SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For the San Francisco 49ers, the grief that comes with arriving at the doorstep of football immortality only to be turned away empty-handed has become all too familiar.
The Niners have advanced to a Super Bowl and two other NFC Championship Games in the past four seasons without taking home that elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Defensive tackle Arik Armstead estimated it takes him roughly three weeks to put the pain behind him and move on. Defensive end Nick Bosa said he needs a week on his boat back in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and refuses to watch Super Bowls that he’s not playing in.
Days after the latest postseason loss, 31-7 to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game, 35-year-old offensive tackle Trent Williams, who has been named a first-team All-Pro in back-to-back seasons, spoke for the first time like retirement might be on the table, noting how daunting the climb is to even get close to championship.
Whether it’s at the dinner table, via texts and calls from friends and family or inside the walls of their locker room, one topic dominates the 49ers’ universe.
“Every year I always talk about goals with my wife and I have individual goals and I have team goals,” said fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has been to seven straight Pro Bowls. “And those individual goals definitely used to have a bigger weight than they do now.
“Now, it’s like, I really don’t give a s—. I just want to win the Super Bowl.”
That’s not a unique thought in the NFL, but in the 49ers locker room it’s a notion that comes with additional urgency. In the past four seasons, the Niners have had a 42-24 regular-season record, six postseason victories, two NFC West division titles, three NFC Championship Game trips and a Super Bowl appearance. There have been plenty of All-Pro nods, Pro Bowl berths, statistical milestones and awards.
The one thing the 49ers haven’t done in this current run is win it all, with their last championship coming after the 1994 season. The Niners have a loaded roster rapidly approaching its expiration date but remain a favorite, with Caesars Sportsbook giving them the second-best odds in the NFC to win Super Bowl LVIII. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them a 22% chance to make it there, which is second highest in the league behind the Eagles (23%).
While the 49ers have the most players (eight) in the top 100 of ESPN’s NFLRank project, they no longer have youth on their side. Foundational players such as Armstead, Williams, Juszczyk, tight end George Kittle and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave will all be 30 or older by season’s end. And while the Niners have made a habit of paying big money to their stars, they’re starting to feel the squeeze of the salary cap.
That cap crunch includes Bosa’s lengthy holdout, which qualifies as a surprise given San Francisco’s track record of re-signing star players before or early in training camp. Of course, if the Niners’ big bet on second-year quarterback Brock Purdy pays off while he’s still on a rookie contract that pays him less than $1 million this season, they’ll have one of the league’s biggest roster bargains.
All of which begs the most important question these Niners face as they open the 2023 season Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers (1 p.m. ET, Acrisure Stadium, Fox): How much longer will that championship window be open?
“We understand that we have a fantastic football team,” Kittle said. “We have great core guys at really important positions. We understand that the window or whatever that is could be closing. We’re going to try our best to keep that window open as long as we possibly can, but we’re going to try to sneak out some wins while that window is still open.”
THE NOTABLE HEARTBREAKS of the past four years and the anguish that accompany them have created equally indelible images for the Niners and their fans.
For the remaining Niners, it’s not so much about forgetting the past as finding motivation in the pain.
“It’s something that hardens you,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “I think it makes you a better person, a better player. Having that experience is only going to help us going forward.”
The weight of those near misses isn’t just found in what the Niners are saying. San Francisco has repeatedly proved it is willing to make big moves to win a title.
That meant trading with the Denver Broncos to get Sanders in 2019. In 2020, it was getting Williams from Washington. In 2021, the Niners dealt three first-round picks and a third-round choice to the Miami Dolphins for the pick that became quarterback Trey Lance. Last year, running back Christian McCaffrey arrived via midseason swap with the Carolina Panthers for a bundle of draft picks. This offseason, even Hargrave was surprised when the Niners aggressively pursued him for a four-year, $84 million deal with $40 million guaranteed in the opening moments of free agency.
“Every day we feel [that urgency],” general manager John Lynch said. “We’ve got a lot of belief in this team … Without that belief in this group that we currently have, the culture, belief in [Shanahan] and his ability to lead this organization, you don’t do those things. But we have that much belief, that’s what we’re here for.”
THE 49ERS KNOW all too well the financial realities of remaining Super Bowl contenders.
They felt it after their run to the Super Bowl in 2019, when they traded cornerstone defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the first-round pick that became Javon Kinlaw. It was a move made with an eye toward the future, swapping out Buckner for the younger, cheaper Kinlaw so they could afford to keep multiple veterans at other positions. It’s also a move that hasn’t panned out, as Kinlaw has struggled, leading to the Hargrave deal.
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The Buckner move and what’s followed serve as a reminder the biggest constant in the NFL is change. During organized team activities, Kittle said the need to take that final step this season was a regular topic of conversation among veterans.
“We have a lot of highly paid players on this team who have earned that money and you can only pay so many guys,” Kittle said. “And we know that some of those guys are kind of at the end of the contracts, the end of the guarantees and that’s when things start to move.”
Aside from Buckner, the Niners have mostly managed to avoid dealing cornerstone players over cap concerns. Depending on player development (or lack thereof), that could change in 2024.
As it stands, the 49ers have 49 players under contract through next season with a total commitment of more than $263 million in salary cap liabilities. The Niners’ adjusted salary cap for next year won’t be known until after this season but that’s already over the $256 million figure that OverTheCap projects.
That does not include a contract extension for Bosa or a possible extension for wideout Brandon Aiyuk. The Niners already absorbed large cap jumps this year on the contracts of Williams, Armstead and Kittle.
Samuel, Warner, Hargrave, McCaffrey and cornerback Charvarius Ward will see their cap charges rise by a combined $66.42 million from 2023 to 2024. It’s not impossible for the Niners to keep them in place by restructuring some of their high-priced players. But, even if they push enough of those costs into the future, the bills eventually come due.
Which is why, for older players like Armstead, this year carries even more weight. If the Niners come up short again, they could redirect resources and begin planning for a future without some of their core veterans. Tough decisions such as choosing between Samuel and Aiyuk could also be in the offing. And though Lynch and Shanahan have job security, every missed opportunity could earn the unwanted tag of general manager and coach who couldn’t seal the deal.
“That’s our jobs to look out and forecast out three years and not just think about this year,” Lynch said. “Have we had the pedal down? Sure. Is it doable? Yeah, we believe we’ve budgeted for a lot of things and we always want to stay aggressive …
“In 2024, there will be some challenges, but we’ve prepared for a lot of that and I’m confident we can make it work and still keep our team very competitive.”
WHEN THE NINERS traded the four draft picks — including three first-rounders — to draft Lance in 2021, it wasn’t just an attempt to move away from the oft-injured Garoppolo or to draft the next Josh Allen. Financial considerations were also a factor.
Over his more than two years with the Niners, Lance dealt with injuries, stunting his development and never becoming the quarterback they envisioned. As luck would have it, though, the Niners found a quarterback who might prove even more valuable in their roster-building blueprint: Purdy, the final pick of the 2022 draft.
“We felt if we could get a rookie quarterback or a guy on a rookie deal who could help us win, man, we could put a good team around him,” Shanahan said. “We took a shot with Trey because we believed he could … I think we are very fortunate that we did find a guy. We still have a guy on a rookie deal that has helped us put together a good team.”
Indeed, much of the Niners’ ability to not only break through and win a Super Bowl but to remain competitive after this season falls on Purdy’s shoulders. That’s especially true over the next two years, when his cap numbers are $889,253 in 2023 and $1,004,253 in 2024 before he is eligible to negotiate an extension.
But missing on Lance could have repercussions.
For one, the 49ers are already missing four players, three of whom would have been first-rounders, who could have been taken with the picks they used on Lance. What’s more, the Niners’ depth has already suffered following the offseason departure of 11 players who were starters or key contributors.
Lynch and his staff have proved adept at finding starters and even stars later in the draft and through compensatory picks, which they’ve received 12 of the last two years and are scheduled to net five more next year. But it’s a big ask to expect those picks to consistently turn out like linebacker Dre Greenlaw and safety Talanoa Hufanga (fifth-round picks in 2019 and 2021, respectively) have and form the next championship-contending nucleus of the 49ers.
Even in building this year’s 53-man roster, Shanahan acknowledged that the Niners can’t just keep players who can help now; they have to keep an eye toward the future.
As the Rams — who have gone seven years without a first-round pick and fell to 5-12 last year when injuries exposed a lack of depth — can attest, threading that needle is a difficult task. But it’s even tougher for the Niners because unlike the Super Bowl LVI champion Rams, they have yet to claim the NFL’s top prize.
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL throughout the NFL this time of year. Surprise teams emerge, but not everybody’s aspirations are realistic.
“They always say everybody has a chance to win the Super Bowl,” Armstead said. “I would say there’s about six to eight teams that have a better chance than others, that have a legit chance. I think we’re definitely one of those teams.”
Having so many players who have experienced deep playoff runs in three of the past four years also means it’s not hard to find sobering reminders of how difficult it is to be the last team standing in February.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, 17 teams have lost any combination of three conference title games or Super Bowls in the span of four seasons. Of those, five won a Super Bowl either during that stretch or within three years of the final loss in that span.
As Warner, who was a part of the injury-ravaged 2020 Niners who dropped to 6-10, reminds his teammates, there’s no snapping your fingers and magically reappearing in a conference championship game or the Super Bowl. As cliché as that sounds, it’s especially important for these Niners, who have formed a habit of getting off to bad starts.
The Niners have opened 2-4 and 3-4 the past two years, creating sizable holes to dig out of and rendering postseason runs more difficult.
In 2021, that meant playing three road playoff games. Last year it meant having to go to Philadelphia for the NFC title game. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that San Francisco’s only recent trip to the Super Bowl came the year it had the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
That could prove especially true this year, when the Niners will travel nearly 30,000 miles, second most in the league, and cross 36 time zones.
Come January, if the Niners are in the playoffs, it would be no small thing to enjoy Levi’s Stadium leading up to a short flight to Las Vegas for the Super Bowl.
Which is why, for players like Williams who are nearing the end of their career, it’s not worth looking beyond the season right in front of them.
“Super Bowl is at the top of everybody’s priority list right now,” Williams said. “Worrying about when the window closes really does nothing for us right now. It’s like worrying about when you’re going to die. It is going to close eventually, but what’s the point of looking forward to it?”