Kyle Shanahan is entering his seventh season as the 49ers coach, making him their longest-tenured man in charge since the Super Bowl-winning days under Bill Walsh (1979-88) and George Seifert (1989-96).
Is Shanahan snakebit, however, from following in those coaches’ footsteps and adding a sixth Lombardi Trophy to the 49ers’ cache?
Each of the past two seasons has ended with frustrating NFC Championship Game defeats for the 49ers. Two seasons ago, they saw a 10-point fourth-quarter lead slip away to the Los Angeles Rams, who went on to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI. Last season, they saw quarterback Brock Purdy tear the UCL in the elbow of his throwing arm early in a 31-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, who were edged 38-35 in the Super Bowl by Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan gestures from the sideline against the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter of a NFL preseason game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group
“Almost every guy on our team has felt that passion getting that close (to a Super Bowl win), and that’s to me what makes the offseason so much better,” Shanahan said as the 49ers opened training camp for what they hope will lead to a third straight trip to the NFC title game and, finally, a return to the Super Bowl. “That’s why guys work differently, because when you get close, that usually makes you stronger, if you’re willing to go through it again.
“It’s a long road to get there and that’s why you have to do stuff right in the season, but when you get close, you usually get stronger if you can handle it the right way. … To sit there and make some mental thing out of stuff, I don’t think it has been a mental thing. We’ve had our opportunities.”
How does Shanahan cope with those close-but-no-cigar finishes, to say nothing of the greater disappointments that came via a pair of Super Bowl collapses (in 2016 as the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator, in 2019 as the 49ers’ third-year coach)?
“We don’t make too much of a deal about that stuff,” Shanahan said. “I like it because our players have experience doing that stuff.
“There’s not many guys here from 2019. We lost a lot of guys who were here last year. There are so many people in our building that have been in an NFC Championship Game or a Super Bowl, and once you do do that, you know how different the NFL is.”
Shanahan, 43, is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the NFL. Only Bill Belichick (with the Patriots since 2000), the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin (since 2007), the Ravens’ John Harbaugh (since 2008), the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll (since 2010) and the Chiefs’ Andy Reid (since 2013) have been with their teams longer. The Bills’ Sean McDermott and the Rams’ Sean McVay are also starting their seventh seasons.
SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 18: San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan shakes hands with Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll after the 49ers 27-7 win at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
But everyone in that group has won a Super Bowl except for Shanahan and McDermott.
And the 49ers are no ordinary franchise. Only the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers, with six each, have won more Super Bowls than San Francisco. The 49ers’ seven appearances in the Big Game are fifth-most in NFL history, behind only the Patriots (11) and the Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos, who all have appeared in the Super Bowl eight times.
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The 49ers’ first Super Bowl appearance — and win — came in 1981, the first of the franchise’s four titles in the 1980s, including back-to-back championships in 1988 and ’89. The 49ers’ most recent Super Bowl appearance was four seasons ago, and they haven’t hoisted the Lombardi Trophy since 1994.
Returning the franchise to its Super Bowl glory is always the ultimate goal.
“That’s one of the reasons we came here,” said Shanahan, who was hired before the start of the 2017 season. “When we talked to [49ers owner and CEO] Jed [York] and everything (during the interview process), just the commitment he wanted to have and what we view as a first-class organization, which is just to do everything the right way and every year to try to give yourself a chance. And it’s hard to do that in this league.
“We felt the first two years we were here we worked really hard to get there and I thought we did. And really since Year 3, I felt we’ve been in that position every year and we feel no different this year.”