LAS VEGAS — Inside a white tent outside Allegiant Stadium, San Francisco 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan sat solemnly at a podium, his voice soft as he leaned into the microphone and recounted the previous four hours. On the other side of a curtain, a crowd gathered to hear from the MVP of Super Bowl LVIII, Patrick Mahomes, and some of his teammates, fresh off a locker room celebration
“I mean, we all hurt,” Shanahan began. “… I don’t have a lot of words for it.”
As he detailed his sideline decisions in San Francisco’s 25-22 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the play of his quarterback, the mistakes, the big plays and everything in between, a voice on the loudspeaker drowned him out to announce the arrival of Mecole Hardman, recipient of the Chiefs’ game-winning touchdown pass, into the press area.
As if Shanahan needed another reminder, another twist of the knife.
“I don’t care how you lose, when you lose Super Bowls, especially ones you think you can pull off, it hurts,” Shanahan said. “When you’re in the NFL, I think every team should hurt, except for one at the end. We’ve come pretty d— close, but we haven’t pulled it off.”
For much of the past week, Shanahan fielded questions about his team’s second Super Bowl appearance in four years — and about his own legacy as an offensive mastermind who had never closed out a championship. He was asked about degrees of pain — “Kyle, which one hurt more? And how much did it hurt?” — that forced him to think back to his first Super Bowl loss, as offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons after the 2016 season, and his second, as head coach of the 49ers in February 2020.
Each time, he chuckled at the question before answering and moving on, kindly reminding whoever was listening that he’d faced two of the best quarterbacks in history, Tom Brady and Mahomes, in those games. But on Sunday, he couldn’t just move on.
“Obviously, it sucks, man. You want to win it for that kind of guy,” quarterback Brock Purdy said of Shanahan. “He’s a great coach. Everybody wants to go to war with that guy, the way he handles himself, carries himself. We want to win for him. … It’s tough. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it.”
The 49ers jumped to a 10-3 lead at halftime, thanks largely to their defense, which held the Chiefs to only 16 net yards and one first down in the opening quarter. But by the second half, Mahomes and his team had adjusted and turned the game into an offensive back-and-forth, testing the mettle of both defenses. The teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter, sending the game into overtime. That left Shanahan to make a difficult decision.
The NFL modified its rules for overtime in the playoffs in 2022, allowing each team to get a possession, no matter if the team with the ball first scores. If the teams are tied after their first possessions, the next team to score wins.
On Sunday, the 49ers elected to receive, a choice Shanahan said was predetermined after reviewing the analytics. The thinking: If the Niners and the Chiefs both scored on their first possessions, San Francisco would have the third and a chance to win it.
The strategy seemed sound to Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton and safety Justin Reid, who both said they would’ve taken the same approach if they’d been in Shanahan’s position.
But not everyone was fully aware of the rules — or the strategy.
“I didn’t even realize the playoff rules were different in overtime,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “So I assumed we just wanted the ball to score a touchdown [for the win], but I guess that’s not the case. I don’t totally know the strategy. … We didn’t talk about it.”
The 49ers did score, but only a field goal after Purdy’s pass on a third down from the Chiefs’ 9-yard line fell incomplete. Shanahan said he did not consider going for it on fourth and four instead of kicking.
But with Mahomes pulling the strings on Kansas City’s offense, San Francisco never got the ball back. The two-time NFL MVP was well-versed in Super Bowl comebacks; against the 49ers in 2020, Kansas City trailed by 10 points at the end of the third quarter, and last year, the Philadelphia Eagles led, 24-14, at the half.
On the Chiefs’ final drive, Mahomes passed seven times and picked up two first downs on the ground — he ran for eight yards on fourth and one, then scrambled for 19 yards on third and one — to set up his game-winning touchdown pass to Hardman.
“It’s something we stressed all week, is that they can take it,” Juszczyk said of the Chiefs. “Super Bowls are won by taking it, and we’ve seen that team take it. And they did.”
Juszczyk arrived in San Francisco in 2017, Shanahan’s first season as head coach, and was a part of the team’s last Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs. He said the pain afterward was just as brutal as he remembered. And for Shanahan, feeling the hurt is part of the experience. A requisite, even. Only two Super Bowls in NFL history have gone to overtime, and he has now been on the losing side of both.
“You got to feel this,” he said. “It’s not something that just words or anything makes it feel better. You sit there, and you deal with it, and you got to do that for a while. … I’ll deal with it the next couple of days, next couple of weeks and when it’s time to work … we’ll be ready.”