49ers figuring out how to take next step in Super Bowl quest

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In his six-season tenure as the San Francisco 49ers' coach, Kyle Shanahan has endured his share of devastating defeats. After the Niners lost two quarterbacks and, consequently, the NFC Championship Game to the Philadelphia Eagles, it was clear that this one hit harder.

A somber Shanahan dutifully answered questions that day, but he and the Niners thought they didn't have a real opportunity to advance because they'd played nearly half the game without a quarterback capable of throwing the ball beyond a few yards.

That anguish was the product of a second consecutive loss in the NFC title game and made only more disappointing by the fact that the Niners also blew a fourth-quarter lead in Super Bowl LIV only three years earlier. Of course, such sorrow isn't possible if it's not preceded by dizzying highs.

The 2022 49ers finished the regular season 13-4, won a pair of home playoff games and rattled off 12 consecutive wins, the franchise's longest streak since 1984. By the time the Niners played the Eagles, they hadn't lost in 98 days. They cycled through three starting quarterbacks and various other significant injuries and challenges, and were unfazed by all of it.

"I think that was the hardest part about the game because we've lost before and all of those are bad," Shanahan said. "There's not one where I'm like, that's not the worst thing. They all take time, but it was just a little bit of a different feeling. ... Again, not to take anything away from Philly, I just didn't feel like they got the chance to totally compete, and that was kind of just hard to stomach."

Getting over the loss to the Eagles was made more difficult by what took place in the two weeks before Super Bowl LVII. Because the Niners had so many players up for awards, they had a strong presence in Arizona, which meant answering endless questions on radio row about how their season ended.

But there's only one question about those past defeats that matters now for the Niners: How do they turn the agony of playoff lessons learned into the elation of championships earned?

"So much pain," linebacker Fred Warner said. "I'd much rather go through the pain of losing in big-time games rather than the pain of like going through rebuilds and seasons where you can't even win a game. That's never been our issue. It's always been just trying to find that last little bit to take us to the top."

NFL history doesn't offer many examples of teams that have done what the Niners have in the past four years. In the Super Bowl era, only the Eagles circa 2001 to 2004 and the Dallas Cowboys from 1972 to 1975 have lost at least two consecutive conference title games and a Super Bowl in a four-season span. Others, such as the early '90s Buffalo Bills, have gone through even more distress, losing four Super Bowls in a row.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, 17 teams have lost any combination of three conference title games or Super Bowls in the span of four seasons. Of those, five won a Super Bowl either during that stretch or within three years of the final loss in that span.

Hitting closer to home, the 49ers of years past also know a few things about coming up short. The 2011-2013 Niners lost the NFC Championship Game after the 2011 and 2013 seasons and Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 season.

If the Niners need to tap into their history for inspiration, though, there's franchise precedent for coming up short and then breaking through. San Francisco lost in the NFC title game after the 1990, 1992 and 1993 seasons. The 49ers shattered the glass ceiling after the 1994 season, winning Super Bowl XXIX.

Those Niners got over the top by making splashy free agent additions, such as cornerback Deion Sanders and linebacker Ken Norton Jr., and a home run draft pick in first-round defensive tackle Bryant Young. These Niners are unlikely to follow that blueprint. San Francisco has no shortage of star power but doesn't boast much in the way of cap space or premium draft picks.

"I don't think it really takes much more than what we had this year," defensive end Nick Bosa said. "I think we were on the right track, [it's] just putting together a couple more games of the standard that we have here. I think we have the pieces. We have the template."

Which means getting over the hump will have to come mostly from a combination of internal improvement, better health, finding value on the market and later in the draft, and good old-fashioned luck. The health factor remains a sticking point for the Niners, who were again one of the most injured teams in the league. While San Francisco managed to avoid a bunch of season-ending injuries, it had plenty of short-term issues for multiple starters and was hit hardest at the most important positions.

That, of course, starts at quarterback, where the Niners are waiting for Brock Purdy and Trey Lance to get healthy and take steps forward in their development. The hope is that Purdy will be ready some time in training camp and reclaim the starting job he earned over the home stretch of the season while Lance can take enough steps to turn it into real competition.

For context, the Eagles had all 22 of their projected starters at the beginning of the season available for the Super Bowl. The Chiefs were missing only two of their opening day starters, one of whom -- nickel cornerback Rashad Fenton -- was traded to the Atlanta Falcons at the deadline.

If the Niners can find something similar, they believe they have the pieces in place to make another run, even if they lose some key starters, such as right tackle Mike McGlinchey, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair and defensive back Jimmie Ward, to free agency.

Help on the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary will again be priorities this offseason. Whomever they add will join Pro Bowl talent that includes running back Christian McCaffrey, receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, left tackle Trent Williams, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, Bosa, Warner and safety Talanoa Hufanga, among others.

"The thing that helps me the most is I know how we're going to be next year," Shanahan said. "Not at this moment, but when it comes, you're fired up and confident and ready to go. ... I know what we're going to have coming back, so we have to take our time a little, grieve this a little bit. But I'm pumped for next year.”