For 49ers, an all-too-familiar feeling of Super Bowl futility at the hands of a quarterback at the top of his game

49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk and head coach Kyle Shanahan answer questions from reporters after the team’s Super Bowl LVIII loss on Sunday. (Dominic Faria/MEDILL)
49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk and head coach Kyle Shanahan answer questions from reporters after the team’s Super Bowl LVIII loss on Sunday. (Dominic Faria/MEDILL)

By Dominic Faria
Medill Reports

LAS VEGAS – As San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy fielded questions from reporters during his somber postgame news conference, the unmistakable voice of a triumphant Patrick Mahomes — booming over the loudspeaker from the adjacent room reserved for the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and winning coach — cut through the slim, black partitions that separated the shell-shocked 49ers from the victors on the other side of the cavernous media tent outside Allegiant Stadium.

It was a fitting encapsulation of San Francisco’s two most recent Super Bowl experiences, starting four years ago in Miami and ending on Sunday in Las Vegas. The presence of the Kansas City Chiefs’ superstar quarterback loomed so large on both occasions that no matter what head coach Kyle Shanahan’s team said or did, they just didn’t have enough to extinguish Mahomes’ greatness.

“This is my second Super Bowl as a head coach, but I think when you go against guys like Tom Brady and Pat Mahomes, you better never feel comfortable with the lead,” Shanahan said, visibly shaken by losing a double-digit Super Bowl lead to the Chiefs once again. “Those are two of the best players to ever play the game. That’s why, whether you have a lead or you’re down points, it’s those guys who are always in it.”

Once again, the ascendant 28-year-old quarterback proved to be the kryptonite to Shanahan and general manager John Lynch’s meticulously crafted, super-powered roster. A roster that had been rebuilt and refined at nearly every position — a glorified super-team with playmakers abound, made specially for competing in the game’s biggest moments.

That their 25-22 overtime loss in Super Bowl LVIII was likely their best chance yet at taking home the franchise’s elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy may be what will haunt the 49ers the most for years to come. Much like its last battle with the now-dynastic Chiefs, the club had numerous opportunities to pounce on a Kansas City team that started slow out of the gates.

The Chiefs had as many fumbles as they did points in the first half, but only one was recovered by San Francisco. They punted on three of their first four drives, stalled out on the 49ers’ 10-yard line before the first half expired and then gave the ball away again three plays into the third quarter. Tight end Travis Kelce only had one catch, a screen for one yard, through the game’s first 32 minutes.

 Everything about Kansas City’s subpar offensive output was tilting in the 49ers’ favor. But while the defense was busy keeping Andy Reid and Co. at bay, Purdy and his unit couldn’t quite crack the code. An opening drive fumble by running back Christian McCaffrey — just his third in 331 carries on the year — set the tone for an evening rife with mishaps and haphazard execution. San Francisco converted on only one of its four third downs in the first half, and just three of its 12 on the game. The team’s six penalties for 40 yards seemed to come at the most inopportune times, dooming drives before they started or snuffing out momentum when it was building in its favor.

“When you have an opportunity like we did to really put some points up on them and take it, you gotta take it, man. It’s the Super Bowl,” Purdy said. “We had opportunities to sort of lap them, get up on them, and we failed to do that.”

It took a Houdini-esque trick play in the second quarter to put the Niners up two scores. A pass to the left flat to Jauan Jennings was returned across the field to an awaiting McCaffrey, who used a convoy of blockers to coast his way for a 21-yard touchdown. They were winning despite their lack of sharpness, and despite a devastating injury to one of their most impactful defensive players, Dre Greenlaw, who exited the contest in the second quarter with a torn Achilles.

All they needed was to regroup and refocus, just as they had done two weeks earlier in the second half of the NFC Championship game — except this time, there was no 17-point hill to climb.

Instead, it was the Chiefs that found their mojo. They outlasted the 49ers by doing what they couldn’t: taking advantage of miscues and all the bounces that broke their way. Like the one after a punt landed on the foot of Darrell Luter Jr., San Francisco’s rookie defensive back, who was trying to clear the way for punt returner Ray-Ray McCloud. Or the one that glanced off the hands of Leo Chenal and Tershawn Wharton, stonewalling a Jake Moody extra point attempt that would have put the Niners up by more than a field goal with 11:27 to play.

When it mattered most, the defending champs did all the little things to keep themselves afloat. The same couldn’t be said for their challengers.

What was so deflating, so irritating, about this particular loss for the 49ers was there was no obvious culprit — no one specific play, player or moment — responsible for their demise. It was an excruciatingly slow, painful death; one that dragged on for hours as they tried in vain to find that all-important knockout punch, only to watch Mahomes, Kelce and the Chiefs land a vicious uppercut at the final bell. 

Their defense made the stop on third and four in the red zone in overtime. Their quarterback finished the fight with a touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman 13 plays later. The 49ers couldn’t get the ball in the hands of their most dynamic playmakers — Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle — enough to make a difference.

They threw away another pristine chance at attaining football immortality. 

“It’s really hard. I don’t really know how to put it in perspective yet,” said fullback Kyle Juszczyk, fighting back tears. “I haven’t had all the feelings of it yet. Right now, you feel numb for a little bit. You don’t know what to say to your teammates other than just, you appreciate them. And you love them. You did some really good things together. You just gotta finish it.”

The emotional fallout from Sunday’s defeat will certainly emanate throughout Santa Clara and the rest of the Bay Area for at least another offseason. Once upon a time, it was Joe Montana and Steve Young who were snatching souls from the 49ers’ opponents on the game’s grandest stage. Now, Mahomes has become the franchise’s Grim Reaper.

With their previous Super Bowl loss, the 49ers could console themselves by doubling-down on a talented but inexperienced young core. Greenlaw, Samuel, Kittle, Fred Warner, Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead were just tasting playoff success for the first time. 

Now, those same players aren’t getting any younger. And that trophy case is still gathering dust. Thirty years’ worth, to be exact.

Dominic Faria is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on X at @chefD_7.