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Barber: No guarantee 49ers will get back to Super Bowl

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Inside a big tent detached from Hard Rock Stadium, as 49ers players took turns at eight podiums arranged in a circle for press conferences following their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, a few consistent themes emerged.

One, as you might imagine, was grief. The Super Bowl loss was a sudden, unsatisfying end to what had felt like a season of destiny for the Niners. Another common subject was respect for the Chiefs, a very good team that had made the bigger plays at the bigger moments.

There was another theme permeating the 49ers’ interviews Sunday night. You heard it again and again: The 49ers will be back — back to fight for the NFL championship again in another Super Bowl.

“We’ll lick our wounds, and we’ll get over this,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We’ll be fired up for next year. We have a lot of people coming back. … We get almost all of these guys back and plan on adding a few more. We’re going to rest a little bit and get over this some, but we will be very fired up for next year.”

“We’re a young team and we’ve got a very bright future,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said.

“This football team is built for the long haul, and I could not be more proud of the guys that we have in our locker room,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “I think we have a ton of talent, and we will be back.”

These were not empty vows. The 49ers have every reason to be bullish on their future.

Shanahan and general manager John Lynch both have three years remaining on their contracts. After a bumpy start to their personnel acquisition in 2017, they have proved to be adept at identifying the best players for the systems of Shanahan (the offensive play caller) and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

As Shanahan alluded, most of the 49ers’ important players are under contract for 2020. The exceptions (Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward, Emmanuel Sanders) are few.

And as Garoppolo noted, it’s a pretty young roster. The quarterback is 28. George Kittle, the star tight end, is 26. The top running back, Raheem Mostert, is 27. On defense, steady defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is 25, middle linebacker Fred Warner just 23. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel and edge rusher Nick Bosa, probably the 49ers’ two best players in Super Bowl LIV, were rookies.

Reflect on the Niners’ rags-to-riches season, on the balanced attack they have created on both sides of the ball, on the fact that the 49ers outplayed the talented Chiefs for three-quarters of Sunday’s game and, yeah, it’s pretty obvious. This was just the start of something huge.

The NFL has a way of destroying logic, though. This sport has too many variables, too many puzzle pieces and too many layers of interaction to believe in a predictable path.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Look at the previous five Super Bowls.

Look at the Rams, who lost Super Bowl LIII a year ago. Recall their offense, which scored 527 points in 16 regular season games. That offense was so electrifying that their coach, Sean McVay, was fast-tracked to the top of his profession. Just having spent a year or two working with McVay was enough to get guys hired to head coaching positions last offseason.

The encore didn’t go well. Running back Todd Gurley and quarterback Jared Goff weren’t the same players in 2019. The Rams finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

Look at the 2017 Eagles, who shocked the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. They finished 13-3 that season and beat Bill Belichick with a backup quarterback. Coach Doug Pederson basked in praise. Philadelphia has turned in consecutive 9-7 campaigns since, making the playoffs this year only because the NFC East is trash.

Look at the 2016 Falcons. That team got Shanahan a head coaching job, and with good reason. Atlanta scored 540 points that year. After losing to New England in an epic collapse in Super Bowl LI (and losing their offensive coordinator), the Falcons slipped a little to 10-6 the next season, and have failed to post a winning record since then.

The previous Super Bowl had a different formula. Because after that year, both participants crashed and burned. The Broncos, who went 12-4 behind the NFL’s No. 1 defense and won Super Bowl L at Levi’s Stadium, have gone 27-37 over four subsequent seasons, without making the playoffs. The Panthers, who went 15-1 behind league MVP Cam Newton in 2015, have gone 29-35; they haven’t made it past the wild-card round.

If you’re a 49ers fan, you’re probably saying, “That was a bunch of other teams, not ours.” And you’re right. But every one of those Super Bowl contenders was equally convinced it was built to last.

They weren’t, because there really is no such thing as “built to last” in the NFL. Injuries are too common, and if they happen to key players — heaven forbid your quarterback goes down — it changes everything. Free agents and assistant coaches leave, and their replacements don’t always fit as well.

Most important, this league solves people. It solved Colin Kaepernick a couple years after the 49ers’ previous Super Bowl appearance. It has solved Sean McVay to some extent, and it solved Cam Newton. Shanahan and Saleh are big football brains, but they won’t be able to rest on what they have installed up to now. They must constantly evolve.

This cold reality throws a couple of things into stark relief. The first is how special this season was for the 49ers. Reaching a Super Bowl is hard. Loaded teams fall short every season. Give the Niners credit for reaching the final game, and savor every memory of what got them there.

The second indelible point is the magnitude of the loss, San Francisco blowing a 10-point lead against Kansas City in the final 7 minutes. If the 49ers were somehow guaranteed of getting another crack or two at the Super Bowl, you could view Sunday as a temporary setback. But there is no such guarantee. Shanahan and his players know that, which is why they were so glassy-eyed after the game.

“The emotions are all still raw and real for me right now,” Staley said, his voice not much above a croak. “I’m trying to answer questions, and I’m sorry that I’m not. Put yourself in my shoes for a second. It’s tough.”

It is, and even an optimist like Staley knows he may never get back to another Super Bowl.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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