The 49ers players and coaches who reassemble next July for the start of training camp almost certainly will be very similar to the ones who are wrapping up the season over the next few days with meetings and a Levi’s Stadium locker-room cleanout and saying their goodbyes for now.
They won the NFC championship a few weeks ago. They’ve already been established as the betting favorites to win it all next season. They’re still fairly young and still quite good. They should be very much the same. It would be self-destructive to break up the core of this team in a fit of pique and impatience — and the 49ers aren’t a self-defeating franchise these days.
But the 49ers won’t be exactly the same for the 2024 season after suffering Sunday’s stomach-punch overtime loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII. They can’t be the same. No team is ever the same year to year, and when you suffer three consecutive agonizing late-postseason losses, you almost have to be different the next time you assemble.
Different in spirit. Different in focus. Yes, different on the depth chart and maybe in the coaching assignments.
So, before the players meet the media on Tuesday for the final time, and before Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s expected season-ending session later in the week, before free agency, the draft and all other offseason maneuvering, and just a few days after the 49ers understandably shed some tears and acknowledged the depths of this lost opportunity, let’s take a look at where the 49ers stand in this moment and what might happen next.
Who’s for sure sticking around as the heart of the operation and who might be moving on, by their own choice or not, as part of the transition to the next stage?
Purdy’s not Patrick Mahomes. Mark that down. Underline it. Put it as a headline on a thousand talk shows, if you wish. Then crumble it up and throw it away, because you know what? Nobody else in the league is on Mahomes’ level, except the guy wearing the Chiefs’ No. 15 jersey, and there isn’t going to be anybody else like him for quite some time.
So what do you do if you’re the 49ers, who would have two Lombardi Trophies in the last five seasons if not for Mahomes? You embrace what you know, which is that Purdy more than held his own under the Super Bowl glare, in front of 123.4 million television viewers, dueling with Mahomes and an excellent Chiefs defense.
This was a short throw to George Kittle, but … on fourth-and-3, down by 3 in the fourth quarter, yeah, rather important. And it was perfect.
Purdy & Kittle convert a huge fourth down for SF.
— NFL (@NFL) February 12, 2024
This was, of course, a classic Mahomes game, but Purdy was fine in this game and probably would’ve opened overtime with a touchdown if the 49ers’ offensive line hadn’t let Chris Jones rush into his face unblocked on that critical third-down play in the red zone.
And that was Purdy’s first Super Bowl appearance. He’s 24 and just finished his first full season as an NFL starter. He’s 4-2 in the playoffs. His two losses have come when his elbow got blown up during the first quarter in last year’s NFC Championship Game and to the Mahomes Dynasty in overtime, when Purdy actually had the 49ers ahead in OT. And Purdy likely hasn’t even entered his prime yet — he’s four years younger than Mahomes, three years younger than Lamar Jackson and almost 12 years younger than Matthew Stafford.
So Purdy’s the 49ers’ starting QB for now and probably for as long as we can project that position for them. Unlike last offseason, he won’t be dealing with the rehab from a major surgery and the 49ers won’t need to check in with Tom Brady again. They won’t be calling Kirk Cousins. There’s no alt-option. Purdy fits perfectly with Shanahan, and Purdy is likely only getting better.
The Shanahan 49ers haven’t been this set at QB going into an offseason since Jimmy Garoppolo went 5-0 after arriving in an October 2017 trade and signed a $25-milion-a-year deal going into 2018. Purdy is making $985,000 in 2024 and can’t negotiate a new deal until March 2025.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks probably isn’t quite so locked in
No sensible team wants to run through scapegoat roulette after this kind of bitter loss, and I don’t think Shanahan and Lynch are scapegoaters. Once you start down that road, sometimes it’s hard to stop and the whole thing destabilizes. It’s important to note that Wilks is a solid DC who had to learn this defense and this personnel on the fly this season and actually frustrated the Chiefs’ offense through much of the Super Bowl, even after losing Dre Greenlaw in the first half.
A lot of things went wrong for the 49ers in this game; just like a lot of things went right. Scapegoating is poor form and not the sign of a consistent winner.
But there were clearly some shaky times and weird communication throughout this season, culminating with the last few Mahomes drives, when the 49ers’ defense seemed more confused than it should’ve been and, as Nick Bosa noted with some anguish later, wasn’t all the way prepared for Mahomes keeping the ball on two critical plays.
The key postseason stat: The 49ers gave up 130 rushing yards on Sunday and an average of 149 in their three playoff games. That’s not the way Shanahan and Lynch want things to go in the biggest games. That’s not how the 49ers are built to play. They’re supposed to win games with physicality, yet they got outrushed in all three of their playoff games.
Is Wilks the guy to get this defense back to a prime level? Or is there another candidate closer to the Robert Saleh/DeMeco Ryans mold, who comes from the Seahawks’ Cover 3 system and who might have more personal chemistry with a defense that’s fueled by its linebackers and defensive front? Former Seattle and current Indianapolis DC (and former Jacksonville coach) Gus Bradley would seem like an almost perfect fit, but I don’t know if he’s available. Other than that … it’s unclear.
If Shanahan and Lynch don’t have a sure-fire alternative option, they probably shouldn’t make a move unless their key defensive players really feel like a change would be best. I imagine the next few days will include some general in-house conversation about all of this. And maybe the smartest thing would be to presume that the chemistry between Wilks and the players will evolve in Year 2, possibly with a tweak or two to his staff … and then if it doesn’t work out, maybe Saleh will be available for a return in 2025.
49ers minutia minute: The players who stood out in the Super Bowl — good and bad
The right side of the offensive line needs a big upgrade
Again, you don’t make permanent decisions based on one play, even one that helped lose the Super Bowl. But the right side of the 49ers’ offensive line totally bungled the assignment on Kansas City star Chris Jones, which allowed him a free run at Purdy on that critical third-down play in overtime. And it wasn’t the only time in that game or this season (or actually over many seasons and many different guards and tackles) that the OL’s right side whiffed in pass protection.
Overall, Shanahan doesn’t traditionally make big investments in pass blocking on the right side, believing that it’s more efficient to avoid the high cost (in contracts or draft capital) for pass blockers and just try to coach up good run blockers. But he and Lynch did use a first-round pick on right tackle Mike McGlinchey back in 2018 (before letting him go as a very expensive free agent last offseason) and it’s probably time they did something like that again.
And they can especially convince themselves it’s worth the big investment if they’re also thinking that the new right tackle could be an eventual replacement for Trent Williams on the left side whenever he decides to retire.
Hey, the 49ers even have a first-round pick for the first time since trading for the Trey Lance selection in 2021. Maybe they can’t get an immediate starter with the 31st pick, but the 49ers have some extra picks to use to try to move up or maybe even could burn future firsts to land somebody in the high teens or low 20s.
They need a plan for replacing Greenlaw until he’s back
It all was starkly reminiscent of the terrible scenes after NaVorro Bowman blew up his knee in the January 2014 NFC Championship Game in Seattle: The 49ers’ reactions to Greenlaw falling to the ground, the rally to try to win it for him, the notable void without him out there and Fred Warner’s emotional words about his teammate afterward.
Bowman and the 49ers were never the same after those moments. But that also was a less stable time for this franchise and with an older core. The 49ers have enough to be good defensively while they wait for Greenlaw to fully heal, probably fairly deep into next season, and we’ll see if he can get back to full speed.
Until then, I’d imagine the top candidate to fill in for him is Dee Winters, who showed some speed as a rookie in the preseason but never was counted on for much after that. Fellow rookie Jalen Graham clearly didn’t have the confidence of the coaching staff and only was active for four games this season (none in the playoffs).
If neither young LB is ready, veteran Oren Burks, who stepped in for Greenlaw on Sunday, would be an option, but not a great one.
Dre Greenlaw’s injury encapsulated the anguish inside the 49ers’ locker room
Chase Young’s up-and-down performance might actually fit the 49ers’ price range
Young, who will be a free agent in March, played very well opposite Bosa in the Super Bowl. Which is why the 49ers traded a 2024 comp third-rounder for Young in October. But Young had been mediocre for the 49ers this season until then, which, well, makes his theoretical market a bit tricky to pin down.
I don’t think the 49ers are anywhere close to counting on Drake Jackson as the full-time guy in 2024. Clelin Ferrell isn’t a pass-rushing option and will be coming off the knee injury that kept him out for the postseason. Robert Beal is mostly a depth guy for now.
So I think the 49ers would have strong interest in bringing Young back, if his price doesn’t get too high. They just can’t allocate a ton more to this position when they’re paying Bosa $34 million a year. I think Young’s price might not be huge, though. I’ve been known to wildly underestimate the free-agent market for solid-but-not-great linemen (I was stunned Denver would pay McGlinchey $52.5 million guaranteed last March), but this might turn into a workable way for Young to return to the 49ers.
The 49ers are the class of the NFC and yes, that matters
No doubt, the AFC is loaded and scary. Just going by QBs, which isn’t a terrible way to do it, the AFC vanguard has Mahomes and the Chiefs, Jackson and the Ravens, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and now the Chargers’ Justin Herbert coached by Jim Harbaugh.
49ers fans don’t want to hear it right now, and I get it, but if they keep winning the NFC, they would only have to beat one of those AFC QBs to win the Super Bowl, while the top AFC teams all have to go through multiple elite QBs. That’s why the 49ers are the betting favorites. Their road to New Orleans in February 2025 is … what? Through the Lions again? They’re young and coming hard, but Jared Goff isn’t Mahomes. Philadelphia? The Rams? Dallas?
All these teams have even more questions than the 49ers have. The 49ers’ window might not be open for a lot longer, and the 49ers definitely realize this. But for as long as they feel good in the NFC, they will always have a shot at getting over that last barrier. And maybe somebody else will beat Mahomes in the AFC tournament.
Purdy is a rising star at the game’s most important position. His top receiver is Brandon Aiyuk, who will have to get paid this offseason, and I imagine the 49ers will do that, relatively happily. They’ve got Kittle, who will turn 31 next season and gets beat up through the season but remains a two-way force. We’ll see about Jauan Jennings, who is a pending free agent and will have a very intriguing marketplace. As mentioned at the top, the 49ers need to spend some draft capital or free-agent money or both to refurbish parts of the OL.
But McCaffrey and Deebo are the identity of the 49ers’ offense. They’re Purdy’s failsafe options and they give Shanahan the run/pass physicality and speed that gets everything going. And it should be noted that both were mostly healthy this season. There is zero guarantee that this will be duplicated next season.
I’ve suggested that, while McCaffrey will be here for years to come, the 49ers’ relationship with Deebo might not go on for much longer, since he’s only signed for two more seasons and the 49ers can get out of the deal relatively inexpensively after next season. The Super Bowl provided mixed evidence: It was clear that Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo focused on stopping Deebo, who had only 41 yards from scrimmage. When Deebo can’t get going, the 49ers’ offense just isn’t the same, even when McCaffrey is going for 80 yards rushing and 80 yards receiving.
Does that mean the 49ers have to figure out a way to keep Deebo beyond next season no matter what? Or does that mean he can be stopped and therefore the 49ers might have to make a cold business decision on Deebo when it’s time to pay Aiyuk? We shall see. No final decisions have to be made now, but Deebo + McCaffrey is a luxury combination that might have its last go-’round next season.
Shanahan had a 50-50 call to start OT, which shouldn’t have sparked a national outrage
If you’re in a playoff overtime against Mahomes, you have to score a touchdown or else you’re in big trouble. Period. The 49ers took the ball to start the period and were forced to kick a field goal. And they lost when Mahomes got the ball and finished off the Super Bowl with a TD pass to Mecole Hardman.
No, Shanahan’s decision to take the ball after the 49ers won the OT coin toss wasn’t the primary reason they lost. I know that’s been bellowed out for days and probably will go on for months or years, but they didn’t lose because of that. It didn’t work. There were reasons not to do it this way. I agree. But the 49ers lost because they didn’t score a TD and then they couldn’t stop Mahomes. Who is inevitable.
And though Shanahan didn’t explain the decision that way, the Mahomes Inevitability, I think, was the biggest part of this, even if it was subconscious for Shanahan, whose defense was just on the field for a long Mahomes drive. If the 49ers decide to kick to the Chiefs, what’s the most likely outcome? Mahomes zooms down field for a go-ahead TD. If you know this, why would you want to immediately kick it to him and let him set the tone of OT? Your gut call would be to keep it away from him, and keep your defense rested, for as long as possible.
If you’re telling me Shanahan should’ve operated with the 100 percent knowledge that Mahomes was going to score a TD when he got the ball … well, first, I’ll say that the Chiefs had to convert a fourth-and-1 and third-and-6 (both on Mahomes runs) to get to the end zone. There was a chance the 49ers could’ve forced the Chiefs into a field goal to keep the game going. Not a great chance, but a chance. And if that had happened, the 49ers would’ve had a chance to win it with a field goal on the next possession. Secondly, if a Chiefs’ TD was inevitable, isn’t it OK to take the ball first, hope you score a TD and give yourself two chances with your offense, and the second one as a possible game-ender, to his one?
Also, I know that the Chiefs planned to go for the 2-point conversation if they’d followed a 49ers TD with their own TD. But that would’ve given the 49ers a chance to win it right there with a stop. It’s not the ideal scenario, but it’s also not an automatic loss. In fact, it might’ve been about as good as the 49ers were going to get. Because, you know, they were matched up against one of the greatest players of all time in Super Bowl OT.
Whatever you do, there’s no way to avoid Mahomes. And pretending that there was a way to do that is just bad-faith babbling.
Kyle Shanahan defends 49ers’ decision to take the ball to start overtime of Super Bowl 58
(Photo of Brock Purdy prior to Super Bowl LVIII: Michael Owens / Getty Images)