MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Kyle Shanahan was almost there, so close to completing a journey he’d never envisioned for himself, with only one remaining obstacle in his path. His face was flushed. His pace was purposeful. And, as it turned out, the resistance in his path was futile.
Shanahan was heading to an interview podium in a tented area outside Hard Rock Stadium, where the team he coaches, the San Francisco 49ers, had just suffered a heartbreaking Super Bowl LIV defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night. For the second time in four seasons, Shanahan had been on the unenviable end of a fourth-quarter collapse in the Ultimate Game; this time, the Chiefs outscored the Niners 21-0 in the final 6:13.
So yeah — with an entire offseason to dissect what went wrong and ponder what might have been, Shanahan was eager to get his last interview over with and get on with the bloodletting. As he strode briskly toward the closest entrance to the tent, a stadium security guard tried to stop Shanahan and redirect the coach to another entrance to his left.
“Can’t go that way!” the security guard commanded.
Bob Lange, the 49ers‘ vice president of communications who was walking just behind Shanahan, resoundingly rejected the request. “No,” Lange said. “Head coach — we’re going this way.”
As Shanahan, wearing a white, nylon pullover, grey Lululemon pants and white Nikes with no-show socks (but missing his trademark flat-brimmed red truckers’ hat), blew past him, the security guard yelled ahead to Lange: “Sorry — I didn’t realize that’s the coach.”
At that charged moment, the security guard was a distinct minority. While Andy Reid was celebrating the first career championship of his decorated head-coaching career and third-year sensation Patrick Mahomes was being coronated with a Super Bowl MVP award that likely won’t be his last, Shanahan had just relived a nightmare in front of 62,417 fans and hundreds of millions of television viewers worldwide.
Three years ago, as the outgoing offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons, Shanahan was the play-caller in a Super Bowl LI meltdown that saw his team blow a 28-3 lead to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots before losing in overtime. Now, after guiding the 49ers on an incredible ride that brought them to the precipice of their first championship in a quarter-century, the 40-year-old architect of one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in NFL history was being asked to explain another disastrous finish.
He did his best at the podium to downplay his personal anguish, crediting the Chiefs for their effort, expressing pride in his players and trying to detail the frustrating breakdowns that doomed them to defeat in the final minutes. Then Shanahan, a guy I’ve known since he was 15 — when his father, Mike, was the brilliant offensive coordinator of the Niners’ fifth and most recent championship team — emerged from the tent looking as devastated and drained as I’d ever seen him.
“I’m so mad,” he said, likely throwing in a swear word or two that didn’t make it into my notebook. Then, just before boarding a golf cart, Shanahan did his best to move forward. “I’m OK,” he insisted. “We’ll bounce back. We’ll get it done.”
For all his next-level strategic excellence and shrewd grasp of personnel, it was time for Shanahan to be a leader, and he knew it. From the second he’d entered the languid locker room to give a short, heartfelt pep talk to his shellshocked players, to more than an hour later, when he was the last to board a slew of buses outside the stadium, his instinct was to nurture and reassure everyone around him.
In the late-night assessment of 49ers run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel, who has been with Shanahan at each of his past five NFL stops, “he is being an incredible leader right now, supporting all the broken hearts.”
Certainly, Shanahan’s blood was boiling inside about some of the mistakes that cost his team a title. A coverage breakdown on a third-and-15 play with 7:13 remaining — cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, stationed on the outside of a three-deep zone, inexplicably ran with wideout Sammy Watkins on a crossing route underneath, allowing speedy receiver Tyreek Hill to get free on a post-corner route for a 44-yard completion from Mahomes that sparked the comeback — was particularly galling.
Two quick Kansas City touchdowns later, with the 49ers now trailing 24-20 and 1:40 remaining, San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (20 for 31, 219 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) overthrew wide-open receiver Emmanuel Sanders on a third-and-10 go route that could have been a dramatic go-ahead touchdown.
Throw in some tough officiating breaks, including a questionable offensive pass interference call on star tight end George Kittle shortly before halftime that cost the Niners a chance to break a 10-10 tie, and there will be plenty of torment ahead for a head coach hell-bent on perfectionism.
Partly because they know what kind of burden Shanahan has carried in those three years since the Falcons‘ infamous Super Bowl defeat, and partly because he was as gutted as they were, the Niners’ players got particularly emotional when he gave his final postgame speech of a largely uplifting season.
“Kyle held his head high,” said Niners defensive end Dee Ford, who was acquired last March in a trade with the Chiefs. He told us, ‘Of course it’s not the result we wanted, but I’ll line up with any player in here, anytime.’ He told us, ‘This team is special.’ And it is.”
Said Kittle of watching the emotion pour out of his coach: “S—, it was brutal. I don’t know how to describe it. It just sucked. Kyle was great, though. That’s one thing I do like about Kyle is, he keeps it real, all the time. I love playing for him.”
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who caught a 15-yard pass from Garoppolo with 5:05 left in the first half for the Niners’ first touchdown and set up their second and final TD (a one-yard run by Raheem Mostert that made it 20-10 with 2:35 left in the third quarter) with a 10-yard reception, described the moment this way: “It was tough for everybody, obviously. You don’t picture it ending this way. The good thing is, I know Kyle does such a good job of blocking out the noise. He understands it’s a process, that things don’t always go your way no matter how hard you do work.
“I have so much love and respect for Kyle. He’s the best coach that I’ve ever played for. He’s the same guy every single day, no matter what happens. He always looks to himself first when it comes to blame. And he takes our ideas and suggestions and will really listen, and think about implementing things after the fact. It sucks just because of how much everybody respects and loves him, and because we hate to hear any negativity about him, and we know it’s coming.”
As Shanahan was speaking from his heart in the locker room, confetti was falling on the field the Niners had abandoned, with Chiefs players and coaches and their families joyously celebrating the team’s first championship in 50 years. And even amid the madness, there was an expression of sympathy for the losing coach — from Kansas City’s All-Pro right tackle, Mitchell Schwartz, who spent the 2014 season as a member of the Cleveland Browns, with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator.
“Do I feel for him?” Schwartz repeated. “Oh, yeah. Until I got here (in 2016), that was the most fun I had playing football, with him as my coordinator. I feel awful for him. I mean, he’s gonna get back. You see what he can do, what kind of season they had. But I can only feel so bad, because right now, I feel so good.”
It’s never as easy as it sounds, of course, but the 49ers have plenty of reason for optimism heading into 2020 and beyond. Before Super Sunday, the only three defeats they suffered this season had come on the final play of the game. The cutting-edge rushing attack which carried them to a pair of postseason victories, including a 37-20 thrashing of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, remains under the intellectually elite tutelage of Shanahan and McDaniel, and highly regarded defensive coordinator Robert Saleh returns to lead a consistently potent unit (Sunday’s late breakdowns notwithstanding).
Asked on the podium if he was concerned the 49ers will struggle to respond to the dispiriting defeat, Shanahan replied, “It shouldn’t be a problem. We’ll lick our wounds, and we’ll get over this. We’ll be fired up for next year. We have a lot of people coming back. We surprised a lot of people this year. We knew we had a good team. I’m very proud of the guys and how much better they got throughout this year. We get almost all of these guys back and plan on adding a few more. We’re going to rest a little bit and get over this some, but we will be very fired up for next year.”
Back in the locker room, some of his players already sounded primed for another climb up the mountain.
“We’re gonna make another run,” insisted star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, whose excellent effort Sunday included 1.5 sacks and a hard hit on Mahomes as the quarterback was somehow delivering the 44-yard throw to Hill. “We’ve got to go back to the drawing board, have a strong offseason and put in a lot of work, but we’ve got it in us.”
Said Kittle: “Revenge tour, baby. I was just sitting with Kwon (Alexander, the 49ers‘ strongside linebacker) and we were saying: ‘The Legendary Revenge Tour of 2020.’ It’s coming. And I can’t f—— wait.”
Other Niners players were more dejected than defiant. Second-year middle linebacker Fred Warner, who had seven tackles and one of the team’s two interceptions of Mahomes, stood at his locker in full uniform, crying into a green towel and at one point moaning to himself, “We should have won the Super Bowl.”
Later, Warner composed himself and told me, “I mean, of course it sucks. We’ll try and get back next year. It still doesn’t feel real, honestly. It is what it is, though. We have to get over it and get back to work. But right now, it’s just somber … I’m at a loss for words.”
Thirteenth-year left tackle Joe Staley, who’d come so close to winning a Super Bowl with the Jim Harbaugh-coached Niners seven years earlier and whose immediate future is uncertain, was crestfallen as he stood at his locker Sunday night.
“Yeah, I was balling my eyes out when I got in here,” Staley said.
Asked about Shanahan’s postgame speech, Staley just shook his head. “I don’t even know what he said, to be honest. I wasn’t paying attention.”
Ultimately, Shanahan’s players — and Shanahan himself — will try to find the strength to move forward and channel their disappointment into something productive. As they quietly filed out of the stadium and onto the team buses Sunday night, they were already coping with the aftermath of a startling collapse while doing their best to stay bonded and resilient and committed to their common cause.
As Shanahan had said at the podium, “They’re just hurting. Guys put it all out there. They’ve done it all year from the first game to the last game. It’s a real close team. Everyone is disappointed, and they should be. I wouldn’t expect anything different. Guys put their heart into the season and came up one game short. Extremely proud of us and everything, but this is going to take a little time to get over — but we’ll be alright.”
Late Sunday night, Mike Shanahan emerged from the locker-room area and stopped next to the parked team buses to share his thoughts. “It’s tough,” said Shanahan, who rebounded from a painful playoff defeat in his second year as the Denver Broncos‘ coach by leading the franchise to consecutive Super Bowl triumphs. “That third-and-15 play … It just changed the whole game.”
As for the son whose coaching efforts have made him so proud? “He’ll hang in there,” the elder Shanahan said. “He will.”
A few minutes later, Kyle finally made the long, slow walk to Bus 7. This time, he moved slowly, and no one questioned his path of choice. He wore a light, grey suit and carried a camouflage backpack on one shoulder. His wife and fiercest advocate, Mandy, was by his side, and she held her head high as they strode across the asphalt.
Finally, the Shanahans boarded Bus 7 — Kyle taking the window seat on the right side of the first row, Mandy beside him in the aisle. The other six buses departed, one by one, behind a motorcycle cop flashing his lights. A pair of black Chevy Tahoes followed and then, bringing up the rear, Bus 7 pulled out into the clear South Florida night.
Shanahan kept his eyes focused on the caravan in front of him, but we can surmise that at that moment, his thoughts were all over the place.
And for the next several months, and perhaps longer, try as he might, Shanahan will also be looking back at a golden opportunity that stunningly slipped away.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.