Kyle Shanahan is ready to meet the moment

Stymied in his past Super Bowl pursuits by shaky quarterback play and last-minute letdowns, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is leaving nothing to chance this time. Loren Elliott/Getty Images

DURING THE ANNUAL NFL league meetings in the spring of 2022, Kyle Shanahan ran into Sean McVay. It was the first time the two men -- buddies, competitors, and former co-workers, two people who have set out on a journey to master their craft -- had talked since McVay won Super Bowl LVI. McVay, of course, didn't just win a championship. He won it partly at Shanahan's expense, by undoing a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.

There was a little bit of casual awkwardness, not only because McVay had accomplished what has eluded Shanahan, not only because the 49ers had dropped what could have been a potential game-ending interception against the Los Angeles Rams, but because, well, it was Kyle.

He has no poker face. He sometimes tries to hide feelings -- rage, pain, disdain, contempt -- but he can't fake it for long.

Which version of Shanahan would McVay get? Petulant? Gracious? Edgy? Endearing?

Sure enough, Shanahan was still raw. At first, he said he didn't watch the Super Bowl. That he couldn't watch it. Then he fessed up that he watched a half. "That was f---ing hard to watch you guys win."

The two chatted for a bit, a rare moment when they don't want to slay each other. "He is a special coach," McVay says. "And he knows how much I respect the way he does it."

It was another reminder not only of what Shanahan hasn't accomplished, but that time is passing. He and his peers from last decade's Washington teams are no longer precocious, no longer dealing with a blank canvas, no longer just getting started. Legacies are beginning to harden. Another year had passed with Kyle Shanahan -- the alpha of his dad's tree, one of the NFL's premier artists, the one with the football upbringing that left no options except great -- alone with all the dark places he would go, searching for answers.

FOR A MOMENT, let's assume that Super Bowl LVIII won't be a blowout. Assume that it's close. The entire game for Kyle Shanahan, the entire season -- maybe his adult life -- is a prelude to the final moments. Late in the fourth quarter, the camera will pan to Shanahan, calling plays under a flat brim pulled low, in a situation he's been in before and has famously failed to close, and all of us will wonder: What will be different this time?

Shanahan is 44 years old now, with salt in his beard. By now, he's a fixed asset. We know that he can draw up a jazzy offense, regardless of personnel. We know he can hire well and diverse; in fact, owners have complained to the league office about the sheer number of compensatory picks the 49ers have received for serving as a pipeline for coaches and executives of color. But there's always been something missing from his teams. A kind of toughness. Not the move-the-pile-forward kind. The kind that comes from having been broken. From the fear of unreached potential. For all his acumen and confidence and expertise, Shanahan has been gashed and has bled on the biggest stages: 28-3; blown 10-point fourth-quarter leads against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV and the Rams in the 2021 NFC Championship Game; losing Brock Purdy with 53 minutes left in last season's conference title game.

And yet, he's found a way back.

When the camera closes on him with a championship on the line, that in itself might matter as much as anything.