The 49ers know how hard it will be to return to the Super Bowl next season after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, and history isn't on their side.
Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams and rearranged its divisions in 2002, only one team has made it back to the big game a year after losing. The 2018 New England Patriots, after losing to Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles, beat the Los Angeles Rams 13-3 in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. Bill Belichick's bunch are the only team in the NFL's 32-team era to make the Super Bowl after losing it the previous season, and the only one to actually lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Looking to the NFL's 21st-century gold standard for recent precedent is aspirational, but New England is not the norm. The 2018 Patriots were one of only three reigning Super Bowl losers during that timeframe, including the 2012 Patriots and 2013 49ers, to make it as far as the conference championship game. Both of those aforementioned teams lost in their respective conference championship games.
In fact, of the 17 Super Bowl losers since the NFL expanded to 32 teams:
- Seven missed the playoffs entirely the following season (2003 Raiders, 2004 Carolina Panthers, 2005 Philadelphia Eagles, 2007 Chicago Bears, 2008 Patriots, 2016 Panthers, 2019 Los Angeles Rams)
- Two lost in the wild-card round (2010 Indianapolis Colts, 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers)
- Five lost in the divisional round (2006 Seattle Seahawks, 2009 Arizona Cardinals, 2014 Denver Broncos, 2015 Seahawks, 2017 Atlanta Falcons)
The 49ers are seemingly set up for future success, but they need not look far for a cautionary tale.
The Rams ran away with the NFC West in 2018, looking like they would reign over the division for years to come with offensive wunderkind Sean McVay at the helm. But running back Todd Gurley, defensive lineman Aaron Donald, wide receiver Brandin Cooks and quarterback Jared Goff each signed huge contract extensions within the last two seasons. Those signings, plus the trade for cornerback Jalen Ramsey, have left the Rams with just shy of $15 million in salary-cap space heading into 2020.
The 49ers won't necessarily face a dilemma to the same degree, but they do have tough decisions to make. Tight end George Kittle and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner are eligible to sign contract extensions this offseason, while safety Jimmie Ward and defensive lineman Arik Armstead are set to become unrestricted free agents. San Francisco can cut some players to create room, but the 49ers currently have less salary-cap space ($13.858 million) than the Rams heading into 2020.
While the 49ers won't need any reminders of the level of difficulty returning to the Super Bowl, recent NFL history really drives the point home.