MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Above all the other emotions on display in the 49ers’ locker room late Sunday night was an overwhelming sense of sadness.
The season is over. And it will never be the same.
The 49ers were the third team in NFL history to follow up a four-win season with a Super Bowl appearance. They entered the 2019 season with an attitude that they -- and only they -- knew how good this team could be.
They were loose. They had fun. They danced. They bonded. They were a pleasant, good-natured, cordial, happy group of men to be around.
Coach Kyle Shanahan faces a lot of challenges after the Kansas City Chiefs rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit for a 31-20 victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.
Shanahan, again, was a key figure in another Super Bowl collapse. He was asked several questions last week about what he learned as offensive coordinator from the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl LI loss to the New England Patriots -- a game in which the Falcons had a 28-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
Now, if he ever gets back to a Super Bowl, what happened Sunday night will come up ... again and again.
But the biggest challenge that awaits Shanahan is to somehow replicate what the 49ers had this season, and that will not be a simple assignment.
Things are going to change.
Things always change.
“We’ll lick our wounds, and we’ll get over this,” Shanahan said Sunday. “We’ll be fired up for next year.
“We get almost all of these guys back, and plan on adding a few more.”
What made this vintage of the 49ers so much fun was the experience of the climb. Those who were with the organization in 2017 -- and, heck, even those who arrived on the scene much later -- felt there was something special going on here.
General manager John Lynch and Shanahan put together a team, a group of individuals, that was easy to get behind. There was a wide range of personalities and talents on the team, and they coalesced into something unmistakably special.
The 49ers finished the regular season with a 13-3 record. They won the NFC West. They earned homefield advantage in the playoffs. They cruised through their first two playoff games. And everything was falling into place in the Super Bowl.
Through 3 ½ quarters, the offense was efficient, the defense was stout. The recipe for success was familiar.
When it fell apart, it did so in stunning fashion.
All-Pro tight end George Kittle said there was a sense of “disbelief” that it all came apart so quickly.
“We answered the call almost every single time this season,” he said.
With an opportunity to extend their 10-point lead, the 49ers’ offense sputtered. With an opportunity to, perhaps, close the door, the defense blew an assignment and Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes delivered a deep pass to Tyreek Hill on a third-and-15 play with seven minutes remaining.
Later, after the Chiefs scored two touchdowns in fewer than four minutes to take the lead, the 49ers had one final chance for Jimmy Garoppolo to become Joe Montana.
Emmanuel Sanders got a step behind the Chiefs' defense. Garoppolo delivered it too far, well beyond Sanders’ reach.
Perhaps not until that precise moment did reality set in. This unforgettable journey will be remembered more for the disappointment at the end, rather than the months and months of joy, love, compassion and winning that distinguished this team from many, many others.
There was sadness.
The 49ers made it this far, and everyone knows how difficult it is to get this far. It was difficult to even look ahead to September, when the 49ers and every other team open the 2020 season with a 0-0 record and what happened this season means absolutely nothing.
“That is a long way down the road, but we have a young football team, a very talented football team,” Garoppolo said. “It’s one of those things that you have to remember this feeling and let it fuel you in the future.”
It hit everyone hard. Nick Bosa cried on the bench the waning moments, as did Sanders. It hit veteran left tackle Joe Staley especially hard, too.
Staley contemplated retirement during the 2017 season. He did not want to keep playing if he felt there was no hope at ever reaching the Super Bowl again. Shanahan managed to convince him that good days were ahead.
Afterward, Staley was crestfallen. He was the one player all his teammates wanted to see win it all. He already experienced the disappointment with the 49ers’ Super Bowl XLVII loss to the Baltimore Ravens seven years ago. But this one seemed different. After that loss, there was more anger.
This loss was more about sorrow. This is a group that seems to genuinely like and respect each other. Rosters change every season in the NFL. Although Shanahan said he expects a large portion of the team back, there is always going to be significant roster turnover from one season to the next.
Some players age out. Some players leave for better contracts. Some players are left behind as the team cycles in new players.
The 49ers will no longer be viewed as the plucky group of amiable overachievers. Now, they face pressure to perform. It is the standard for which they set for themselves.
Garoppolo will face scrutiny. Kittle, a bargain for three seasons, probably will not play another snap on his low-level contract. The business side of the game will impact Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, too. Bosa and Deebo Samuel will face pressure to perform at even-higher levels after their impressive rookie seasons. Raheem Mostert is no longer an under-the-radar feel-good story.
Up and down the roster, things will never be the same for the 49ers. It would have been that way if the 49ers had won the Super Bowl. But it is even more difficult to navigate those challenges after such a crushing defeat.
Things are going to change.
Things always change.