49ers coach Kyle Shanahan in a struggle with identity after Super Bowl

Twice, Kyle Shanahan reached the Super Bowl. Twice, he had a lead, and twice, he lost it. Shanahan's identity is now synonymous with these empty opportunities, but he has time to change that.

Repetition is a double-edged sword. On one side, it can be the ultimate key to success in the NFL, and the great dynasties of history are renowned for their repetition on the highest stage. But repeat the same mistake or the same misadventure, and it becomes a part of your identity. That is something 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, after his second Super Bowl collapse, can no longer ignore.

A history of Super Bowl collapses

It’s hard to distinguish which Super Bowl collapse might have been more painful for Shanahan. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Both were unique, in their manipulations of emotion. One collapse allowed Shanahan to hope until the end — until an unstoppable Tom Brady drove the Patriots down the field in overtime, to claim a 34-28 victory just moments after claiming a now-infamous 28-3 deficit in the third quarter.

The other collapse, suffered at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs in February of 2020, culminated with well over a minute to go in regulation, when the Chiefs rode a Damien Williams touchdown to an 11-point lead, and when, on the second play of the futile final drive, Kendall Fuller snared a lofted pass from Jimmy Garoppolo, giving the Chiefs terminal possession.

One collapse was quick, spontaneous, and unexpected, while the other was slow, gradual, and seemingly inevitable. One collapse allowed Shanahan time to come to terms with reality, while the other allowed him to hope until the very end. The juxtaposition almost demands a preference, but Shanahan’s empty stare at the end of Super Bowl LIV tells of no preference at all. Both ultimately crushed the hope that had mounted through weeks and weeks of preparation. It was a kind of hope Shanahan struggled to let go, calling his last timeouts down 31-20, with the Chiefs kneeling out the clock.

Shanahan’s tenuous relationship with hope has resulted in an identity struggle for the budding head coach. Twice now, the younger Shanahan has reached the pinnacle of the sport of football. Twice, he’s taken a lead, and twice, he’s lost it. With his latest loss, Shanahan has established a pattern, regardless of his intentions. He’s the coach who had victory in his grasp, only to let it slip away.

Identity isn’t a new enemy for coaches. Shanahan’s own Super Bowl opponent, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, dealt with the issue of identity for two decades before earning his first ring. For twenty years, Reid was the coach who could only get close enough to hope. Now, he’s a champion, and in a twist of irony, Shanahan can turn to the man who defeated him as a reason to keep hope, when hope seems to be a toxic entity.

Getting back to the Super Bowl wasn’t supposed to be easy for Shanahan after his Falcons lost in 2016, but he made it back in just his third season as the San Francisco 49ers head coach. It won’t be easy to get back a third time, but Shanahan isn’t worried about the probabilities. There’s nothing in his identity that says he can’t do it.

“There’s a reason not a lot of teams have done it,” Shanahan said of the eventual Super Bowl return in his end-of-season press conference. “It’s not an easy thing to do. But I also think we’ve got different people than a lot of teams have.”

Different is something Shanahan will have to continue to prove he is because the list of champions in NFL history is far smaller than the list of spectators, contenders, and runner-ups. Different is what wins, and if Shanahan falls to the outside perception of his identity — a feeble, yet formidable construct — he may find that he’s already been as close to a Super Bowl as he’ll ever be.

But despite the weight of his past, Shanahan isn’t backing down from the next challenge. His shoulders sulked at the Super Bowl, but now, the 49ers are back, with the majority of their core still intact. They have two first-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, and a newfound hunger for victory, now that they know what it takes to earn the opportunity. On one stage, Shanahan has a new identity to fight, but inside the locker room, his resilient nature hasn’t changed, and it won’t change now.

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