For the first 48 minutes of Super Bowl LIV, the San Francisco 49ers looked like the best team on the field. Thanks to a speedy, aggressive defense, they’d kept the best player in football in check. And thanks to the NFL’s most varied run game, they’d kept the Kansas City Chiefs’ cocksure defense off-balance enough to build a 10-point lead.
It would not last, of course, because Patrick Mahomes was still Patrick Mahomes, and the Chiefs’ defense was as mentally tough as anyone in the game. This meant that Kansas City’s run was all but certain, and when it happened, the 49ers could not withstand it.
That’s life in the NFL, where one transcendent player can make the difference between a lifetime of fond memories and a lifetime of regret. It is a devastating reality that often plays out the following season for the Super Bowl loser.
Dating back to the start of the Super Bowl era, only three teams — the 1971 Dallas Cowboys, the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 2018 New England Patriots — have won a Super Bowl following a loss in the big game the previous season. Additionally, only eight of the first 53 Super Bowl losers — just 15 percent — have returned to the Super Bowl the following season.
So to a skeptic, the odds for a return trip would appear to be unlikely. Fortunately, the game isn’t played on paper, and with COVID-19 uncertainty affecting the season, there’s a general sense throughout the league that the teams with continuity will have a significant advantage.
While some, like the Chiefs, have navigated a difficult salary-cap situation, yet still brought back as many core pieces as possible, the 49ers have approached an impending cap crunch and a lack of draft picks with a different tact. They didn’t set the NFL world on fire and jettison quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for Tom Brady, as some speculated. However, their decision to trade defensive tackle DeForest Buckner raised eyebrows across the league. Buckner just turned 26 in March and was a team captain and a second-team All-Pro in 2019. It’s the reason the Colts gave up the 13th overall pick in a deep draft for him.
For as good as Buckner is, San Francisco’s decision to trade him after coming up 12 minutes short of a Super Bowl title also makes sense. The same things that make him a great player also make him a very expensive one, and the 49ers decided they could not afford to pay him and a similarly talented (and younger) defensive tackle in Arik Armstead, who will earn $4 million per year less than Buckner will make in Indianapolis.
Still, losing Buckner leaves a void, and 49ers general manager John Lynch went to work this week with the pick he received for him, trading down a spot, collecting another pick and using the 14th overall selection to take Buckner’s replacement, massive South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.
From there, the 49ers traded up from Nos. 31 to 25 in the first round to take Brandon Aiyuk of Arizona State. Aiyuk — a clone of Emmanuel Sanders, who also left for a bigger payday this offseason — can win short, deep and intermediate, and at a cheaper price tag to boot.
“Primarily, I think when you’re drafting a player, you are looking, and in certain instances, you’re saying, ‘Can this guy contribute Year 1?’” Lynch said before the draft. “Obviously with higher picks, you expect that.”
And on Saturday, the 49ers arguably took their biggest step toward making another Super Bowl run by trading for Washington Redskins tackle Trent Williams. The impending retirement of San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley, which wasn’t public knowledge until after the trade, made it necessary. And while Williams turns 32 in July, he’s exactly what the 49ers need — a veteran, plug-and-play option and a high-caliber left tackle.
In the end, the 49ers’ ability to return to the Super Bowl and finish the job will come down to many of the same things it always does: coaching, talent and a degree of injury luck.
If the coaching staff can get Aiyuk and Kinlaw up to speed quickly, there’s a reasonable chance they can defy the odds thanks to an offseason that went about as well as can be expected for San Francisco.
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