggressive to start overtime. Instead of deferring after winning the coin toss -- and seeing what the Chiefs did with the football -- he decided to put points on the board first. His team had never been in this situation with the new playoff rules -- that allow each team a possession in overtime -- so he went with his analytics feedback. It would've worked out better for him if San Francisco had scored a touchdown on that series.
Now the 49ers get to spend another offseason contemplating a gutting defeat. When asked to sum up his reaction to the loss, Jennings told a reporter that it was similar to "someone putting a nail in front of you and then having to step on it."
Shanahan added: "We're hurting right now, but it doesn't take away from how proud of my guys I am. I love our team. We'll recover and be back next year strong."
There's no reason to doubt that. The 49ers have played in four NFC title games and two Super Bowls in the last five seasons, and they are already betting favorites to win next year's championship. Shanahan clearly has everything he needs to earn a title. The question that will continue to haunt him is when that will actually happen.