Are the 49ers Destined for the Dreaded Super Bowl Hangover?

History suggests it will be very tough for the 49ers to make it back to the big game, let alone win it

September 9, 2020 10:35 am
Jimmy Garoppolo
San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo passes the at training camp.
Hearst Newspapers via Getty Imag

Over the next six weeks, we’ll be preparing for the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season on September 10 by attempting to answer the most important question facing all 32 of the league’s franchises in order of their 2019 finish, from worst to first. Today’s team: the 49ers.

No. 2: San Francisco 49ers
2019 Record: 13-3

Points For: 479 – Points Against: 310
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 10.5

Holding a 20-10 lead entering the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, the 49ers had a chance to put the game out of reach after intercepting Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes with 11:57 remaining in the game.

But instead of taking San Francisco down the field for what could have been a game-clinching touchdown, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Fran offense were only able to pick up a single first down and punted the ball back to Kansas City.

It was all downhill for Garoppolo and the 49ers from there, as Mahomes and the explosive Chiefs offense finally started clicking and were able to outscore San Francisco 21-0 over the final 8:33 of the fourth quarter to earn a 31-20 victory and their first Super Bowl championship in 50 years.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan, who oversaw a similar late-game breakdown when he was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI (the 28-3 game) against the Patriots, said afterward that bouncing back from the loss would not be an issue for his team.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” Shanahan said after the game. “We’ll lick our wounds, we’ll get over this. We’ll be fired up for next year, we got a lot of people coming back. I think we surprised a lot of people this year. We knew we had a really good team. I’m very proud of the guys and how much better they got throughout this year, and I expect to get almost all of these guys back and plan on adding a few more. We’re going to rest a little bit, get over this, but we’ll be very fired up for next year.”

Fired up or not, recent history suggests that it will be very tough for Shanahan, Garoppolo and the rest of the 49ers to overcome losing on Super Sunday and make it back to the big game, let alone win it.

In NFL history, only eight teams — the 1971 Cowboys, ’72 Dolphins, ’73 Vikings, ’87 Broncos, 1991-93 Bills and 2018 Patriots — have returned to the Super Bowl the year after losing it. And of those eight, only the Cowboys, Dolphins and Patriots were able to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on their second attempt.

The last time the 49ers lost the Super Bowl was in a close game with the Ravens after the 2012 season. Led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco returned to the NFC Championship Game the next year, but then went five years without making the playoffs before making it back to the Super Bowl in February.

It will be a difficult task for the 49ers to duplicate what the team did last last year, but with the majority of the roster returning, San Francisco should be in good shape to at least give it a shot.

In addition to bringing back Garoppolo, who is now ever further removed from his ACL tear in 2018, San Francisco still has a really deep backfield with Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon and Jeff Wilson Jr., and also still has all-world tight end George Kittle on the roster.

Though the team traded defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Colts, they replaced him with first-round pick Javon Kinlaw, and the club still has a very good defensive line anchored by end Nick Bosa. Ageless shutdown corner Richard Sherman also remains, and will lead a secondary unit that surrendered an NFL-best 169.2 passing yards per game in 2019. Plus, thanks to an abbreviated offseason that featured zero preseason games, San Francisco’s continuity could be an even bigger asset than it would be in a normal year.

The favorites to win the NFC again in 2020, the 49ers are tied as the second-favorites to win it all with the Ravens (7-1 odds), trailing only the Chiefs (4-1). Coming off a 13-3 season and a deep playoff run, the 49ers are almost certain to experience a little regression, but the team’s foundation — defense, running the ball, a controlled passing game — remains strong.

As does the team’s belief that they can avoid a Super Bowl hangover.

“It all goes back to the mental side of it,” Garoppolo said in June. “If you have the mentality of not being satisfied — you got to the Super Bowl, didn’t win it, where do you go from here. It’s all a mentality.”

Peter King may disagree — he has the Seahawks winning the AFC West and Tom Brady and the Bucs knocking off the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl LV — but that mentality may be enough to prevent the 49ers from falling victim to the Super Bowl hangover that so many teams have experienced over the years. Then, this article has been written about every Super Bowl runner-up in recent memory, and it wasn’t enough to save them. Coming up short at the finish line is a funny, fickle beast.

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