McDonald: 49ers’ 2023 season a success despite bitter finish

LAS VEGAS — Now it begins. The parsing, the complaining and the over-analysis from a judgemental fan base and media.

Why did 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who never met a coin toss he didn’t defer, decide to take the ball in overtime of Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium?

Didn’t he know it meant Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes would know exactly what he needed to do to beat the 49ers 25-22?

What was special teamer Darrell Luter Jr. doing anywhere near a Chiefs punt that set up a first-play 16-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to Marques Valdes-Scantling to take the lead late in the third quarter?

How come Jake Moody, who came up huge with 55- and 53-yard field goals, had an extra point blocked by Leo Chenal after Brock Purdy hit Jauan Jennings for a 16-10 lead?

Where was Shanahan’s play-calling acumen after Ji’Ayir Brown intercepted Mahomes at the Kansas City 44-yard line only for the 49ers to be punting the ball three plays later from the 45 with 10-3 lead early in the third quarter?

Blah, blah, blah.

Kansas City was better, just barely. The 49ers are No. 2. Hold the parade, but let’s not pretend it wasn’t a good season. It wasn’t a great one, by the 49ers’ standards, but a very good one. It wasn’t what anyone wanted. The postgame scene was as if 49ers players had witnessed a high-speed trainwreck and the destruction that comes with it.

They should feel that way because they put every ounce of themselves into trying to win a championship and came up short in an excruciating way when Mahomes delivered a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard pass to Mecole Hardman alone in the end zone.

Defensive end Nick Bosa, stripped of his measured deadpan persona, said he couldn’t look his teammates in the face.

“I could have done more,” Bosa said. “We all could have done more.”

The 49ers expected to win the NFC West title, which they did. They expected to come from behind and win two playoff games, which they did. The franchise is robust financially. Seats were full at the stadium. They do things the right way in terms of putting a team together.

That’s failure?

Maybe it’s because I covered the Raiders for 25 years in their second phase in Oakland and saw four teams with a record above .500, but that sounds like success even without the Lombardi Trophy.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid lifts the Lombardi Trophy after the Kansas City Chiefs beat the 49ers 25-22 in overtime at Allegiant Stadium. 

“Winning is the only thing,” the saying attributed to the trophy’s namesake coach, is the biggest myth in American sports. To say there’s just one winner and everyone else is a loser discredits everyone who put everything they had into a specific goal for the sake of a team but came up short.

It’s also intellectually dishonest. If that were the case, why did the 49ers celebrate after beating the Detroit Lions for the NFC Championship? There should have been no smiles, no confetti and stern faces all around since nothing matters except the final victory.

Baseball teams spray champagne all over each other for sneaking into a one-game wild-card berth.

Winning is great, but there is also losing with honor and dignity. It’s not the winning that matters as much doing all the things it takes to be a winner and then accepting the result.

The 49ers know it too. If they didn’t, why did they bring back Jim Harbaugh last year and have a celebration for the 10-year anniversary of the 2012 team that lost 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans?

There wasn’t anyone involved with that team hanging their heads in shame that day. The loss still stings. The 49ers didn’t win the Big One, just as they didn’t in Super Bowl LIV against the Chiefs, but they can be soothed by the brotherhood and collective effort that came with it.

It’s what kids are taught, or should be taught, about competing in sports: Being a good teammate. Putting the group over the individual. Having respect for the opponent.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid is the toast of the NFL. His team has won the Super Bowl in three of the last five seasons. Before that happened, Reid was like Shanahan. He was a superb tactician and leader who just happened to lose one Super Bowl, four NFC Championship Games, two divisional games and two wild card games with the Philadelphia Eagles in 14 seasons.

Philadelphia fired Reid and hired Chip Kelly. Kansas City couldn’t snap Reid up fast enough. In terms of the ultimate victory, it was slow going in Kansas City for a time. When the Chiefs beat the 49ers in Miami, Reid was 61 and was in his seventh season even though the team became a contender the moment he arrived.

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Shanahan is 44 years old and has been a head coach for seven years. He’s so single-minded it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else. They’re lucky to have him. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have built one of the top teams in the NFL. They’ve made too many mistakes to win a Super Bowl but have accomplished everything else. Maybe he’ll win one eventually, maybe he won’t.

The 49ers lost another Super Bowl, their third in a row. They’ll accept it because they have no choice but to get back up and try again. You can’t preach overcoming adversity and then slink away embarrassed when faced with the biggest loss.

That’s when you get back up and try again.

They don’t give parades for that, but maybe they should.

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