Kurtenbach: Shanahan, Garoppolo’s 49ers will be defined by their Super Bowl LIV loss

Photo of Kurtenbach: Shanahan, Garoppolo’s 49ers will be defined by their Super Bowl LIV loss

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — I’d be more shocked, more awed, more confused as to what just happened, had I had not covered the Warriors during their five-year dynastic run.

Because what went down in the final seven-plus minutes of Super Bowl LIV was beyond comprehension in football, but was commonplace — at least for the Dubs — in basketball.

Steph Curry and the Warriors were the masters of “flipping the switch”. You could also call it prolific procrastination — taking an entire game’s worth of success and condensing it into a short run, dazing the other team in the process. I’ve seen it too many times to count.

That’s what Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs did to the 49ers on Sunday.

Mahomes faced a third-and-15 in his own territory with 7:13 remaining in the game. Kansas City was down 20-10.

Less than six minutes later, the Chiefs had won the Super Bowl, leading 31-20 with 1:20 to play. The 49ers had not thrown an interception or lost a fumble deep in Kansas City territory, either. Mahomes — who had a negative Expected Points Added before his majestic third-and-long pass to Tyreek Hill — had merely compressed an entire game’s worth of positive play into three critical drives. A Curry-esque flurry.

Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers will be defined by what happened by those critical moments in the Super Bowl, for better or for worse.

After a week in Miami, I found it incredibly difficult to make a prediction on the game, but I went into Sunday’s game convinced that — no matter the outcome — this would not be the 49ers’ last time in the Super Bowl.

Shanahan is an elite coach. Don’t let one bad quarter and some questionable game management at the end of the first half distract you from the fact that he took the NFL’s laughingstock franchise (non-Browns edition) to the Super Bowl within three years of taking over.

Last year, the 49ers drafted second. This year, they finished second. That’s an incredible turnaround, soured by the incredible turnaround to Sunday’s game.

The 49ers were able to be so close to winning the Lombardi Trophy because the infrastructure of this team is so strong. Shanahan’s staff is second-to-none in the NFL and it seemed as if no one in his employ was merely using the 49ers as a means to a different end with a new team. The Niners will unquestionably lose coaches in the years to come, as bigger and better opportunities come their way, but the brainpower behind the scenes is jaw-dropping.

And yes, there will be tough decisions to make on the roster heading into next season, but Shanahan and his hand-picked GM John Lynch have shown an almost preternatural ability to find top — even elite — talent in unlikely places, and Shanahan remains the best offensive mind in the NFL.

What’s being built in Santa Clara is sustainable for the long haul. And while the competitiveness of the NFC tampers my thoughts that there are some serious Patriots vibes with the Niners, again, I did go into the game thinking San Francisco would be back at the Super Bowl in the years to come.

But it’s harder to predict that after what went down on Sunday.

What Mahomes did was special — transcendent — but the 49ers also imploded in Super Bowl LIV.

Niners players were emotional after the game, as you’d expect, but on a long flight back to the Bay, the gravity of the situation will crash over them. The darkest days are likely yet to come.

Next year will tell us so much about these 49ers and their character. Even if they had so much to celebrate this season, man, will 2020 be tough for them. This was a team with so much momentum behind it. That momentum seemed to come to a halt on Sunday. Championship games carry outsized importance, and Sunday’s was the kind of loss from which teams rarely recover.

The Seahawks never returned to the Super Bowl after blowing a 10-point lead and a goal-line opportunity to beat the Patriots in 2015. That loss tore a truly great team apart.

The Colts blew a 10-point Super Bowl lead in Super Bowl XLIV — they never returned to the big game.

The Denver Broncos blew a 10-point lead in the Super Bowl in 1988 and went 8-8 the next year, they did return to super Sunday in 1990. You know that they lost again.

And yet the 49ers’ 10-point collapse felt stronger than all of those — even Seattle’s. I don’t think that’s recency bias, either.

The only comparable is — you guessed it — the Atlanta Falcons. The authors of the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history, 25 points, have not recovered and it seems highly doubtful they ever will under their current coach and quarterback.

The NFL is a league that defines success through a team’s head coach and quarterback, after all. Especially quarterback. The 49ers’ defense might have been incredible this season, but when the going got tough Sunday, it was the better quarterback who took control of the game and won it. The NFL has changed the rules so that quarterbacks define the game — like in the NBA, they want their biggest stars to shine brightest.

And that should give 49ers fans pause.

Do the 49ers have a good enough quarterback to win the Super Bowl?

Sunday, the answer was clear: No.

Jimmy Garoppolo had won a handful of games for the 49ers this year — in big moments, he shined. That was not the case in Miami. In the final 10 minutes of Super Bowl LIV, he went 2-of-10 for 24 yards and an interception. His fourth-quarter quarterback rating of 2.8 is the lowest in Super Bowl history.

Give credit to the Chiefs defense, and feel free to note that Garoppolo started the second half 9-of-10 for 106 yards — the truth is that the 49ers’ quarterback could not return serve with the NFL’s best, even once, down the stretch.

He was a one-read quarterback who thrived when those reads were clear but showed every bit of his struggle when the water became cloudy, missing wide-open receivers on critical plays with his eyes and, critically, with his throws.

As the offensive play-caller of arguably the two worst Super Bowl collapses of all time, Shanahan will be divvied the vast majority of the blame for Sunday’s loss, but upon further review, it’s difficult to say what play he called incorrectly down the stretch. No, the Niners were done in by Shanahan’s overall conservatism and fear of Mahomes in conjunction with a defense that fell apart at the exact wrong moments, a team that lost its focus, and a quarterback who proved lesser-than when so much more was required.

This was Garoppolo’s first full season as a starter and with steady, regular-season-long improvement, he showed he was a viable proxy for Shanahan on the field. But his playoffs were pedestrian — at best — in a league where, again, quarterbacks must be the team’s best player. The latter is a trend that isn’t going away anytime soon.

The 49ers have Garoppolo under contract through 2022 — a positive for San Francisco’s future, it seemed, until Sunday, when his play made him more of a liability than an asset. Still, he’s not going anywhere — to suggest the Niners move off him this offseason is preposterous — but as he garners more experience in the years to come, can he improve to reach a level to where he is a viable MVP candidate? That’s what will be required going forward in this league.

Garoppolo certainly has the right man calling the plays to make that happen. The talent around him should be more than adequate too. Going into the postseason, Garoppolo’s trajectory was clear-cut — the read was easy to make: the more he played, the better he became. Now, those waters are a bit cloudy.

Still, the 49ers’ championship window remains wide open.

Sunday’s loss might be the impetus for a dynastic run — the fuel to a fire that stays lit for a decade. That was certainly the positive spin after the game.

But it could also be the kind of collapse from which no one ever emotionally recovers.

Because the new reality for the 49ers is that there cannot be reconciliation unless there is ultimate victory. The bar has been reset, and it is as high as it can go. Another division title, another trip to the Super Bowl — they mean nothing now. This 49ers season was a wild success by any measure except the last. And because of that, until that final step is taken — until Shanahan lifts the Lombardi Trophy — everything else will be considered a failure.

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